POSTURE for MEDITATION
Written by Stephanie Nash
Is there an ideal body position for meditation?
Most people think you can only be meditating if you’re sitting cross-legged (probably in full lotus) with eyes closed, incense burning & maybe some music or chanting going on. Not so. You can meditate in 4 positions – sitting, standing, walking, lying down – basically all the positions our body is in during the course of our life. (And I imagine that if you spend a good deal of time upside down, you can mediate there as well. I do know many yoga practitioners who apply meditation skills in all sorts of positions.)
So, while you can basically meditate in any position, and ultimately you’ll be able to implement these techniques & strategies as you go about your daily life, we’re going to start with the sitting position, which is the most commonly employed position for formal practice as it is especially conducive to the development of concentration.
Sitting Meditation Positions: (descriptions & photos on next page.)
a) Quarter Lotus
b) Half Lotus
c) Full Lotus
d) Seiza (bench or zafu)
e) Chair (regular or ergonomic)
f) Lying down (if sitting is not an option)
First let’s go over
a) Zafu. A Zafu1 is the round cushion that is made for the purpose of sitting on for meditation. They are usually made of kapok (a kind of cotton) or buckwheat filling – depending on individual preference. (The kapok is firmer while the buckwheat has more ‘give’.) A zafu raises the hips, making the entire range of cross-legged sitting positions more stable for the meditator.
b) Zabuton. A zabuton2 is a rectangular or square padded mat or cushion that is often used under the zafu or bench to provide comfort & support. It cushions the knees & ankles (which is especially preferable when sitting for longer periods.)
Zafu on Zabuton
Seiza Bench on Zabuton
Seiza Bench. A seiza bench is a small bench made for the purpose of
meditation. One sits on it with
the legs underneath. d)
Extra cushions. For any position, having extra small cushions to wedge
beneath knees, behind back, or upon sitting apparatus – is common and
often recommended if the body is having difficulty maintaining a straight spine
with relative comfort in any position. Sitting Meditation Positions Okay, now let’s examine the different options of positions with a
seated meditation practice.
c) Seiza Bench. A seiza bench is a small bench made for the purpose of meditation. One sits on it with the legs underneath.
d) Extra cushions. For any position, having extra small cushions to wedge beneath knees, behind back, or upon sitting apparatus – is common and often recommended if the body is having difficulty maintaining a straight spine with relative comfort in any position.
Sitting Meditation Positions
Okay, now let’s examine the different options of positions with a seated meditation practice.
A cross-legged seated position is commonly called a 'lotus' position.
1. Quarter Lotus (Legs crossed with both feet below the opposite thigh or knee.
This is commonly called “Indian Style.”)
2. Half Lotus (Legs crossed with one foot resting on the opposite thigh and the other foot underneath.)
3. Full Lotus (Legs crossed with both feet resting on opposite thighs.)
For any lotus position, usually the zafu is placed towards the back of the zabuton with the bottom of the torso placed on the front part of the zafu, so that the knees are on the zabuton and a base triangle of support is created with the legs & torso to foster physical stability.
4. Seiza with a Bench or Zafu
(Legs are under the body, with knees forward
and top of foot against the floor, heels up.
The zafu is usually placed on its side for this
position. A (firmer) kapok zafu will usually create
a higher lift - bringing more ease to the knees,
while a buckwheat zafu will have more ‘give’
in the seat. Experiment for your own comfort.)
Seiza w/bench Seiza w/zafu
5. CHAIR (regular or ‘ergonomic’) (Body may be placed on front edge of chair seat, or with pelvis against back of chair, and spine straightened away from the chair. Extra pillows may be helpful to support the posture for longer periods. It will be helpful to have your feet flat on the floor, and aligned with the hips & knees. You may also want a pillow underneath you to elevate your hips so that they are higher than your knees (which promotes a straight spine.) (See: ‘Important Physical Considerations’ on next page.)
