Sitting cross-legged? Why you might like to stop

There’s nothing funny about crossing your legs, especially if it’s how you usually sit. The result can be tight shoulders, a sore neck, aching hips, tricky knees and wonky ankles.


In every Original Alignment class, you’ll hear physical cues: relaxed pelvis with weight in the front, ribs down, chin released, weight in the heels, abdominals engaged but not tense. But there’s another layer of teaching, the pithy sayings, maxims, and guiding principles of the work. Each one, in fact, is a little piece of what we might call universal law. It really doesn’t matter whether you believe them or not. They’re just true, as much a fact of life as gravity. 

My teachers, most notably Jean Couch, have repeated one or another of these condensed bits of brilliance in almost every class. Over time I hope to present them all. Here’s the first on my list: Usage Creates Form. 

“Usage creates form” might at first sound abstract. But it’s as concrete as anything ever gets.
Simply put, the way you habitually hold your body shapes your body. Or as Mom used to say: “if you don’t stop pouting, your lower lip is going to get stuck there.”

Even the grumpiest child rarely holds a pouty face for more than 20 minutes. Here’s something most of us do for hours at a time: we sit cross-legged.

cross-legged woman front view




Check out the smiling woman on the left. At first glance she might read as relaxed and casual. But take a closer look.

She lifts her right shoulder – on the same side as her lifted leg – and moves her head off to the left.

This creates tension in her right shoulder and on the left side of her neck.

Look at her left knee, which slopes inward, and her left ankle, which bows outward.

Both her inner left thigh and her outer ankle are in tension.

What’s less obvious, because of her coat, is that the left side of her pelvis holds most of her weight. To re-centre her weight, her spine curves to the left.



sitting cross-legged harms you rear view

For the rear-view picture of what’s going on, check out the woman above.

Can you see how heavy her left buttock is on the chair? And the wrinkles in her dress on the right side of her torso?

Because her left side carries more weight, her spine will start to curve to the left. As her spine curves to the left, her right side becomes shorter and her dress wrinkles. These are the first signs of the inward curve of scoliosis.

Back to the woman who faces us. Her inner thigh muscles are tense and shortening. On the right side, her outer hip muscles are being over stretched, and on the left, her hip is getting tighter from bearing more than its share of weight.

Each one of these distortions is being held by tight, gripped muscles, kept in place for hours at a time. Over weeks, months, and years, these distortions become our habit patterns. It’s no surprise that they don’t magically release when we stand up. The lifted hip, the twisted spine, the uneven shoulders, and the neck strain all remain in place.

The knee that veered in and the ankle that bowed out maintain their shape when we stand and walk. But now they’re weight-bearing, and in time, you have a sore knee and a wonky ankle.

The side of our pelvis that sat heavy on the chair becomes the leg that always bears more weight when we’re standing. The side of the pelvis that lifted when the upper leg crossed over still lifts when we stand up. If your S.I. joint keeps getting jammed on one side, check to see if that’s the leg you lift when you sit cross-legged.

The same holds true if it’s harder to balance on one side in tree pose, or even when you’re pulling on a pair of pants, check. The unstable leg is most likely the leg that crosses over top. Crossing the leg over-stretches your outer hip muscles. That weakens the very muscles – gluteus medius and minimus, and tensor fasciae latae – that give you stability in standing and walking.

The imbalance between tight inner thighs and overstretched outer hips can also cause hip pain, especially of the kind that shows up when you try to sleep on your side. (See Olga Kabel’s excellent YogaU Online article: Neglecting Your Hip Abductors and Adductors Can Mess Up Your Walk, Sleep and Balance)for more.

So, if we do so much damage when we sit cross-legged, why doesn’t it feel bad?
  • Sitting cross-legged is a habit, and as we all know, damaging habits can feel comfortable, just because they’re habits.
  • Most of us last felt complete relaxation in sitting when we were three, so we don’t remember what being comfortable feels like and have nothing to compare it with.
  • Because of the posture cues we’re taught, especially “tuck your buttocks” and “lift your chest,” sitting comfortably in a chair with our feet on the floor is next to impossible.
  • And finally, our culture teaches us that minor body sensations aren’t important. We stuff away small tensions so we can concentrate on work, or a Twitter feed.
Here’s the good news, the more attention you pay to sitting evenly in a chair, the more balanced your body will become.

No matter how old you are, no matter how long you’ve had your habits, practicing Original Alignment can reshape your upper back, neck, and shoulders, re-align your feet, and remove knee, back and hip pain. The more time you spend in body balance, the faster the changes will occur.

Why? Because, for good or for ill, usage creates form.

Would you like to harness the power of this universal truth?

The first thing you need to do is learn to sit in true comfort. Once you’ve felt relaxed when you sit, you’ll begin to notice all the ways that sitting cross-legged creates tensions.

If you’d like to start today, check out my self-paced online course.

If you prefer to learn in person, make sure you’re on my email list. Subscribe here for class information and insights into Original Alignment.


2 comments on “Sitting cross-legged? Why you might like to stop

  1. I always think of the images above as sitting with your legs crossed. Is there anything harmful about sitting cross legged on the floor?

    1. Hi Rina,
      Great to hear from you! The answer to “is there anything harmful about sitting cross legged on the floor?” is: it all depends on how you sit. If sitting on the floor means that you roll back onto your pockets and put your spine into a C-curve, then yes, it’s harmful.
      If you have something to sit up on, like a cushion or a stack of blankets, AND you can sit with your weight forward of your sitting bones, and your knees lower than your hip creases, then it’s a-okay.
      Thanks for asking. I think I’ll pull out some pictures and do a mini-post on the subject.

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