Reinventing the toilet: A Yale dropout gets creative

According to its holder, U.S. patent number 6,256,800 is going to revolutionize Western civilization. Made of “powder coated” tubular steel, it sells for $85 plus $13 shipping and handling over the Internet.

The inventor is Jonathan Isbit, a member of Yale’s Class of 1972 who left school one semester short of graduation. The product is “Nature’s Platform,” essentially a table elevated at a 5 degree angle that allows the inclined to squat 2 inches above the seat of a conventional toilet.

And the inspiration for his water closet crusade, Isbit said, is Yale University.

Career-meditator and resident of a monastery in Boone, N.C., Isbit has worked since 1998 to publicize the health hazards associated with standard American bathroom use, which, he said, range from colon cancer and hemorrhoids to hernias and diverticulosis.

But his interest in both of these activities, he said, “the meditating and the squatting, date back to December 1970 at Yale.”

Thirty-one years ago when he was a junior here, Isbit went to a lecture on transcendental meditation. Inspired, he found himself buried in the stacks on the sixth floor of Sterling Memorial Library, reading every book he could find about yoga.

One of the pages in one of the books showed a yogi, fully clothed and squatting on his Achilles tendons, he said. The caption read, “Proper yogic measure to use for elimination.” For Isbit, these words were the beginning of a life’s work.

And to the surprise — at times, to the dismay — of his roommates, Isbit began to practice his preferred method of defecation in his suite’s bathroom. Originally a Russian studies and later a linguistics major, Isbit said that beyond the discovery of transcendental meditation, his time at Yale was “rather uneventful.”

Eventually, Isbit graduated with a degree in computer science from Rutgers University, realizing, he said, that “computers were a more dharmic thing” for him to do. He moved on to North Carolina in 1996 for a life of quiet introspection and progressive bowel movements, working as a computer programmer at the Heavenly Mountain Resort.

But four years ago, as he tells it, the idea came to him that he should “invent a product that would make it easy and comfortable for Westerners, whose calves had atrophied by not squatting, to use this position too.” Isbit took a leave of absence from the monastery, where he meditated for many of his waking hours, to develop and market the Platform from his mobile home in Boone.

“I wanted to use this as a pretext to a subject that is taboo in our society,” he said. “There are many reasons why nobody has done this before. I knew that there were certain aspects of the product that nobody had been able to crack, particularly, how to make it comfortable, convenient and strong enough to support a very obese person and yet light enough so that even a small child could set it up.”

Isbit had local welders make five or six prototypes, he said, which several hundred people, both from the monastery and around the country, tried for comfort and ease of use. Isbit continued to develop the product until it could be produced at a low cost and marketed on a wide scale before applying for a patent in February of the next year, he said.

The 51-year-old, self-proclaimed “hardcore meditator” now starts each day with a few hours of yoga before checking his computer for the number of orders that came in the previous day. Usually, he said, it’s between two and three. He boxes and inspects each Platform individually and anticipates that as they become more popular, the design will be streamlined.

“Eventually, they’ll be made only of plastic,” he said, “when they start to sell by the millions. It’s going to be a product that will, I believe, convert the Western world back to the natural squatting position.”

This position, he said, was lost 150 years ago during the Industrial Revolution, when man’s obsession with his power over nature led to the modern bathroom. According to a recent British Broadcasting Company report, though it is widely believed that British plumber Thomas Crapper invented the toilet in the 19th century, there is evidence of an ancient commode in the 2,000-year-old tomb of a king in central China.

But regardless of its date of origin, Isbit said the porcelain throne has duped nearly one-third of the world’s population. His alternative, a “rock-solid” stand that can support up to 300 pounds but folds to less than 3 inches thick in less than three seconds, he said, will soon become a phenomenon.

“I’m happy about the sales,” he added, “although the main achievement is in terms of visits to the Web site [http://www.naturesplatform.com].” Isbit said the site sees 500 hits a day, which means an estimated 80,000 cumulatively since its launch.

“What I’m really trying to achieve is getting the idea into the collective awareness of Americans to the point where, suddenly, there will be some magical effect of everyone being aware of this fact of life, and suddenly, the demand will be insatiable.

“Suddenly,” he continued, “Americans will realize this is why they have hemorrhoids and colon cancer. Then, the demand will go to 200 or 300 a day, and then to 2,000 or 3,000 a day.”

So far, Isbit said he has received nothing but positive feedback from the handful of new customers he recruits each week. His Web site is clogged with endorsements from licensed acupuncturists, Ph.D.s in Eastern medicine, and newly converted squatters.

One such satisfied customer is an anonymous 46-year-old male who wrote, “One of my regrets about leaving India was having to abandon my lifelong habit of using the squatting position. At 286 pounds, I can’t simply climb up on an ordinary toilet without running the risk of serious injury and embarrassment. So, discovering Nature’s Platform has been a great blessing. It’s light enough that my young daughter has no trouble setting it up, yet it’s strong enough to easily support my weight. Now I feel right at home.”

And of course, Isbit is not only the founder of Nature’s Platform, he’s also a devout user, saying it has dramatically simplified his own squatting practice. In response to the product’s modest popularity, Isbit has expanded his line of offerings to include Nature’s Curtain, a white velcro sheet that sells for $19 and attaches to any bathroom wall for convenient, discreet storage of the Platform when it is not in use.

All the while, as online orders for his product continue to flow steadily into Boone, Isbit has not forgotten his Ivy League roots, crediting his time at Yale, in part, with his own success and the success of his creation.

“I am very grateful for the spirit of openness I found at Yale that made all these discoveries possible,” he said. “What Yale taught me is that anything is possible if you have an insight into some deep aspect of life, and if it’s true, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in conformity with conventional wisdom.”

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