Chair (edge) Chair (w/padding) Ergonomic Chair
6. LYING DOWN If you have chronic or acute pain that makes sitting upright not practical
for longer periods of time, lying down is viable option. The tendency to go to sleep, needless to say, is much more of an issue, but there are ways of encouraging alertness when lying down. If you can put feet on floor with knees up, that can be helpful as the effort to keep the knees upright will help keep you alert. Also, quite effective is holding the hands in a MUDRA (See: ‘Mudra’ on p. 9) with the thumbs touching each other. Shinzen often demonstrates how this can work as a feedback device – i.e. when you are beginning to lose consciousness and drift off, the thumbs will pull apart and that will wake you up to bring you back to your meditation.
Lying down (side view) Lying down (from above)
You may have to experiment with different positions until you find the one that suits you. You may also alternate between positions for different length sits. For example, I tend to prefer the seiza on a zafu, but sometimes like to switch to half lotus when teaching or for shorter sits. My leg falls asleep from the hip down quite easily in a lotus, so I tend not to opt for it for longer sits (unless I’m interested in exploring my relationship to pain.) Some people like to alternative between a cushion (zafu) & a chair – especially when on retreat where they may be sitting for many hours each day – just to give a break to the knees or legs which are not used to prolonged periods in the same position.
Important Physical Considerations with any position:
1. Spine Straight & Balanced
i. Potential Pitfalls (Arching, Slouching, Efforting Head)
2. Hips Higher Than the Knees
3. Breathe & Relax (especially the Jaw)
Straight Spine. The point about posture, that it’s important to emphasize here, is a STRAIGHT SPINE3. You want the body to be BALANCED with the weight evenly distributed
on the pelvic bones, shoulders balanced over hips, elbows under shoulders, head resting over torso & pelvis. If your elbows are out a bit, that will better allow breathing than if they are tight against your body. Notice if there is tension in the shoulders and see if you can deliberately let the shoulders relax back & down) We’re going for support & relaxation at the same time – i.e. less tension & more ease.
You also want a straight spine for very practical reasons. In meditation, we want the body to
be relaxed and the mind to be alert. We start off with our eyes closed (to minimize distractions until we’ve developed that stellar concentration.)
Okay. So there we are. Eyes closed & body relaxed. Hmmmm. Well, what do you think tends to happen? Yep, you guessed right. It’s quite probable that you’re going to start to nod off and go to sleep. (Shinzen calls it the ‘Zen Lurch” and he imitates someone beginning to nod off and then jerking themselves back into sitting posture as the falling forward wakes them up. We all laugh in recognition when he does this.)
But this is especially an issue in our sleep-deprived, stressed lives. When we do finally give ourselves an opportunity to stop, relax & close our eyes, the body’s need for rest kicks in
– along with the body’s Pavlovian/Skinnerian conditioning that says, “eyes’ closed, body tired, “THAT’s OUR CUE TO GO TO SLEEP!”
So, while you may get that nap you needed, you’re not developing any muscles of concentration, mindfulness or equanimity, so the temporary benefit is addressed, but the long term ones are not.
THUS we STRAIGHTEN OUR SPINE! When the spine is straight it activates the reticular activating system4 in the brain – causing more alertness. The mind literally wakes up.
(A handy bit of information, isn’t it?)
So, a STRAIGHT SPINE HELPS THE BODY BE MORE ALERT.
Hips Higher than the Knees. If you look at the posture photos included, you’ll notice that the hips are always higher than the knees. (And I suggested, when sitting in a chair, to actually put a cushion underneath you if they weren’t.) When we do the reverse – i.e. knees higher than hips (like if we sat on the floor without a cushion5, or in a chair that sinks back) – it’s very difficult to maintain that lovely straight spine that will help us stay alert. And thus if we
deliberately get the hips higher than the knees, it makes having that straight spine much EASIER to achieve. In fact, if you’re having difficulty sitting up straight, raise the hips even HIGHER. Don’t worry about the hips being too high. You could be practically standing. Look at the photo of the ergonomic chair posture. It is designed to be the optimal position for the pelvis & legs to naturally create a balanced spinal column. Hips higher than knees. It may feel unusual, but just try it and you’ll discover much more ease in your body – especially for longer sits.
