By now I’m sure many, if not all of you who are reading this, have experienced the local tradition of sitting on the floor for meals in South Korea. If you haven’t yet, chances are the invitation will arise at some point during your stay, and the extent of your abilities will become quite obvious. In many cultures around the world, sitting on the floor is a part of everyday life, and traditional housing usually involves the floor so as to make enough space for everyone to sit together. In Japan, for example, people traditionally sit on their knees while in Korea, sitting cross-legged is more common. Both styles compel us to position our bodies in a way that have not been used much since our childhoods; as adults, then, we are more aware to notice these small changes in our bodies.
When sitting for extended periods of time, the common side effects and feelings we encounter are usually numbness in the ankles, feet and toes; pain and/or locking in the knees; or stiffness and tightness in the hips and thighs. Many of the side effects are felt once someone shifts from one position to another, or stands up to get out of the sitting position. Many of us feel we need to “walk it off” a bit and stretch as if we’ve just had a workout. One of the most common reasons for this is due to one rarely engaging in any activities that stretch the muscles used for sitting in the aforementioned positions.
If you are sincere in your efforts to feel comfortable in Korea, you will see many benefits come your way from stretching, exercising and breathing, not only for sitting but for your whole body.
As someone who can sit cross-legged quite comfortably, the one major piece of advice I would give to people is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and PRACTICE! Almost all activities done by the body require practice, and sitting comfortably is no different. How can you “practice” sitting? Well, you sit. Where? Anywhere!
Here are some handy pointers to start: Try sitting each day, in small increments such as 15 minutes, to allow your body to remember the position. Make sure your knees are in line with, or below, your hips. If you find your knees to be higher than your hips, it may be that your pelvis is too tight. Being alone and quiet, at home, is a good time to gauge where your target areas of concern lie. If, after practicing for some time, you notice tightness, stiffness, resistance or simple lack of flexibility that you feel you want to diminish, don’t worry, help is right in front of you!
Yoga is a highly beneficial and intrinsically relevant form of exercise to create greater flexibility and stamina for a position like sitting. Just like sitting, yoga positions can be done anywhere, anytime, and by anybody. Many people might be intimidated by the term ‘yoga’, in and of itself, however, many simple postures and breathing techniques are suitable for any age and body type.
The style of yoga that I practice is Bikram yoga, which consists of 26 postures created to increase stamina, strength and flexibility but with an aim at more preventative, full-body conditioning for overall health. I strongly recommend this style to strengthen your lower body for sitting, although many different styles of yoga can bring benefits to your body. I have been practicing here in Seoul with 2008 World Yoga Champion Ball Rattanapong from Celebrity Yoga near Gangnam Station (formerly Yoga Palace in Apgujeong). Ball and his sisters, Fame and Fair, originate from Thailand and opened Yoga Palace in 2008. Their classes are extremely popular among both locals and expats in Seoul, due to their professionalism, positivity, energizing personalities and infectious bright smiles! Here, Ball will demonstrate three important positions that can assist Seoulites with their sitting troubles.
Note: these positions can be done anywhere, anytime, and by anyone. You do NOT need to be an expert at yoga to use these positions to stretch and train your body, but caution is required so as not to go too far, too fast. A stretch and resistance should be felt, but do NOT go further in a position if you feel real pain or strain.
1. Awkward Pose (Utkatasana)
This pose has three parts to it, all with the aim of strengthening your thighs while giving your ankles a run for their money too.
Part I. Begin by standing with your spine straight and feet parallel and aligned with your shoulders, about six inches apart. Stretch your arms out straight ahead while stretching up tall, breathe in, and then lower your body into a sitting position as far as you can without letting your hips go lower than your thighs (you should feel the stretch in your thighs, and there shouldn’t be any pain in your knees). Try to push your weight onto your heels so you are not teetering forward.
Part II. Begin as you did in Part I, but stand, instead, on your tiptoes and stretch up as straight as you can go. Then, slowly lower your body down to a sitting position while tucking in your tailbone and keeping your spine straight. All the while, you should stay on your tiptoes as high as possible, and continue to sit down, with hips once again no lower than your thighs. If you can, try to raise yourself back up slowly to standing position.
Part III. Stand on your tiptoes as in Part II, but this time stand on your toes just enough to touch your knees together, and slowly lower your body down as in the first two parts. When you reach the bottom, your body should look like a three-sided box, with your knees pointed slightly downward, your ankles up and your bottom about 1 inch above your heels (so you are not actually sitting down). See how long you can hold this and then try to slowly straighten your body back up. Yes, it will burn a bit!
2. Tree Pose (Tadasana)
This pose is great for strengthening your knees and opening your pelvis and hips. To maintain balance, try to focus on one spot in your mirror, or somewhere straight ahead; your body will follow your line of sight, so try not to look around.
Begin by standing with feet together, straight and tall, tailbone slightly tucked in to maintain a strong spine. Balance your weight on one leg, keeping it straight, while lifting the other leg and raising your foot up to your opposite thigh (the bottom of your foot should be facing upwards). Make sure to keep your hips in one line, not tilted or unbalanced, as well as your shoulders, so your body is square, straight and tall. Always tuck in your tailbone, keep your standing leg straight, and push the bottom of your foot into your opposite thigh. Then, try to push your two knees closer together. This will help focus your attention on the contact between your foot and thigh. If you can, raise your hands one at a time into a prayer position at your heart, and if your leg is slipping, only raise one hand and continuing holding the foot. You should stand up straight, strong and proud in this pose.
3. Fixed-firm Pose (Supta-Vajrasana)
This pose is great for knee strengthening. It will be quite uncomfortable for many people, so there are instructions for beginners here as well.
First, sit down on your knees. Begin to spread your legs out from under you to opposite sides, enabling you to sit down on your bottom. Your heels should be facing up with the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Keep your toes pointed.
While holding this position, keep your lower body pressed together as close as possible. Then, with your right hand on the right foot, left hand on your left foot, lower your upper body down to the floor, using your arms and elbows for support.
For beginners, start with your knees together and your heels touching your hips, but do not go further until your body is properly aligned. You may open your knees as much as you need to assist you in lowering your body down. Always keep your heels and hips touching and your knees on the ground (do NOT let them lift above the floor). Most importantly for beginners, do not force yourself in this position, and always go slowly. If you practice regularly, your body will begin to go further in the pose. Your can hold yourself up by your fingertips as you lower yourself down, and try to squeeze your knees together as close as possible. You will feel a stretch in the tops of your thighs, but mostly in your knees, which is what your focus should be on.
When you are ready, the full pose includes lowering your body down all the way with your elbows, touching your head first, then your shoulders and upper back on the floor. Your spine should stay rounded, allowing your bottom and knees to never come up off the ground. You want to create an arch between your shoulders and your bottom, pointing your chin downward to keep your neck aligned with the floor.
To release the position, SLOWLY release your arms, grab hold of your feet and raise your body up with your elbows, the same way you went down, with your head raised last.
As an avid yoga lover and a foreigner here in Korea, I can tell you that sitting in the traditional cross-legged style at restaurants or peoples’ homes has not been a major issue for me. But, I know from experiences with groups of incredibly diverse foreigners that floor sitting is not something that is commonplace in Western culture. If you are sincere in your efforts to feel comfortable in Korea, you will see many benefits come your way from stretching, exercising and breathing, not only for sitting but for your whole body.
Happy sitting! Namaste!
A special thank you to Ball Rattanapong for volunteering his time to pose for us, and to Celebrity Yoga for letting us interrupt Savasana time! You can find out more information at their website or on their Facebook page.