Growing up we sat cross-legged in school fairly often. The lower grades had carpets in the classrooms. We would sit there listening to the teacher read, or explain certain concepts. There wasn’t even a question: We all sat cross-legged. We sat like that through assembly in the school quad. We sat like that for morning prayers in the school hall. This was what we did, not realizing the benefits.
For children, cross-legged sitting has core musculature benefits. Moving your trunk over your hips can activate core muscles, giving children greater postural stability. Sitting on the floor while building puzzles or Lego requires a healthy amount of trunk rotation and crossing the midline. As we all know, crossing the midline is a very important developmental skill, so any position that will encourage that is helpful.
Maintaining a cross-legged sitting position requires various elements of movement. The hip joints must have adequate outwards rotation movement range. A greater range of outwards hip rotation will lessen potential stress on the sacro-iliac joints of the pelvis. Sitting cross-legged, the pelvis needs to go into a degree of posterior tilt. This is a helpful lumbar spine stretch position, especially for kids with very low tone in their abdominal muscles. They automatically default into an anterior pelvis tilt in standing (with very arched back locally in low back). The tummy muscles need to work to maintain the upright position, as do the back muscles. This muscle conditioning helps maintain better posture in standing. The primitive ATNR reflex needs to be mostly integrated to remain symmetrical in the position. (More on retained primitive reflexes to follow).
In yoga this seated pose is called Sukhasana. This pose helps to calm the mind, improve flexibility of ankles, knees and hips and to strengthen the back.
The Ayurvedic belief is that it also aids digestion by triggering the signals to your brain from the stomach in preparation for food intake. Sitting cross-legged whilst eating will then help blood flow from the heart to the stomach and abdominal organs, as opposed to the legs – as happens while sitting in a chair.
There is a school of thought in America that sitting on the floor in classrooms is harmful for children. That it puts undue strain on their necks to look up from this position. Joint strain is true for all passive, prolonged, stationary sitting positions. But being active and doing things on the floor in a sitting position is a different challenge.
As children’s lifestyles slowly start to mimic adult lifestyles more and more, how much time are children actually spending on the floor? Sitting at a table on a chair is not a very dynamic sitting position. It requires minimal work and very little joint flexibility. In Europe schools are starting to utilize standing desks, where pupils stand upright for tuition.
Small children should spend a little time doing cross-legged sitting activities on the floor every day.