I have managed to avoid yoga for most of my adult life. But I’ve taken a sudden interest in it recently. And not for the reasons I assume most people do yoga. I’m trying to get better at pooping.
This isn’t information I wanted to share with the rest of the class. During my first experience with yoga, at a YMCA in Chicago, I tried to remain inconspicuous, huffing and puffing my way through poses in the back. But after a few sessions, the other students started noticing me. They introduced themselves and tried to be friendly, offering encouragement and asking what had brought me to try yoga for the first time.
“Toilet posture,” I told them.
I was admittedly being an asshole. I wanted to be left alone, and I’ve found that most people don’t want to hear about the bathroom habits of strangers. But not these people.
“You’re squatting?” they asked. “I’ve been trying that, too. What do you think? Is it working for you?”
They talked about poop research they’d read online, friends and family whose fecal lives had been dramatically improved with a toilet posture realignment, and far too many intimate details about their bathroom experiences. Before long, even the instructor had wandered over to debate the finer points of modern pooping. He suggested the Garland Pose, his favorite yoga exercise to help enhance squat-pooping. “It really tightens your core,” he said.
I did not ask what “core” he was referring to.
The Great Squat-Pooping Experiment
We live in a strange era of mainstream poop awareness. It’s no longer a topic that teens giggle about and adults only bring up with their doctors. People have opinions about their bowel movements, and how those bowel movements could be better. A few weeks ago, Cameron Diaz went on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about poop—hers specifically, and how everybody could be having movie-star poops if they followed her digestive advice. Dr. Oz handed out clay to the audience and asked them to mold it into their “most recent poop.” And they did it!Because that’s the world we live in now: a world where people reconstruct their fecal output in front of millions of strangers without giving it a second thought.
We all want better poop. We want poop that Dr. Oz would hold up triumphantly and call the “pièce de résistance.” Or that Cameron Diaz would smile at flirtatiously and claim it’s “very familiar,” as if somehow its shape and texture reminded her of a former lover she’s never been able to forget.
This Quixotic quest for poop perfection is what convinced me to try the Squatty Potty.
It’s a simple little contraption. The Squatty Potty is essentially a step stool, costing between $24.99 (for white plastic) and $74.99 (for the bamboo version), that slides against the base of a toilet. You place both feet on the platform and your knees are pushed above your hips, creating a natural “squatting” position. It’s how people used to crap before the invention of the modern toilet, back when we were still doing our business in the woods or any open hole with a modicum of privacy. But the Squatty Potty is not just about getting back to our pooping roots. Squatting is apparently more healthy than the antiquated “anorectal angle” style of pooping, which puts “upward pressure on the rectum,” according to the company’s website. This “creates the need to STRAIN in order to eliminate. Compare sitting on the toilet to a kinked garden hose: It just doesn’t work properly. In a squatting posture, the bend straightens out and defecation becomes easier.”
It gets scarier. According to statistics shared by a Squatty Potty publicist, most people are carrying “5 to 20 pounds of fecal matter in their digestive system day to day.” At first glance, this number sounds preposterous. But then again, I’ve heard rumors that John Wayne had 40 pounds of poop impacted in his intestines after his death. And Elvis Presley reportedly had in the ballpark of 60 pounds. These stories are almost certainly both bunk, but the very idea that I could have any amount of feces trapped inside me gives me the heebie jeebies.
There are a lot of people, some of them famous, who swear by the Squatty Potty. It’s been enthusiastically endorsed on The Howard Stern Show, TMZ, and The Doctors. Ben Greenfield, a fitness author and personal trainer, tweeted this peculiar Squatty Potty compliment: “Totally not trying to be gross, but I just pooed almost 10lbs, No joke. I feel freaking awesome.” Good for him, I guess. If the Squatty Potty website is in any way accurate, he’s halfway to being poop-free.
I contacted Robert Edwards, the Utah-based creator of Squatty Potty, and he gave me even more reasons to think I’ve been living in a bowel-movement prison. “By opening the colon, pooping in the natural squat position makes elimination faster, more complete, and reduces straining,” he said. Squatting rather than sitting could help prevent things like constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, appendicitis, IBS, hernias, diverticulosis, and pelvic organ prolapse. But just as important, he said, “Squatting feels better. The excellent feeling that comes from a complete elimination is ubiquitous. Everyone likes a good poo, and with the Squatty Potty, you are rarely denied a full complete elimination.”
He had me at “a good poo.” As I get older, these things are forefront on my mind. In my 20s, I never thought twice about bowel movements. But now that I’m in my 40s, I think about it every day, and I worry. Have you heard that Louis C.K. joke about his unpredictable poops, how he tells his doctor that “every shit is an emergency”? I listen to that routine and it fills me with white-knuckled dread. Louis C.K. is 46, and I’m heading his way fast. I don’t want to share in his poop shame. I want to be like Keith Richards, a 70-year-old former junkie whose bloodstream is more polluted than the Mississippi River. And yet, according to his own 2010 memoir, Life, his poops are unremarkable and unalarming. “First we have the bowel movement,” Richards wrote of his daily routine. “Cool, that’s that out of the way. Seen a friend off to the coast.”