Relax the Jaw. Letting the jaw relax will have a ‘trickle down’ effect on the rest of the body. The jaw often/usually gets engaged when we are trying to ‘control’ and by letting it DROP (even just a ¼ or ½ inch) will help promote release in other parts of the body.
Your teeth ideally should be slightly apart, like when you make an “N.” Along with awareness of the lifting of the back of the head and the chin tilted slightly down, this should help the jaw relax & the head rest comfortably on top of the spine.
Breathe. Breathing is good and highly recommended. Okay, all joking aside, don’t get all cramped up over trying to get the perfect posture. The purpose of posture is to PHYSICALLY SUPPORT your practice. You want a solid base and ease. If you are noticing tension or tightness, see if you can find a way to sit more comfortably while allowing the spine to be straight. And the dropping of the jaw will help a great deal for allowing the lower belly to soften, so that the air can flow freely and contribute to the relaxation of the body.
You can think of the breath as a lubricant to relaxation. And, of course, for many it’s the object of meditation in and of itself. Regardless, allowing yourself to breathe freely, deeply, and naturally will be beneficial to your meditation and your life.
c) Efforting Head
d) Legs Falling Asleep/Discomfort from Posture
Okay, here’s some pitfalls you may land in. We may say ‘straight spine’ but that means different things to different people – especially if you’ve never had someone physically work with you on your posture for any reason.
Some people end up actually ARCHING heir back by pushing their chest out, and this is not desirable. (See Photo on next page.) These people usually are also applying a lot of tension in the shoulder blades to “hold” this position.
Usually within 10 minutes, they will start to feel discomfort on one or both sides of the spine in the lower/mid back, and depending on the amount of tension in the shoulders, they may get sore in the upper back as well.
We cannot, in this book, adjust your posture for you. That’s something best done in person
by a qualified professional (maybe a yoga teacher, Alexander Technique instructor or other trained body worker.) But we can alert you to potential problems. (And if you feel significant pain or discomfort that you don’t normally feel, in the areas just mentioned, you may want to refer to the diagrams included in this book and/or consult a trained professional.)
But please be prepared for a minimum degree of discomfort that would naturally happen whenever trying any physical position or activity that your body is not used to doing. You’ll know you need to adjust the posture when it becomes painful during the sit and/or there is soreness for an extended time after the sitting period.
The other most common unhelpful posture is the SLOUCH – where the pelvis tips back,
the back rounds, the shoulders & head slump forward. (See Photo.) This usually leads to unconsciousness (especially if you’re tired), and the back of your neck & top of your back
will take the brunt of the stress.
Arched Back Slouch (a) Slouch (b) Efforting Head
The human head weights between 10-15 pounds. That’s about the size & weight of a bowling ball. Now if you took a bowling ball and held it out at arm’s length, it wouldn’t
take long for your arm to get tired, cramped, and pretty unhappy. Well, if the bowling ball represents your head – your arm represents your neck – which explains a lot of the neck pain going around. Most of us spend a good deal of our lives, whether at the computer
or driving or watching TV, slumped with the head forward & not balanced on top of the spine. (No wonder our necks are usually tight & achy.)
When you combine this physical habit with long periods (or frequent shorter periods) of meditation, the back of the neck, top of the back & jaw develop extra tensions to cope. Sitting in a chair can be especially conducive to slouching. The most helpful way to sit in a chair is with the feet on the floor and either sitting on the front edge of the chair, or pad the space between your back and the back of the chair to create the straight spine. This is often the most preferable option for older people. (And don’t forget about padding that seat, if need be, to help the hips be higher than the knees. A straight spine = a cured slouch.)
