Words by Ruchi Adhikari Pant
The concept of meditation, yoga and mindfulness has become increasingly popular in recent years. These practices have become a global phenomenon over the last several decades and are associated with physical, mental and spiritual well being. Simple yoga asanas have been a part of our daily lives for centuries. There are a lot of simple everyday floor sitting yoga poses we adopt in our daily lives like:
- Sukhasana or the Ease pose ( the most basic asana),
- Dandasana or the Staff pose,
- Vajrasana or the Thunderbolt pose (modified kneeling),
- Malasana or the Garland pose(squatting),
- Sitting knee hug, etc.
We have not adopted these particular asanas as a part of our daily yoga practice but this has been our way of life for thousands of years, embedded in our culture and tradition and an integral part of our daily lives. Technically there are a lot of asanas that can be performed while sitting on the floor.
Here, we are talking about only those different kinds of poses that we most commonly use in our daily lives while we sit on the floor. Ours has always been a floor sitting culture and this has been depicted in portraits, paintings, religious scriptures and sculptures as well. For centuries, we have sat on the floor to offer prayers, to worship, for inner reflection, to meditate, to perform rituals, to relax, to sleep, to enjoy our meals and to socialize and share.
Though things have changed with the availability and ease of using chairs, sitting on the floor is still very much a part of our tradition and culture. Floor sitting culture is also a custom in almost all the countries in the Indian subcontinent because of our common cultural, ethnic, and historical ties.
Many other Asian countries, like Japan, Korea and China have similar traditions as well. In Japan, the floor sitting culture is called ‘seiza’, and in Korea, it is believed that floor sitting became preferable when ‘ondol’, a traditional Korean underfloor heating system, was developed. Turkey as well as many Arabic countries still follow this custom as well. It still remains an important part of our countries’ identities. It is a part of who we are as a community and a country.
If we look at our history, furniture was never really the most important thing in a house. Most of the daily activities were performed sitting down on the floor. Houses usually would have ‘sukkuls’ (hand woven straw mats), ‘chakatis’ (cushions) and ‘mudas’ (low stools).
Woodworking and furniture making at that time was more of an art than a trade. Artisans would do intricate woodwork patterns for temples and palaces. That is why we are the country of the land of temples. If we were to stroll in and around Kathmandu valley, we would come across hundreds of temples, both big and small, sophisticated in their craftsmanship, and exquisite in their architecture. Furniture was made mainly for palaces, temples and aristocrats.
The Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra talks about ‘sthira sukha asanas’, that means any asana should be both sthira (stable) and sukha (comfortable). For a person to attempt an asana, be it just a simple one, there needs to be a certain amount of core strength, stamina and flexibility to achieve, maintain and hold it with ease.
Only then can an asana be stable and comfortable. In yoga and meditation, one of the basic postures is the Sukhasana, a simpler variation of Padmasana or the lotus pose. A floor sitting position where the legs are crossed over each other and the spine is straight.
A position which provides the basis for meditation(Dhyana) and breathing exercises (Pranayama) and a common pose for us in our daily lives. The word ‘Sukha’ in Sanskrit means comfort, ease or bliss and Asana is a pose. Hence Sukhasana is a pose that is supposed to be performed with relative ease, is comfortable to maintain and joyous to perform.
Even for this relatively easy asana, our major core muscles namely the abdominal muscles, the spinal muscles, the pelvic floor muscles, and diaphragm and the accessory core muscles like the muscles around the torso and shoulders, diaphragm and gluteus are constantly engaged.
Similarly for all other floor sitting asanas different groups of muscles are activated and engaged as well. Unlike slouching on a couch or sitting on a chair, there is higher engagement and better coordination of various muscle groups while we sit on the floor.
This coordinated work of the muscles brings about a balance to the body and stability to the spine. The vital energy (prana) flows freely, we breathe easier, feel grounded and our minds become relaxed.
Floor sitting helps in activating the Muladhara Chakra/Base Chakra or the Root Chakra which is situated at the base of the spine. This chakra is believed to support all the other six chakras as well as the physical and spiritual energies in the body.
In the long run these asanas collectively are associated with perceived benefits of improved digestive system, lowered blood pressure, improved reproductive health, improved posture, strengthened and conditioned muscles, better natural stability, increased flexibility and mobility, relief from anxiety and stress.
Asanas are thus meant to be relaxing poses that strengthen the body and rejuvenate the mind. They are meant to be restorative and healing, calming and peaceful. These asanas have our way of lives for a reason and hopefully will continue to be practiced for many years to come for their potential health benefits.
Why specific asanas for specific activities?
What really is the science behind the practice? For example Sukhasana was adopted for activities like studying, praying, eating and socializing. This pose allows ‘prana’ to flow freely without any obstruction.
The stimulation of the parasympathetic nerves results in a relaxed body and calm mind. However the mind is alert, the focus is sharp and on the present moment. So this is an optimal position to receive knowledge and offer ourselves in prayers and worship.
A good position to meditate and perform breathing exercises. This is also called the digestive position. When a person sits in this position, it is a signal to the brain to start the digestive process. The gastric juices are produced inducing better digestion.
The tradition of eating together in this family or a community held a meaning in our culture. Sitting together this way and eating creates a better bond. Vajrasana is another popular digestive-friendly asana in Japan, China and Korea. The forward and back motion while eating stimulates the digestive system.
The position does not constrict the stomach but the position promotes mindful eating and prevents us from overeating Since the mind is calm and relaxed, this used to be an optimal position to socialize and hold meetings as well. A calm mind can come up with better ideas, less likely to agitated with disagreements and makes for a happy and peaceful gathering. Squatting is a very natural pose in our part of the world.
It is not uncommon to see people performing chores like washing, cooking, cleaning or just casually sitting in the squatting position also called Malasana. This is also an ideal position where the life energy flows freely through our body. This position also promotes good reproductive health in both men and women. Before western style commodes squatting was a preferred pose for excretion.
Squatting relaxes the puborectalis muscle and allows the rectum to straighten and the sphincter to open properly for better and complete bowel movement without straining. Similarly sleeping on the floor has been attributed to deeper sleep, better alignment of the spine, improved posture, relief from back pain and anti aging due as it is believed sleeping on the floor prevents wrinkles and sagging of the face.
Our traditions and culture have always tried to guide us towards healthy living be it through rituals, customs or practices. Of course, to completely immerse ourselves back into sitting on the floor for all our daily activities is not possible. However, after understanding the benefits, if we are not already practicing them in our activities of daily living, we can incorporate these back into our lives in some form if possible.
Caution should always be observed and gradually is the way to go forward because what benefits one may not benefit another depending on health conditions. A person with hip, knee or ankle injury, spinal injury, nerve impingement or prolapsed disc, or an old person with arthritic knees should avoid these poses to prevent further discomfort and pain. We need to explore and understand the science behind these practices to decide and do what is good for us.