Q: I recently decided to try the experiment of sitting cross-legged more, starting out on my sofa, as sitting in this position seems to help my achy hip and back. I will see if I can progress to the floor. I am also wondering about squatting more, not comfortable for me, but a common position in many countries (such as Vietnam, where many families still eat squatting on a low large table). Any thoughts on this position, besides needing to be careful of wonky knees?
A: Do I ever! I happen to like squatting, even though I have an old tear to the cartilage in my left knee, the medial meniscus, which I have to been mindful of getting in and out of squats. My hips turn out decently, which is necessary for squatting, and my ankles also dorsiflex—what we typically refer to simply as flexing—pretty well so my heels can stay on the ground if my feet are about a foot or so apart.
I became interested in squatting as an alternative way to sit for short periods of time after a yoga adventure trip to Bali in the late 90’s. As we drove down a country road past rice fields one day, I noticed a group of men squatting and talking near an intersection. Returning the same way a few hours later, the same group was still there, squatting and talking as they had been earlier. I was shocked, remembering how challenging the pose could be for me in class when I only held it for a few minutes. So I became motivated to see if I could safely master this position, although I was not sure what I would use it for.
We do need to keep in mind that in these cultures, people squat starting from their early stages of life, and often live in places where western furniture is not the norm, as Ram mentioned in his post To Sit or Not To Sit (on the floor)?. So we are at a distinct disadvantage learning to squat as adults. However, there may be some good reasons to try it out. I find it particularly helpful in certain social or activity situations, such as when camping and not wanting to sit directly on dirty, sometimes wet or rocky ground, or when using a primitive or non-existent loo! I use it in social situations where there are limited chairs, where I want to be down interacting with kids, or when talking with another person who is sitting and I don’t want to loom over them by standing. And when my back is flared up, being able to squat to pick things up off the floor is quite handy.
But are there any other benefits, you might ask. Well, squats take the knees into the deepest flexion possible, both active flexion (that created just by the muscles contracting) and passive flexion (created by an outside force, such as your body weight and gravity in this case). Fully flexing and then straightening the knees takes them through their full range of motion, which is generally a good thing for your joints. And the ankles also have to flex quite a bit, so their range of motion is exercised. The muscles at the front of the shins have to contract and work in a unique way not required for many other yoga poses, contributing to strengthening this area. The hips and lower back can get a nice stretch as well. You do want to increase your time in squats gradually, as there is an effect on your blood pressure, so that when you stand again, if you have timed it well, you don’t suddenly feel light headed.
If you have tight, stiff knees, you can do a modified version with a block or blocks under your sitting bones, creating a block chair of sorts that still allows you to experience the general shape of the squat. If your heels don’t touch down easily, put a prop, such as a rolled-up blanket or yoga wedge, under your heels so they can ground. This relaxes the leg muscles and allows the bones to hold you up, which is why those men could hold the squats so long—they weren’t exhausting their muscles! And keep in mind that you might want to design a short sequence of poses that prepare you for the squat, such as, Reclined Knee to Chest pose, Reclined Leg Stretch, Warrior 1 pose, and Cobblers pose (Baddha Konasana), to name a few.
If it doesn’t work for your body to do squats, it is no big deal! There are so many other good postures that can be of benefit for you, so let go of the ones that may seem injurious for your body. And as my old friend Gary Morgan used to say as we played a silly riverside game on canoe outings, “Squat what you got!”