If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “find a comfortable seat,” or some variation thereof. In fact, it might be one of the first things your instructor says. The room fills with the sound of shifting bodies as people make their way to cross-legged positions with straight spines and hands on their laps.
If you’re someone who attends western yoga classes frequently, you might think nothing of this cue and assume the same position, but if it’s your first time, you might shift your eyes uncomfortably from side to side. What is the socially acceptable “comfortable seat?” you wonder. Once you receive visual confirmation, you slide into the same sort of shape regardless of how comfortable it is for you. Maybe your hips are screaming in protest, perhaps your knees crunch and creak, and if you’re there long enough you might even lose feeling in your feet. But this is what you’re supposed to do, right? How long could you possibly stay here, anyway?
When I was first starting my yoga journey after leaving a place where I was dancing full-time, I hurtled into it with the same enthusiasm that I brought to the dance studio. If something hurt or was uncomfortable, so what? I was fine. In dance, sure those coccyx balances left my tailbone calloused, those knee drops left bruises, and my feet—well, we won’t even get into the sorts of mental games I used to drop into that pain. Quite simply, I came from the “no pain, no gain” school of thought. I can’t blame dance for this entirely either since this is quite a common refrain taught to kids everywhere. As a child with severe eczema, I remember my mother rubbing hydrocortisone cream on my calves at two in the morning (God bless her) as I cried in frustration and pain. “It burns!” I’d say, and she’d respond soothingly, “I know, sweetheart. That’s means it’s working.” What else was she supposed to say?
So when I first started yoga, I saw props as cop-outs. To me, modifications were poses that you took only if you weren’t mobile or strong enough to keep up. Wooh! That’s tough to admit.
This idea started to break down when I started going to yoga with a good friend who was a Crossfit coach and yoga instructor. He was fit, strong, mobile, and very in-tune with his body. He was an athlete, and yet in every practice I did next to him I saw him grab a prop, change positions, or flat-out ignore what the teacher called. The audacity! I even remember him going back and forth with a teacher about what he needed in a resting pose. My mind was blown. How could he do box jumps essentially over my head but not lie down and twist without significant support? Here’s the thing: he could have, but he chose not to. He chose to listen to his body.
Now, years later, my yoga practice has been through multiple iterations. It’s included seasons of hot yoga, power yoga, yoga nidra, yin yoga, completely uncodified rolling around on the floor, and most recently, prenatal yoga. The longer I’ve practiced yoga asanas (there are actually eight branches of yoga, and what you see in class is just one of them), the less grunt work I’ve done. I’ve started taking more liberties in class. While I used to make myself keep a straight back leg in Crescent Lunge, now I bend it, engage my glutes, and square my hips so that I can feel the stretch more strongly in my hip flexor. With pregnancy, I’ve even taken to lowering the back knee to the ground.
So the other Saturday, when I told the prenatal class to find a comfortable seat, I meant it. I offered options, but I still saw shifty glances go from one person to another as they all took the same position that I did.
Today, I’m going to walk you through two seated positions, giving you prop options to support you. These modifications and props don’t mean you’re weak. Instead, they offer you a unique opportunity to actually find a way to sit that’s comfortable for you so that you can focus more on your breath. Finding a truly comfortable seat also gives you the opportunity to stand in the truth of your experience and to move accordingly. It’s a practice in empowerment.
Option 1: Cross-Legged
This is the position that we call “criss-cross applesauce” in kindergarten. Basically, your butt is on the ground, and your legs are folded in. It’s the position that your instructor is most likely to take in class, what you think of when you imagine people meditating. Here are some ideas to play around with:
- Re-cross your legs. Just like we have a dominant hand, we have a favorite way to cross our legs. Changing up which leg is closest to you can bring a new feel to the pose.
- Move your flesh. Feeling your “Sitz Bones,” AKA your hip bones on the ground beneath you, can help you establish a more grounded feeling, so don’t be shy. Adjust the flesh of your glutes until you can feel these two bones anchoring you down.
- Get a prop. Either take a folded blanket and place it beneath your Sitz Bones, or take a yoga block or a bolster and put it in the same place on the lowest level so that it’s stable. It can relieve pressure on your hips to elevate them slightly. Don’t worry; you can move the props before getting into the next pose.
Option 2: Hero’s Pose
Maybe when you sit on the floor in a criss-crossed position, your knees begin to protest. Perhaps your hips do. While a little stretch can be nice, if it’s too much for that day or if it isn’t a stretch but discomfort, try Hero’s Pose. Come to a kneeling position with your knees hip-distance from each other. With your feet directly behind your knees (toes untucked), sit your hips between your heels. The classic representation of this pose has your butt going all the way to the floor.
- Get a block. Is putting your butt all the way to the mat too much? It most definitely is for me. My knees are 100% against that, so what I do is grab a block because it offers a firm surface, and I’ll likely use it in class later. I take that block and put it directly under where my Sitz Bones will be on the lowest setting. Depending on your anatomy, you can place it longways between your shins or position it short ways. Try both.
- Get a bolster. For a more restorative feel and a bit of a higher seat, grab a bolster (the big pillow thing) and straddle it with the long sides against your shins and the short sides facing the front and back of you. The bolster is a bit of a bulkier item, but it’s in the studio for a reason. It can be super helpful later on in restorative poses like savasana.
Things to Keep in Mind:
- Lean back. In both positions, most people tend to tip their pelvic girdle (just the pelvic area) forward while sitting. That means that your booty is sticking out, and your belly is pushing forward. This is a very engaged position, a position that indicates that you’re ready for action. Over time, it can put unnecessary strain on your spine and make you feel like you’re constantly “on” or ready to jump up and run away. Try leaning back until you feel that zero-gravity sweet spot where your spine just hovers above your hips.
- Chin back. Another way that we express our eagerness for what’s next is by lifting our chin and sticking it slightly forward. A good way to find more relaxation and an easier spine is to place your cupped hand at the base of your skull and allow your head to move back into it. This is a lateral movement, not an up-and-down one. Again, just like with the pelvis, you’ll know when you’ve reached an optimal state when your head feels lighter on your neck.
That’s it for today! I hope these options help you claim space in the studio or in your home practice and that they help you find a truly comfortable seat. Happy practicing!