I want to grow old and become like Keith Richards. Not all of it; just the way he poops.
My wife was not pleased by the news that our toilet would soon be equipped with a bench that forced our knees upwards. “Why are you doing this?” she asked, her voice tinged with panic.
“It’s healthy,” I told her. “It’s how cavemen used to poop.”
“They also ate mastodons,” she shot back. “Since when are you taking health advice from people who died before they turned 30?”
I didn’t tell her when the Squatty Potty arrived. Even though the package came with an “I POOPED TODAY” button, a bottle of Turdle Loo deodorizing spray, and a hand-written note from Edwards promising that I’d soon be “poopin’ like a champ,” I thought it best to keep her in the dark. My wife might never have noticed that my defecation physics had changed at all, if not for an unfortunate toilet mishap.
Changing your defecation physics isn’t as easy as the brochure illustrations would makes it appear. It’s like trying to drop a load while sitting criss-cross applesauce. It feels unnatural and wrong. During my first attempt, peeing on my shoes didn’t just seem plausible but extremely likely. I tried leaning forward, like the relaxed-looking fellow in the illustration, and almost took a nose-dive onto cold linoleum.
After almost a week of trying and failing to have a successful bowel movement by squatting—I always eventually returned to the shame of sitting—I went to my first yoga class. By day 10, thanks to the Garland Pose, I was successfully maneuvering a “dry run.” By day 14, I launched a full-scale number two. I was so shocked that I almost ran out into the living room, my pants still around my ankles, to share the good news with my wife. I thankfully resisted this urge.
Does the Squatty Potty Actually Work?
After a few weeks, the initial excitement wore off and I began to wonder, am I poop-healthy now? Have I added years to my life by including a plastic step-stool to my bathroom excretions? I needed the help of an expert. So I emailed Dr. Stephen Hanauer, the medical director of the Digestive Disease Center at Northwestern University. He referred me to his colleague, Dr. Darren Brenner, a specialist in gastroenterology who Hanauer described as “a real expert on defecation.” When I received his email, I stared at this sentence for several minutes. I suppose it was meant as a compliment, but it still struck me as weird. There’s such a fine line between “he’s an expert on defecation” and “he’s full of shit.”
I called Dr. Brenner, and immediately realized just how ill-prepared I was to talk to another human being about my poop.
“A lot depends on what your bowel movements usually look like,” he said.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. It suddenly made sense why Dr. Oz gave his audience clay and asked them to sculpt their poop. It’s so much easier to do it with art than with words.
Brenner told me about the Bristol stool scale, a medical chart listing the seven categories of human feces. If you’re reading this from a computer that isn’t being monitored by an employer, it’s worth checking out. My bowel movements, if you must know, are somewhere in the 3 to 4 range.
“That’s perfectly normal,” he assured me.
“Could the Squatty Potty improve that?” I asked.
“Improve it how? You’re already normal.”
“But could it be . . . more normal?”
I asked about the 20 pounds of impacted fecal matter supposedly trapped in our respective colons. Could squatting rather than sitting get rid of some of that unwanted waste?
Turns out, that number may be exaggerated. By a lot. “We do not usually carry 20 pounds in our colon,” Dr. Brenner assured me. “Stool is continuously cleared.”
He told me about the bowel prep necessary for a safe and effective conoloscopy. Any residual stool could alter the results, and hide potentially serious problems like polyps and lesions. If your colon isn’t clean, they can’t detect much.
“My healthy patients for colonoscopy screening who complete a bowel prep usually lose a few pounds,” Dr. Brenner said. “With constipation it may be more.”
I was grasping at straws now. Maybe, I told him, squatting could protect me from a dystopian future of anal and digestive horrors. Maybe I was being proactive against a coming digestive apocalypse riddled with constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, appendicitis, etc.
“Maybe,” he said.
“But not definitely?”
“If you’re a normal healthy person, I don’t know if it’s going to change anything in the short term or the long term,” he said. “Maybe by changing your position, in 20 or 30 years down the line you’ll reduce your likelihood of developing constipation. But there’s no data to suggest that whatsoever.”
“But squatting isn’t bad, is it?”
“No, no, it’s not bad at all,” Dr. Brenner laughed. “It’s a harmless, potentially healthy sort of thing.”
I’m still using the Squatty Potty. I’ve gotten used to it, weirdly enough. And I swear it feels like my poop has improved. I’m a little closer to that Keith Richard ideal. I’m at a predictable one crap a day, and it’s a consistent Bristol No. 4, but prettier, like it was written in Ukrainian cursive. Sometimes it’s so exquisite, I’ll wear my “I POOPED TODAY” button, just because I want to brag. My wife continues to not be impressed.
I don’t know if I’m doing my colon any favors. But as an expert on defecation told me, it’s “potentially healthy.” And sometimes that’s the best we can hope for.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)