Is Sitting Cross-Legged (Indian Style) At Your Desk Harmful?

Ergonomics and maintaining good posture have rightly been a topic that has gained a lot of attention in recent years with the fever surrounding quick fixes to bad posture resulting in massive online advertising campaigns that have touched almost every corner of the internet. 

You might know what I’m talking about.

Marketers feigning sore backs before exuding the benefits of posture-correcting shoulder braces to halt slouching, or advocating a training programme of floor exercises intended to have you standing straight and tall in no time! 

Ergonomic office furniture in particular has become popular amongst employees and occupational health departments alike. Not least for reasons that the business can become more sustainable through caring for the well-being of their employees.

Yet one pose over all others is said to improve posture and concentration more than most is sitting cross-legged at your desk.  

Working in front of the computer whilst in this distinctly ‘unbusinesslike’ position, and contorting your legs into shapes seemingly reserved for yogi masters might seem a little far-fetched or potentially harmful. 

From a biomechanical standpoint should we be worried about sitting ‘Indian style’ for extended periods?

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Firstly, what is Indian style and where did it originate?

Some believe the phrase “Indian style” draws roots from Native Americans in the US. Experts believe the phrase loosely translates to “lotus position”,  a cross-legged meditation or yoga position, believed to have originated in India. 

Today the position is often called “crisscross applesauce” or “cross-legged” sitting in some groups due to potentially being culturally insensitive to American Indian people. 

The specific position involves sitting on the floor or a chair with each foot tucked under the opposite thigh. This way of sitting has a few variations such as “padmasana postures” whereby each foot is placed on the opposite thigh, however, this version requires significantly more practice and can cause knee pain for the regular punter.

Is it bad to sit Indian style in a chair?

We spend long hours each day sitting down (about 6.5 hours). This sedentary sitting is becoming more than a fringe contributor to many negative health conditions.

We now spend more time sitting in vehicles and in front of screens than ever before, so the topic of biomechanics and how to sit correctly (or at least in a manner that preserves our joints and skeleton) is a popular one.

For those of us who are keen to look into taking better care of our posture, turning to ‘Indian style’ sitting is thought to bring about several benefits:

  • Benefit #1: It promotes suppleness and natural flexibility in the ankles, knees, and hips
  • Benefit #2: It encourages core muscle development
  • Benefit #3: Indirectly, the restriction of movement brought on by chairs with fixed backs and arm supports is removed, which can aid blood circulation

Despite the apparent upsides, a few negatives are associated with sitting Indian style in a chair.

  • Negative #1: It can feel unpleasant initially if you’re not used to sitting fully cross-legged, or find it hard to bend your legs into that position. The muscle groups and joints responsible for supporting your body whilst sitting like this might not have been worked for a long time. Like any new habit, it’s going to take time to get used to. 
  • Negative #2: If you’re inflexible to start with, a cross-legged position will place strain on your hip flexors unless aided by supports (such as blocks or bands). It’s not a form that you’ll be able to hold for long….initially at least. 
  • Negative #3: Until you become practiced in sitting cross-legged at a desk and know how your body will respond, it’s likely that ‘Indian style’ sitting will be a cause of distraction to your work. Certainly to yourself, but also potentially your colleagues. No one wants to be sitting next to the noisy neighbour who shuffles about constantly!

Now, before you go and implement ‘Indian style’ sitting, let’s quickly look a the drawbacks of sitting in general for extended periods (in a chair, or any position for that matter!):

  • As with any chair sitting position, if you do not maintain a natural position with an upright posture, shoulders back, and your core engaged*, the body begins to slouch forward. Extended periods of sitting in a poor posture can cause strain on your lower back. After all, the human body is not meant to sit for 7+ hours a day.
  • Prolonged body misalignment may lead to pinched nerves, causing numbness or tingling in the affected area. Further, if the sciatic nerve** is pinched, you may feel pain or numbness in the buttocks or down the legs.
  • For those that already suffer from chronic pain in the lumbar region, you should utilise a standing desk or implement a sit/stand routine (e.g. stand for 30 minutes before sitting for 30 minutes) to avoid exacerbating pain.

*Note: engaging your core does not mean flexing your abs, rather try to activate your transverse abdominis by gently pulling your belly button towards your spine and up towards your head). This will protect the load placed on your spine and surrounding nerves.

**Note: Your sciatic nerve is a group of nerves that start at your buttocks and run down your leg. They are connected to the nerve roots branching from your spinal cord. This is why people with slipped/herniated disks leading to nerve impingement, often complain of searing pain down their legs, often down to their feet.

So in conclusion, if you sit Indian style in a chair with proper posture, take regular breaks, and do not suffer from pre-existing chronic pain, it should be harmless. I mean, humans have been sitting cross-legged for centuries, (admittedly not at office desks, but at home, markets, and religious gatherings) and they’ve never had any health problems as a result, have they? 

When comparing sitting ‘Indian style’ in a chair versus sitting on a floor mat (balancing on a less stable surface; difficult to use support blocks or bands). And speaking of chairs, you’re likely going to have to stump up for one that is large enough to accommodate crossed legs. More on that later…

If you find holding the position challenging due to stiffness or pain, there are a few tricks that you could try to alleviate the discomfort.

Initially, the aim would be to train the muscles in and around your legs by simply moving in and out of the cross-legged position.

Sitting Indian style should not be confused with sitting in a chair with one leg crossed over another that remains in contact with the ground. Crossing your legs in this manner can bring on peroneal palsy by putting pressure on the back of your knee.

The direct pressure on the peroneal nerve causes reduced sensation to your foot and toes, and whilst not harmful isn’t physiologically a form that you can maintain comfortably for a long time.

Is there such a thing as a crossed-legged office chair?

Sitting cross-legged during office hours has been explored as a means to improve productivity and well-being among workers. 

Of course, sitting in this manner will only be possible in a chair that is wide enough for you to lift your legs off the ground and cross them in front of you.

The Ikaria Design Company has taken it upon themselves to design an ‘active sitting’ chair that allows you to cross your legs whilst raised off the ground.

The Soul Seat is a US-made chair that consists of an extra wide platform on which to sit and cross your legs, with a smaller raised podium (similar to a yoga block) where you park your backside. This would be the best chair to use if Indian sitting at work is your jam. 

Having multiple adjustable levels makes it easier to change posture and move in and out of various positions. Moving frequently not only places less strain on joints that aren’t familiar with being contorted but also helps work various muscle groups to strengthen your core. 

Crucially it doesn’t include a back support so lounging isn’t an option but this feature makes it easier to work from different positions ultimately reducing muscle tiredness and tension normally experienced at the end of the work day

Final thoughts

Whilst appearances sitting cross-legged at work might seem a little ‘new-age’, it is a strikingly effective and simple way to combat office fatigue.

To that end when weighing up the pros and cons of sitting Indian style at a desk it seems that if you’re willing to put in even a little time training your muscles to make Indian style comfortable then not only is it harmless, but it will likely bring health and professional benefits that will make the habit well worth the investment.

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