One of the most common questions I get from clients and students regarding meditation is about posture. We can get very caught up in wanting to do things “right”, so its not surprising that this quickly becomes an issue in the practice.
As far as I know (at the time of this writing), there aren’t any rigorous scientific studies exploring the benefits and drawbacks of the various meditation postures. We have the wisdom of our teachers and their lineage to guide us, but ultimately we must find out for ourselves what works best. An important attitude of mindfulness is trust in one’s inner experience. I will provide you with some ideas here so that you can begin experimenting toward finding the posture that best suits you.
The purpose of the meditation posture is to facilitate prolonged periods of stillness and alertness. This means that comfort is a factor because it allows for fewer distractions, but too much comfort may interfere with wakefulness. The posture we choose and the props we use to aid our practice help us achieve a balance of comfort and alertness.
What props do I need?
For those of us who have trouble getting down onto the floor and/or getting back up again, using a chair for meditation is a good option. If you choose to meditate on the floor, the props you choose will depend on your flexibility and the type of flooring underneath you. Because we Westerners tend to have tight hip flexors from sitting in chairs much of the time, sitting cross-legged on the floor causes our knees to float in space somewhere above the hip line. Inevitably, the hip flexors and/or low back will become fatigued if we sit for long this way. This is why we are usually more comfortable with a cushion to lift the hips above the thighs. The thighs can slope downward in this way, allowing the entire leg to rest on a surface.
It is helpful to have a zabuton (a large, flat, square cushion) or a heavy yoga mat underneath your meditation cushion or bench if you are going to be sitting on a hard floor. This provides cushioning that protects the knees, feet and ankles from the uncomfortable surface contact pressure that can build up over time.
On a thick carpet, you may not need a zabuton. You may only need a cushion to help lift the hips and allow the thighs and knees to be supported. But what type of cushion should you choose? At a yoga studio, you can make do with a yoga bolster or a rubber yoga block under the sits bones. The tighter you are, the higher the elevation is needed. A bolster or 4″ block is better for tighter hips and a 2″ block is fine for those with more open hips.
For home use, you may choose from a number of cushion shapes and materials. A zafu is a round cushion filled with buckwheat hulls or kapok (a hypoallergenic fiber). V-shaped cushions are also available that give more support to the legs. You may choose a rectangular cushion if you need even more height or if a straddle position works better for you. Some prefer to kneel on a meditation bench in the seiza position rather than sitting cross-legged on a cushion.
I am currently most often using something called a Bheka Tadpole, which is a small rectangular pillow filled with buckwheat hulls (which require no break-in period like the firmer kapok material does). It gives a slight lift, but is also quite small and portable. Keep in mind that the props you prefer are likely to change with practice as your body adjusts and your meditation time increases.
Which posture should I choose?
Lying down is an option if you have an injury or limitation that makes it impossible for you to sit for long. Some forms of meditation are meant to be practiced lying down, such as the Body Scan and Yoga Nidra. However, this position is not recommended for everyday practice for most people because it is all too easy to drift off into sleep. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation cultivates concentration and awareness and this is not possible when we are unconscious.
If you are meditating in a chair, the feet are planted firmly on the floor, spine is erect but not rigid (self-supported rather than relying on the chair back), and arms are relaxed with hands resting somewhere on the lap or knees. Eyes can be closed or open with a soft gaze.
When meditating seated on the floor, there are several leg positions that can be taken. If you can sit in full lotus with ease, by all means go for it! Most of us will have much discomfort sitting in that position for very long, if we can even get into it in the first place. Sitting Burmese style, called sukhasana or easy seated pose in yoga, is more accessible. In this posture, one leg is placed with heel close to groin and the other leg rests in front of it. Any time bony parts are resting on bony parts (such as ankle resting on shin or heel pressing against shin), this is bound to cause discomfort over time.
It is unrealistic to expect that we will always be comfortable in meditation no matter what posture or props we choose. Learning to be still and open to whatever arises, pleasant or unpleasant, takes much practice. But, it is often in these moments of discomfort that the real practice begins!