C) ‘Efforting Head’
Another more subtle problem is that of what I call the “efforting head” - i.e. we have some idea that we want to connect to something ‘higher’ and/or we’re ‘trying’ to be the good meditation student, and the head reaches up and forward with an elevated chin. (See photo above.) Just learning to focus your mind can be a kind of effort you’re not used to and that can manifest physically in the head pushing forward or up as you’re trying to keep your awareness on the object of meditation.
Like the slouch, this places the head slightly forward and encourages a crunching up at the back of the neck, which will lead to the same neck tension as our bowling ball example above. This tendency is also often accompanied by tightness in the chest and jaw (as the body is in ‘effort’ or ‘control’ mode.) I highly encourage relaxation, especially on the breath out, letting the jaw drop down towards gravity as the head lifts up and straightens the spine.
Shinzen’s favorite way of encouraging a straight spine is to say, “Create a central column – and let everything hang from that.” I like that. You can visualize each vertebra stacked and balanced upon the one beneath it - creating this column (which is actually the case), and letting the body HANG from that is a nice way to get the support and relaxation or ease that is preferable for sitting practice. And, again, you may also allow the HEAD to LIFT LIGHTLY UPWARDS (as if it’s a helium balloon or a string is attached to the top) with the BODY & JAW HANGING down from it. The more you practice this, the more it will become a natural ‘habit’ that will take place without your attention (while you’re attending
to your meditation.)
*A note: Don’t underestimate the power of the posture itself as a meditation practice. Shinzen has often spoken of sleep-deprived Zen sesshins where all he could do was repeatedly say to himself “Back straight. Eyes open.” And there are meditation practices that do nothing but focus on “Just Sitting.”
D) Legs Falling Asleep? Discomfort from the Posture?
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t dealt with this, and I’ve already mentioned that any kind
of lotus will knock out all sensation for me from the hip down (usually within 20 minutes.)
So what does one do about that? Well, unless you’re at a very strict Zen sesshin or deliberately practicing “strong determination” sitting (where you do not move a muscle for long sitting periods), it’s usually fine to make some minor adjustment to make your body more comfortable should pains arise (as long as you can do so without disturbing others meditating near you), HOWEVER, I would suggest NOT giving in to every urge or impulse
A large part of the benefit of meditation comes from the STILLNESS OF THE BODY. Even if you are not implementing any particular meditation technique, by just stilling the body, you are allowing the deeper mind to process & sort in a way that it cannot with the constant input of our lives & movement. So my suggestion is to sit with any discomforts or urges to move, at least for a little while (ideally noticing your emotional responses without attachment), before making adjustments to your sitting posture. And then do so slowly & quietly, keeping mindful of inside & outside.
E) Falling Asleep?
I’ve already explained in detail how the straight spine keeps the mind alert. So the first thing you should do, if you find yourself nodding off or your awareness sinking into pre-dream-land, is to STRAIGHTEN the SPINE.
The 2nd thing you might try (and this will depend on what meditation technique you’re doing) would be to OPEN YOUR EYES. Some meditation practices always have the eyes open. Most of what we’ll be doing, especially early in our practice is eyes-closed meditation (mostly because external vision can be distracting while we are still developing those lovely concentration muscles. That’s the reason we don’t have televisions, newspapers, telephones or conversation at retreats - to keep distractions to a minimum to promote the concentration and examination of our subjective experience.) But it’s better to be AWAKE and distracted, than asleep (at least in terms of developing concentration & meditation techniques that foster insight, purification, ease & well-being.)
If you’re still falling asleep even though you are doing your best to maintain a straight spine with eyes open – STAND UP. Yes, that’s right, just stand in place. At first you might feel self-conscious (which right there will wake you up), but very few people fall asleep while standing and it will help bring energy & alertness to your body & mind. You might stand for a few minutes or the remainder of the sit. Whatever works for you. (Just be sure, as with movement to adjust posture, that you move slowly and are mindful of those around you as you get up & sit down.)
