How to Sit

Sitting Well for Health, Agility, and Posture

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One of the most common challenges I see when teaching yoga classes is around sitting. Let me start by saying that I don’t advocate spending long periods of time sitting, even for meditation. I think our bodies are built to move. There’s some strong evidence that modern people sit too much and that it can negatively impact our health. Taking stock of how much time you spend sitting each day is a worthy enterprise. Make sure to get up and move around as much as possible and of course, incorporating yoga and exercise (which I see as two separate practices, more on that in the future) into your daily routine will help to balance out any negative impacts of sitting.

That being said, people sit. They sit at home and often sit in a yoga class. So since we are going to sit, let’s become expert sitters, shall we?

6-Point Sitting Checklist

Let’s start with a bit of self-assessment. Find your expression of sukhasana (easy seated pose) by sitting on the floor in what the kids today call “criss-cross applesauce” or cross-legged pose. Here’s a pic of me in my expression of easy seated. You’ll notice that I can sit comfortably with my knees toward the ground and with good posture. I’ve been practicing yoga for many years so please know this is based on years of practice. This is not meant to be a model for ideal sitting, but just to give you a visual of one expression of sukhasana.

Once you find whatever your expression of easy seated is in this moment, scan through this list:

  • What’s the general feeling in your body? The yoga scriptures tell us that our asana (physical practices) should feel sweet and steady. I like that combo. When you sit, does it feel sweet and comfortable? At the same time, does it feel steady and strong?
  • Try taking a deep breath. If your breath feels constricted, it’s time to modify your seat.
  • Where are your knees? If they are more than a couple of inches off of the floor, you’re going to want to modify. People with tighter hips will often notice that their knees are very high off of the floor. This is okay. Your hips are where they need to be in this moment. While working to mindfully open your hips just a bit over time might be a worthy exercise, we are all made in different proportions and have inherent limits to our range of motion. My husband is very tall and an unmodified sukhasana is likely never going to work for him. Just notice where your knees are for now. Here’s a pic below of what I mean. You’ll see my knees are high off of the ground and this definitely doesn’t look sweet and steady, does it?
  • Where is your spine? Bring your attention to your lumbar spine along your lower back. The lumbar spine should curve forward in its natural state, toward your belly button. Reach around and touch your lower back. If you can feel what I call stegosaurus spine, with your vertebra bumping out, that means you are rounding your lower back and that your spine is no longer in its natural curve. Try sitting up a bit straighter and you should feel those bumps go away. If you can’t find the natural curve of your spine here, you’ll want to modify.

Notice the rounding in my spine in the picture above.

Now see how my spine is curved a bit toward my belly? This is the natural curve of my spine. If your spine doesn’t look exactly like this, not to worry. Explore YOUR body and its needs.

  • Where are your shoulders? You’ll want to bring your shoulders directly above your hips. If your shoulders are forward of your hips, you’ve lost your good posture and should modify.
  • Where is your head? Your ears should be over your shoulders which are over your hips. One thing that can happen with people’s posture is forward head carriage. If you have this, it’s okay and it’s something you can work with, but it’s definitely something to address. Because our heads are heavy, if they are forward of our neck they are going to pull on our neck and back, creating imbalances throughout the body. Think about stacking your head over your neck which is stacked on your spine which is stacked on your hips.

I’ve done a pretty good job here of stacking in the picture above.

After this scanning exercise, you might have discovered the need to modify. Here are several suggestions for how you might find an expression of easy seated pose that is better suited to your body.

  • Use a chair. If you have a difficult time getting down to the floor or back up again, no big deal. Find a chair and have a seat with your feet on the floor. Remember though, while using the chair it’s still important to find your good posture. If you have lower back pain, putting something under your butt so that your hips are higher than your knees can help with this. Long story short, that will decrease hip flexion which can help lower back pain and improve posture. Remember, ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and spine should be in its natural curve.

In the pictures above you can see the blocks on the chair, covered by a blanket for comfort. I would always rather see a student sitting in a chair and using good posture than sitting on the floor in a hunched position. Seeing students use props to take care of their bodies makes me a very happy teacher.

  • Try blankets under your bottom and/or blocks under your knees. Please, I beg of you, use props in your practice. Props aren’t meant to push your body into some place that it’s not meant to be. Props are meant to support. If you’re able to get down to the floor, place a blanket or two under your bottom and sit in cross-legged position. For tips on folding your blanket, check out my recent post here. If your knees make it toward the floor and this feels okay, great. If your knees are still flying high, bring a block under each knee. Scan through the posture points I mentioned above and make sure you’re sitting up tall with your spine in its natural curves.
  • Try modified Hero (Virasana) pose. First, place a folded blanket on your mat. Come to your knees and bring one block, set on low, under your bottom. We talked earlier about how people with tighter hips might struggle in a cross-legged position. The opposite can be true as well. If you are someone with more flexible hips, bringing your hips into external rotation (which is where they are in a cross-legged seat) can cause your hips to open too much. I am one of those people so I really have to watch this. Hero pose brings the hips into a more neutral position.

A student of mine recently told me that he struggled with his meditation time because his legs started to hurt after about fifteen minutes in cross-legged pose. I’m sure there are some schools of thought who would tell him to ignore or transcend the pain in his body. I’m not of that mindset. Our body is our temple and we are gifted with the responsibility of taking care of it. If it hurts, it’s talking to us. Listen. I suggested that he try modified hero or a chair, that he continue specific asanas to help open his hips and stretch his hamstrings a bit more, and that he think about walking meditation. Another option he could try would be to break his meditation into two sessions.

Be curious about your body, honor its unique needs, and experiment. One of the reasons that we say that yoga is a science and not a religion is that we are asked to take nothing on faith. Rather, we are encouraged to test everything for ourselves and to honor our experiences. Try different expressions of sitting and see what is the best fit for you. As a teacher, my job is to help you to become more aware of your own needs so that you can make the best choices for yourself in your yoga practice, on and off the mat.

Once you find a comfortable seat, consider using it to close your eyes and to sit quietly in meditation for five minutes. Take some deep breaths in and out of your nose. Just five minutes each day is a great place to start with developing a regular meditation practice. Can’t sit still? I used to carry that story too. I hear you. It can be hard to push pause. You might consider trying a guided meditation to begin. There are many that you can download online or through apps.

One of my friends and fellow yoga teachers once reminded me that we are human beings, not human doings. Finding some time each day to be still is not just important, it is a fundamental part of who we are and it’s necessary for our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Just try five minutes, just for today, and see what comes.

Happy sitting. If you have questions about how to find a comfortable seated position, please comment or contact me!

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