I clearly remember the first few yoga classes I took and was in utter bewilderment on how the most simple pose, Sukhasana (Easy Sitting pose) was so tremendously difficult and uncomfortable. I was quite flexible from my athletic training, but flexible in all the wrong areas needed for Sukhasana. Just trying to sit tall for 5 minutes to center the mind left my hips and back vibrating with muscle aches. Remembering how difficult this pose was for me, I have made a point of being sensitive to this for all my students, especially in beginner and mixed-level classes.
Why is Sukhasana often so difficult?
Sukhasana involves hip flexion and external rotation of the thigh bones (ie crossed legs). The main limiting factor for creating ease is the need to have fluid external rotation. For many people, tightness of the groin and/or outer hips resists the ability of the thigh bone to rotate outwards and allow the knees to release downwards. So, instead of the thighs and knees releasing to the earth, they lift up towards the ribs. Add in tight hip flexors and the kinetic chain really starts to go downhill.
When the knees are lifting in this position, this tilts the pelvis back along with your body weight. The teacher asks you to ‘sit tall and light’, so to facilitate this ‘alignment’, your hip flexors engage to pull your pelvis forward to a seemingly neutral position. Co-actively, your extensor muscles in the back fire to ‘straighten’ the spine. Rather than the pelvis floating into neutral and allowing the entire body to find natural space, the pelvis fights with the thighs to flow into neutral space causing the back muscles and hip flexors to quickly fatigue and fill with lactic acid. It becomes pointless to be attempting to center the mind if it is receiving waves of discomfort and pain stimulus from the body.
Ways to create a more comfortable Sukhasana position?
*Elevate – sit on a firm cushion that elevates the sit bones several inches. This elevation will readily improve your ability to relax the knees and hips so the pelvis finds its’ way to neutral setting over the sit bones. Neutral setting is where you find the bowl of the pelvis shifting over the center of the sit bones in such a manner that the lower spine experiences equal space and lightness (front, back and sides), hence bringing your lumbar region into its’ proper curvature. When the pelvis finds ‘neutral’ over the sit bones, elevation and balancing of the rest of the spine should feel effortless and be able to be maintained for an extended period of time with minimal muscular fatigue. Make sure to adjust the feet and ankles so there is no discomfort or sensation of torquing in the knees.
*Begin with centering in another pose – instead of suffering (even with modifications) in Sukhasana, enjoy the start of your practice in easier poses that will allow you ground into the moment and place focus on breath. Great centering alternatives are Child’s Pose, Mountain Pose, Savasana (lying on the back), Legs Up the Wall Pose.
My recommendation for yoga teachers is use the first couple minutes of class to run some visual tests. Come to sitting and have a mini chat (about any thing) as you welcome the class. People often immediately mimic the teacher, so if you casually start this chat in Sukhasana, likely everyone will come to crossed legs as well. While chatting, do a full scan of the room and pay special attention to people who are new to the class. If you see multiple people with knees floating in the air, they are holding onto their ankles or knees while sitting, and/or clearly have collapsed and rounded backs, THEN these are red flags. Rather than taking this chat straight into seated centering, consider starting the entire class in a pose alternative especially if your space does not have the equipment/props to help those struggling.