Sitting cross-legged (Padmasana or Sukhasana)
Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a mat is one of the most preferred sitting postures for practising pranayama and meditation.
Any image that shows someone sitting in meditation is by and large in cross legged position (Padmasana or Sukhasana). This is not without reason. Sitting in cross legged position on floor is based on fundamental basis of Yogic practices.
Why to sit cross-legged at all?
This is valid question asked by many students. The reason is, except for most of the people in South Asia, sitting cross legged doesn’t come naturally.
So if you feel as if your knee joint, lower back is in an awkward position, it is not your fault.
Besides, until you have attended a beginner’s course into practice of yoga where you got chance to ask the teacher, it fails to make sense that why is sitting cross legged such requirement in yoga practice?
As such, here are the reasons:
- Sitting in cross legged position particularly in padmasana (lotus pose) allows to lock the lower body and to be held still for long duration of times. This helps in calming down the breath and the mind. Which in turn is helpful for both breathing practices and meditation.
- Your back posture improves. When you are able to sit comfortably in cross legged position( means knees are close to floor and there is no pain in knees or lower back) then sitting like this makes your sit straighter, which is the natural curve of our spine. It lengthens your spine and pushes back your shoulders, beating all the common aches and pains that come with bad posture.
- As the lower body is locked and back is straight, it is more effective to practice pranayama as your lungs get proper space for expansion and contraction.
- When you are sitting on chair, your thighs, knees are in such position that force of gravity pulls more blood towards your feet and also your heart has to work little extra to pull back blood from lower areas of your body, for sending it to lungs. Whereas when you are sitting in cross legged position, the supply is restricted in proper manner, thus more blood being available to your heart and back for better circulation.
- And finally, as per classical texts (Padmasana is mentioned in HathPradipika) it is advised to sit closer to the ground for practicing advanced practices like pranayama and meditation. It clears blockages in the body’s energy channels (nadis) when done regularly.
Now that the query of why sitting in cross legged position is advised, the other oft asked question is: Is sitting cross legged bad for knees? Why sitting cross-legged so difficult?
Why are you not able to sit cross-legged?
The reason that sitting in cross legged position (simple or lotus pose) is that our hip joints and lower back muscles have tightened up over time.
Due to sedentary lifestyle and travel in cars, and lack of proper stretches causes reduced range of motion for our lower back and hip joints. This leads to less blood circulation in these body parts. Which leads to more stiffness and so on.
You don’t realise the level of stiffness you have till one day either you attend a pranayama class or meditation class and asked to sit on the mat/floor in cross legged position. In such scenario, even when you try to push your knees down, you will acute stretch in your inner thighs & lower back. These are the muscles which have become stiff and short in length.
The good thing is, as this stiffness and shortness of muscles is caused due to lifestyle, it can be reversed with continuous practice.
Rarely, you are born with such stiff muscles. If you observe a kid, you will see that a kid’s muscle is easy and they are able to sit cross legged with no effort at all.
So, this is a matter of reversing the effect of bad posture and limited movements on your lower back and hip joint.
With constant practice, and without putting in any special effort, you can sit in cross legged position in no time.
Sitting cross legged on the floor, good or bad?
There has been a recent debate that sitting on the floor in cross legged position is bad for knees. Many people talk about someone they hear about who developed problems in his/her knees due to sitting in the cross-legged posture.
So, is sitting cross legged bad for the knees?
In simple words, unless you force yourself to sit in uncomfortable position for long, then in itself, no, sitting in cross legged posture is not bad for your knees.
But, if your knees and legs are stiff and then you force yourself into the posture. Then it is bad for your knees. The main point here is, this is true for all the postures.
The key is moderation. Yoga is based on the principle of avoiding the extremes. Yoga is the path of moderation.
Which means, you try to the level which is comfortable and then improve from there.
Caution: Sitting in padmasana (lotus) puts the knees is little twisting position. Hence, unless your knee joint and legs are comfortably flexible, don’t push yourself to sit in this posture.
How to sit in cross legged position with stiff legs and hip joint?
When you try to sit in a cross legged position with stiff legs, your knees will be really high. This will put all the weight on your hip bones. An unstable and little painful position.
Plus, any cross-legged sitting posture, is stable only when knees are close to the mat or floor.
One of the most effective techniques that we have seen in our classes, is using cushions under hips.
When you use a cushion, your lower back and hips are lifted up. This allows your knees to come down, without putting stress on lower back.
Another benefit of using a cushion is that it provides extra cushion to your hips. This makes it easy for you to try different angles of adjusting your posture.
Without the cushion, the floor or the mat may feel hard on your sitting bones and thus you may tend to keep adjusting your posture in the middle of the practice. With the cushion, you have necessary cushion to keep yourself planted and focus more on better practice!
How to use a cushion for improving the sitting posture?
Until the time you are able to sit comfortably in cross legged position, use cushions under your hips. When you sit on a cushion, it raises your hip level, brings down your knees(closer to the ground, making them stable) and also straightens your spine.
The common query here is:
- What should be the thickness of cushion?
- Should I buy specific cushions or anyone the cushions will do?
The experience has been:-
There is no hard and fast rule about the thickness of cushions that you can use. You can use simple cushions lying around at your home, or you can buy specially designed ones.
You can choose any base you want, rubber based or cloth based. The main thing is it should make you feel comfortable for the time you are using that cushion.
Try this approach once, with different thickness based cushion, then try to stick with one that makes you feel stable and comfortable. Slowly with practice, your hip joint and lower back flexibility will increase, and then you can reduce the thickness of cushion required. In end, you can let go of cushion altogether 🙂
How to open up your hip joint to be able to sit comfortably?
Truthfully, every asana which makes you bend (or stretch) your lower back in helps in increasing flexibility of lower back and opening up of your hip joint in someway.
Though to speed up your progress you can start with Suryanamaskar (Sun salutations)& Butterfly (Titli asana*note at the bottom of the article). They can be done by nearly everyone at beginner’s level.
Suryanamaskar is quite complete practice within itself when it comes to warming up and opening up muscles and joints.
For hip joint, the one position that works directly is: Ashwasanchalan (Equestrian pose):
Holding this pose for few breath in slow round of suryanamaskar, will help you focus on relaxing the right muscles and loosen the joint. Don’t struggle by pushing unnecessarily. Keep practicing and you will see results.
Butterfly or Titli asana [There is a disagreement for naming this specific movement as an asana. And majority considers this more of as warm up or hip opening movement only]. Just search with name butterly or titli asana and you will get the image for reference viewpoint.
The way to do it is, to move your knees up and down, like flapping wings of a butterfly ( hence the name). Doing it for 1 minute or so on daily basis helps in opening up the hip joint.
I would like to reiterate the point that moderation is the key for improving your yoga practice. Don’t test your body against your will power. Practice regularly and you will see progress.
Also published on Medium.