You’re reading Move, the nudge we need to get active, however makes us happiest and healthiest.
“We’re going to start today’s class in a nice, comfortable seat,” the yoga teacher says, as people around the room effortlessly adopt a cross-legged position.
You grunt and shuffle in an attempt to copy, while your knees threaten to touch your ears and a dull ache descends around your hips. It’s not exactly conducive to serenity.
Struggling to sit cross-legged can really put you off yoga – even if you can happily adopt most other postures. I say this from experience, because I’ve struggled to tuck one leg neatly under the other since childhood, and it’s only got worse as an adult.
But, I’m pleased to say, I do enjoy yoga now – and it’s all thanks to lockdown. Where I previously felt self-conscious at in-person classes, online classes have allowed me to experiment and adapt in private, experience the mental health benefits of yoga, and improve my hip flexibility a little in the process.
Sound appealing? If you also struggle to sit cross-legged, there are ways to adapt your practice and slowly make the position easier.
But first, let’s find out the basics.
Why can’t I sit cross-legged?
The simple answer to this is we’re all built differently. Some people naturally start to sit cross-legged as toddlers, while others instinctively adopt ‘W-sitting’. The latter refers to the position where you plonk your bum down on the floor and splay your legs out backwards either side, creating a table top with your thighs and a ‘W’ position. Intermittent W-sitting isn’t a huge problem, but prolonged W-sitting has been linked to backache and problems with hip mobility in adults, so it’s recommended it’s corrected in kids.
But our natural physiology and early sitting habits are just part of the puzzle. Our sedentary lifestyle as adults can also impede our ability to sit cross-legged, explains yoga instructor Rachel Allen.
“Prolonged sitting in chairs (more than 30 minutes at a time) isn’t supportive to our physiological design and causes tightness by limiting the range of motion in the knee and hip joint,” she explains. “If you’re struggling to sit cross-legged, it is most likely caused by tightness in the hips and knees.”
The good thing is, if muscle tension is due to lifestyle, it can be reversed with stretching and increased movement.
Exercises to help you sit cross-legged
The most important thing is to reduce your time sitting in chairs, says Allen. Where possible, see if you can get up or at least change your seated position every 20-30 minutes.
“For a juicy hip stretch, I love butterfly pose (Baddha Konasana),” she adds. “To do this, bring the soles of the feet together and your knees out wide like butterfly wings. You can do this seated or lying on your back. If seated, you can sit on a folded blanket to help elongate the spine and maybe take it into a forward fold to deepen the stretch.”
Another great way to open the hips and groin is happy baby pose (Ananda Balasana). “Lying down on your back, bring your knees into your chest and reach for the outside edges of the feet or ankles,” explains Allen.
“Draw the knees towards the armpits with the soles of the feet facing the sky. As well as a hip opener, it releases the hamstrings, lower back and sacrum and it’s a great way to tap into your inner child to boost your mood!”
Adapt the position
When you sit cross-legged, the hips should be higher than your knees. Placing a block beneath your sit bones may make the position more comfortable.
“Propping up the hips helps to relax tight hip flexors by slightly tipping the pelvis forward and can prevent the tingly feeling in your feet and legs as it assists blood flow,” says Allen. “If you don’t have a block, you can prop yourself up on stacked blankets and/or cushions, you can also place blocks or rolled blankets underneath your knees and thighs to help the inner groins to relax.”
Ditch the position altogether
Although the above should help sitting cross-legged become easier in time, don’t push it: the position isn’t for everyone and yoga is meant to de-stress, not cause you another worry.
Instead, if a teacher instructs you to adopt a seated position, try something that feels good. “Another option is sitting between the heels in hero pose,” says Allen. “A block or a rolled blanket can be placed between the ankles to sit on, and a blanket can be placed under the knees and ankles for added cushioning.”
Doing your own thing in class can be a little intimidating – especially if everyone else is making a cross-legged seat look effortless – but Allen says you shouldn’t be embarrassed if the position doesn’t work for you. “Fun fact: easy pose (Sukhasana) is the name for any comfortable, cross-legged, seated position. However, easy doesn’t mean the opposite of difficult. It means “with ease”. So, sitting in Sukhasana is actually sitting any way you can with ease,” she says.
“It’s important to remember that yoga is for everyone – regardless of age or body type. Don’t be afraid to use the props available to feel as comfortable and as supported as possible.”
Even yoga instructors can feel self-conscious at times and when the feeling hits, Allen says she finds mindfulness techniques to be really powerful.
“Start by becoming aware of the feelings arising. Try to observe them with curiosity and acceptance. When you’re ready, gently redirect your focus back to your breath or to the exercise,” she says. “You can remember this as the three As – Awareness, Acceptance and Action. Practicing yoga in this way is what makes it such a powerful tool for the mind as well as body.”
Move celebrates exercise in all its forms, with accessible features encouraging you to add movement into your day – because it’s not just good for the body, but the mind, too. We get it: workouts can be a bit of a slog, but there are ways you can move more without dreading it. Whether you love hikes, bike rides, YouTube workouts or hula hoop routines, exercise should be something to enjoy.