And last but not least, if you’re just so sleep-deprived that you can’t sit up and you’re doing the “Zen Lurch” (see p.4) – leave the zendo and TAKE A NAP. Maybe your body just needs a bit of rest. Longer naps will tend to make you groggy, but a short nap can be rejuvenating.
More experienced meditators know that you can actually, eventually, RE-ENGINEER SLEEPINESS into ENERGY. You may have to log in a lot of hours of meditation before you experience that, but maybe not. If you’re on retreat, you might want to explore this by doing a YAZA, or all-night sit. DO A YAZA, and you’ll jump start that re-engineering.
MUDRA. Okay, I’ve mentioned it so let me quickly and briefly describe what a mudra is. In Hinduism & Buddhism, there are various gestures made with the hands & fingers that are called ‘mudras.’ For our purposes, we’re not going to delve into different mudras and their meanings, but to simply acknowledge a few positions of the hands that are helpful and commonly used.
The most common one, is a ‘circle’ (or ‘Dyhana’ mudra which represents contemplation and is said to symbolize the Buddha in a state of meditation) by placing both hands on the lap (or held over the belly.) The right hand rests on top of the left, with both palms facing upward and thumbs just lightly touching to form a circle. (See photo below.) But it is definitely not necessary to hold any kind of mudra. You can simply hold your hands loosely together. I’ve heard a couple of other teachers make a point to tell us not to interlace our fingers, but I’m not sure of the reasoning there (and I doubt that there are Mudra Police that will give you a ticket if you do.)
There are many mudras that have specific symbolic meanings and/or are meant to evoke certain qualities or aspects of experience, and if you are interested in exploring them, Google away. The most common mudra described above is demonstrated in the photos below.
A respected Buddhist nun once told me that the left hand on the bottom (as described above and as most of the meditators in Vipassana & Zen retreats seem to do) signifies compassion, while the right hand on the bottom signifies wisdom. I’ve never heard any other teacher make such a distinction about this mudra, but I remember finding it interesting that, if this were true, the hand placement I had learned doing Vipassana (which is an Insight/Wisdom practice), would be the one she described as for the cultivation of Compassion. (The spiritual path is often described as a bird whose two wings are Wisdom & Compassion – i.e. they are the complimentary aspects of the path.) So, it seemed to me a lovely balance, to be holding some symbol of compassion with your hands as you practice Mindfulness or Insight (Wisdom) practice. But again, I have no other reference for that interpretation of which hand is on top, but have included both versions of the mudra in the photos below. However, as I said, a mudra is definitely not integral to your sitting posture so do what works for you. Your hands can simply rest on your lap. Period.
Left hand on bottom Right hand on bottom hands just resting loosely
The most helpful point I can make here, is to suggest that whatever hand position you use, that it be comfortable and not pull your hands too far away from the body. When the elbows are beside your body (with a bit of space between them and the body), it is much easier to sit up straight, but when they are pulled forward of the body, they’ll tend to pull the shoulders forward and encourage the ‘Slouch.” If you can find a way to meditate with each hand on a knee, for example, and palms up (as is the practice in other traditions) without pulling the shoulders forward, go for it (and you probably have very long arms...) Otherwise, I’d recommend finding a position of the hands close to the torso to create a more relaxed experience of the straight spine.
And last, but not least, why not do a...
Post-Meditation STRETCH. You’re probably going to want to do this anyway, but stretching after long (or short) periods of meditation is definitely highly recommended. The back, the legs, the neck are all things that will benefit from being stretched after periods of stillness. Whether you do yoga poses or simply hang over forward, it will probably be beneficial and thus I mention that here (even though it’s not directly related to meditation posture.) You might want to bend over forwards and reach your hands as far forward as you can, then reach the right hand over to the left, and the left hand over to the right – just to ease out the lower back. And just allowing the head to hang upside down is one of the nicest things you can do for your neck. (A little massage to your knees might be appreciated by the recipients, as well.)
