Yoga is often believed to be about some ideal end point. Many students will strive to assume a posture they have seen another body do without taking into consideration everything it may have taken to get there. But when we aren’t initiating movement from the proper starting point, we risk injuring ourselves.
I always give my students options for sitting. I even offer the couch when I know we’ll be seated for some time. I’m always amazed that so few will take the options available, preferring instead to fit the picture they have in their heads of yogic sitting (I’ve been guilty of that too!). But there’s absolutely no shame in using props to achieve a more comfortable seat. In fact, it’s a sign of intelligence and body awareness. I hope this helps you understand why when it comes to sitting criss-cross-applesauce, also known as Indian style or easy pose.
Note in the picture below that the back is straight and the shoulders relaxed. That’s good and may be comfortable. However, the knees are just slightly higher than the hips, and that might cause problems:
In the next photo, the back is clearly strained, the knees are much higher than the hips, and the shoulders are at the ears. It’s actually not that uncommon to see people sitting like this in a yoga class. There’s an easy fix.
Simply place a block, rolled blanket, or cushion (or any combination until it feels “just right”) beneath your hips to raise them up:
Voila! The knees drop below the hips and everything else can relax upright:
Now let’s take a look at a seated forward fold (paschimottanasana). If the hamstrings permit, it is possible to sit upright, legs straight, both sit bones on the ground, shoulders relaxed:
From there, one folds forward at the hips and is able to extend toward the toes:
But if your starting seated posture is hunched or rounded, head dropping forward of the shoulders like this…
…the seated forward fold might look more like this photo below. The hamstrings aren’t getting the stretch. There’s no deep flexion at the hips and all the work is coming from the upper back, which can lead to injury. Plus, with the chest collapsed, what’s happening with the breath?
The fix is again quite simple. Just place that block (blanket or cushion) under your seat.
Now your spine is able to remain upright and your pelvis is not pouring out behind you in a posterior tilt:
From there, the forward fold is once again happening where it should, saving the body from excessive pressure, strain and injury. Though not pictured, it is also perfectly acceptable to bend your knees (or use a strap around the feet). In fact, it would have allowed me to lengthen my spine rather than collapse over my chest as I did:
Of course, once we move into a pose, we also need to move out of it safely. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but it can also be misleading. What one body can do with comfort and without strain doesn’t necessarily translate to another body. So use these photos as guides, not superlatives.
Even with these modifications to a posture, it is still essential to listen to your body, taking your time to journey into the fold, easing off when the body tells you to. Forward folds may be contraindicated for people with lower back issues, osteoporosis, or women in the late stages of pregnancy.
Sometimes, students tend to think of props as a last resort or get the idea that using them is somehow cheating. That’s a mindset that helps no one. Would you begrudge a person his glasses in order to read? Yoga isn’t about some ideal posture that every body should attain. It is about the ideal posture for your body. Make sure you give your body every advantage in your practice.