In yoga, sometimes the simplest things are the most beneficial. Cross-legged poses don’t seem to offer much in the way of challenge. However, their importance in a traditional Hatha Yoga practice cannot be overstated. With continued practice, each of them reveals layers of subtle refinements that help us to develop an awareness of the deepest layers of our energetic body.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the main scriptural source upon which modern yoga practice is based. You might expect it to be an encyclopedia of complicated yoga poses, but actually there are only 15 poses described in the section of the book devoted to asana, or postures. Of these 15 poses, nine of them are simple cross-legged sitting postures.
Each of them is thought to have it’s own unique benefits and to direct the energy of the subtle body in specific ways. The subtleties of this may elude the beginner, but cross-legged poses are still of the utmost importance because they help to open the hips and help correct tensional patterns developed from sitting in chairs, driving and walking.
They are also the yoga poses that are most conducive to the practice of meditation, a key part of any deepening yoga practice.
Here we will outline seven of these poses and explain their benefits:
Sukhasana, Easy Pose
At first glance, Sukhasana, the Easy Pose, appears almost too simple to even call it a pose. However, upon further examination sitting comfortably in a simple cross-legged position with a long straight spine can be surprisingly challenging to maintain for long periods of time.
People who have difficulty with this pose are recommended to sit up on some kind of height, either a bolster or block and can also place some support under the thighs to protect the knees from tension or pressure.
The key to Sukhasana is to release all muscle tension not required to maintain an upright posture so that the breathing is free and easy. For most people, this is the go-to pose for breathing exercises and meditation, so it is important to be able to hold this pose with ease.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor also helps to open up the hips and counter the effects of sitting in chairs, driving or walking. It has a subtle grounding effect that can be a great help in times of overwhelm or anxiety, and it also has an energizing effect in times of laziness or depression.
Baddha Konasana, Bound Angle Pose
In Bound Angle Pose, the practitioner sits on the floor with the bottoms of both feet touching and the knees falling out to the side. For people with tight hips it is generally recommended to keep the feet a foot or so away from the pelvis, though flexible people may be able to draw the heels in towards the pubic bone without any discomfort.
It is also advisable for people with tight hips to place some support underneath the thighs so the knees can stay lifted and it is comfortable to release completely into the pose.
This is one of the most important hip opening poses and is an absolute prerequisite for the more advanced cross-legged poses like Lotus Pose and Firelog Pose. It is of particular benefit to people who suffer from sciatic pain and can be a great relaxation pose when done in a gentle, passive way.
Gomukhasana, Cow-Faced Pose
In Gomukhasana, the thighs and knees are brought together with one on top of the other while the soles of the feet face backwards on opposite sides of the body. People with loose hips will find this position easy to enter. However, most people will need to modify the pose to make it accessible.
Sitting up on a block will create a great deal of space for most people. Alternatively, it is not required to bring the knees to touch. Simply allow the top leg to rest against the bottom thigh closer to the ankle and allow the hip to open.
It is important to be very careful in this pose as it can put a great deal of strain on the knees if performed incorrectly. However, it is one of the most beneficial poses for breaking down fascia in the legs that can limit mobility and is one of the key poses of Yin Yoga for this reason.
Make sure to spend an equal amount of time on both sides of this pose.
Ardha Matsyendrasana, Half Lord-Of-The-Fishes Pose
In Ardha Matsyendrasana the bottom of the right foot is brought to the outside of the left thigh with the knee tracking up towards the ceiling, while the left leg is bent and the heel of the left foot is brought to the outside of the right buttock with the knee facing forward.
The practitioner then comes in to a gentle twist to the right, actively pressing the left arm into the upper right leg with the right arm placed on the floor. This pose can also be modified with the left leg straight if there is any pressure in the knee.
This pose is one of the most powerful twisting poses as it incorporates both internal and external rotation of the hips and helps to build a strong lower back while extending and decompressing the spine.
Make sure to spend an equal amount of time on both sides of this pose before moving on.
Ardha Padmasana, Half Lotus Pose
Half Lotus Pose is a preparation for the more advanced Full Lotus Pose and is a prerequisite for a whole family of advanced yoga poses that incorporate a leg in half lotus. It is not recommended for anyone with knee issues of any kind.
Sitting on the floor with the legs out in front, the practitioner will first draw the right heel in towards the sitting bone closing the joint before taking the knee out to the side. With the joint still closed the practitioner will draw the heel in towards the navel and then finally will allow the foot to rest in the crease of the left thigh while drawing the knee forward. The left leg can now be bent and the foot placed under the left thigh.
If the knee is hanging in space away from the floor it is best to focus on further opening the hip through other poses and seek the guidance of a teacher before proceeding.
Agnistambhasana, Firelog Pose
The full expression of Firelog Pose is an advanced hip-opening pose where both calves are placed on top of each other with both ankles and knees touching, parallel to the front of the body. This will be difficult for anyone without very flexible hips, however, there is a useful modification that can make the pose more accessible.
Simply place the right foot on the floor in front of the left knee and the left foot on the floor behind the right knee and allow the knees to rise off the floor. You can also place blocks underneath the legs to support the knees, or sit up on a bit of height.
At this point you can come into a gentle forward bend, reaching the hands forward, or a gentle side bend, reaching the hands towards upper right and upper left corners of the mat. When done in this way this is one of the best poses for stretching the piriformis muscle deep within the pelvis. A tight piriformis is one of the main causes of sciatic pain.
Padmasana, Full Lotus Pose
The Full Lotus Pose is almost a symbol of yoga, and for many, represents an important goal in their yoga practice. It should be noted however that some people may have a bone shape that does not allow their hips to open sufficiently to perform full lotus without putting undue strain on their knees. Even when their muscles are sufficiently open.
Approach this pose with caution and seek the guidance of an experienced teacher if you experience any discomfort.
To enter Full Lotus Pose first enter half lotus with the right leg as described earlier. At this point bend the left leg and draw the knee out to the side, closing the knee joint as much as possible. Draw the left foot into the crease of the right hip by drawing the foot over the right shin at it’s thinnest point. Again, if the knees are hovering over the floor exit the pose and seek the guidance of a teacher.
This pose is said to be one the most powerful poses for long periods of meditation that there is. However, it is not effective for this unless the practitioner can sit in it without discomfort.
Cross-legged poses have numerous benefits, some of which can be quite subtle.
It helps to have an experienced teacher to guide you in appreciating their subtleties.