If you still have questions about Posture, Positions, Pitfalls or the Practice – Please consult a facilitator or teacher to address them in Person. Otherwise, I hope these pages have helped illuminate the issue of how the body participates and supports the meditative process.
On the last page, I’ve created a ‘cheat sheet’, of sorts, called “Posture-at-a-Glance.” It is basically an outline summary of the major points presented in this article, and should work
as a quick reminder.
And here is where I congratulate you (and thank you) for doing this practice – at all.
As Shinzen says, “A good meditation is one you did.”
And some Footnotes to entertain you...
1 ”Zafu” is often translated from Japanese to mean “sewn seat”, but actually "Za" (座) means "seat", and "fu" (蒲) means cattail. As a word, "zafu" means a seat made out of cattails. The origins of the Japanese zafu (座蒲) came from China where these meditation seats were originally made out of cattail – which is no longer the case.
2 A zabuton (座布団) is a Japanese cushion for sitting. The kanji characters 座布団 literally translated are "seat-cloth-sphere". In meditation, practitioners sit on zafu which is typically placed on top of a zabuton. The zabuton cushions the knees and ankle.
3 Straight Spine. The spine has a natural & flexible curve in the lower back
& behind the neck. When we say “straight spine” we mean in alignment & balanced
(i.e. one vertebra balance on top of the one below) without any extra unhelpful distortions,
pressures or tensions. (See: Illustration of spine in body.)
4 The reticular activating system is the name given to part of the brain (the reticular
formation and its connections) believed to be the center of arousal and motivation
in animals (including humans.) The activity of this system is crucial for maintaining
the state of consciousness. It is situated at the core of the brain stem between the
myelencephalon (medulla oblongata) and mesensephalon (midbrain.)
5 Sitting with no Cushion. I only addressed this possibility in passing because it is uncomfortable
for most people and almost always leads to a rounded spine (see “slouch” on p.6) But a friend who recently returned from India noted that “ in the Hindu practice, sitting on the floor is considered “normal” and the way we are first taught. Cushions are not discouraged or anything, but neither are they seen as the "normal" way to meditate.” “Fascinating cultural note: In India people sit on the ground constantly -- whether meditating or doing almost anything else -- and actually grow a thick little pad on the side of their ankle bone, like the kind you would normally get on the sole of the foot if you walked barefoot all the time. After living there for six months and sitting like that all the time, my ankles started getting them too. So if you sit on the ground long enough, you actually grow your own natural meditation cushions!”
We are, however, going for the most comfort we can with a straight spine and thus, unless you’re really interested in padded ankles, you might want to rest on a cushion, bench or chair (with that lovely straight spine.)
*PHOTOS by PHILIP WEI
1. FIND MOST COMFORTABLE POSITION
a. Lotus (full, half, quarter)
b. Seiza (zafu, bench)
c. Chair (edge, padded, ergonomic)
d. Other options: Standing, Lying down, Walking
2. HIPS HIGHER THAN KNEES
3. STRAIGHTEN SPINE
(allow head to be balanced on top of spine)
5. LET JAW GO
6. BREATHE in BELLY & RELAX
c. Reaching head/elevated chin
d. Legs Fall Asleep/Discomfort (ok to adjust and/or work with reaction)
e. Sleepiness (straighten spine, eyes open, stand-up, take a nap, do a yaza)
You want the body to be COMFORTABLE yet ALERT.
Find a sitting posture that allows you to feel stable and not strained. The straight spine will contribute to alertness.
Allowing the body & jaw to hang from the central column of the spine, with the shoulders relaxed back & down, as well as letting the breath flow easily in & out of the belly will contribute to comfort & relaxation.
9. Congratulate Yourself!
“A good meditation is one you did.”