It’s very common for women in Africa to sit with their legs outstretched. I’ve seen rows of women use this position to spin yarn, engage in idle chatter, sort items, and more. I’ve seen babies massaged by women using this position both in Burkina Faso and in the U.S. by a visiting Indian masseuse who does traditional baby massage in Surat, India. In Samiland I saw this position used to bake bread in a lavoo (a Sami structure very similar to a teepee).
The Sami, who I visited in July 2015 (see my post Sleeping on Birch Branches in Samiland), bake with outstretched legs in their traditional lavoos (teepees). This is my friend Fredrik’s family.
Sitting with legs outstretched is useful when you need an extended flattish lap and your hamstring flexibility allows it. The ground needs to be dry and clean to make this an inviting position. It’s a particularly useful position for childcare. In addition to the aforementioned baby massage, our team member Angela Häkkilä has observed Anatolian women using their outstretched legs as a cradle for babies and toddlers, who are rocked to sleep with a sideways motion of the legs and a gentle lullaby.
In this case, the Burkinabé woman at the left is leaning against a wall for extra comfort while carding wool. With her degree of hamstring and gluteus maximus flexibility, she’d be fine without a wall, too!
Many people don’t have the hamstring and gluteus maximus flexibility to sit on the floor with outstretched legs and not round the spine. Tight hamstrings and gluteal muscles cause the pelvis to tuck under, preventing upright and relaxed stacking. Over time this can lead to a rounded back, degenerated discs, and pain.
Place something under the bottom to encourage the pelvis to antevert, and/or consider sitting against a wall, tree trunk, or other surface to counteract the tendency to round the spine.
With the modification of adding a support under or behind you, you will not only have expanded your repertoire of healthy sitting positions and possible activities, you will also be elongating your hamstrings to better garden, clean, and hip-hinge in general.
Though this Orissa woman would probably be just fine sitting on the ground, her technique of elevating the seat is very helpful for people in modern societies.
This Burkinabé massage therapist is testing the temperature of the water she will use to massage a newborn baby. Note her outstretched legs, sitting stool, and seated hip-hinge, all of which support the baby, the action, and the massage therapist to be healthy.
If this way of sitting would be helpful in your life, or if you’d benefit from increased hamstring and gluteus maximus flexibility, we recommend beginning by sitting on a support that will help antevert your pelvis, or with your behind against a wall for support. Since it’s only an issue of muscle flexibility, it’s certainly possible to work up to sitting with your legs outstretched without other support.