Chapter Seven

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Meditation Posture
 

THERE IS A GOOD CHANCE  that  you have  had the experience of trying to meditate whilst being distracted by  aches and pains in the back or in the legs.  To a certain extent you  can try to ignore these complaints, treating them as just another  hindrance to concentration.  This approach can work if you are able  to get into the dhyanas, because then minor physical discomforts will  recede into the background and cease to matter! But usually these  physical discomforts will demand your attention long before you are able to get properly concentrated.  Unless you can do something about  them, they will nag at you until you are unable to carry on with your practice.
In an introductory meditation class there is rarely enough time to  talk about posture in anything but a rudimentary, generalized fashion.   If you are not taught how best to sit when you start, you are likely  to develop bad postural habits.  It is very easy, for example, to adopt  a sitting position which gives temporary support, but which may be  harmful in the longer term.  The problems that arise out of such habits  can sometimes be quite difficult to correct.  This chapter offers advice  to those new to meditation to help them avoid serious problems, and  also serves as a `trouble-shooting guide' for more experienced meditators.
 
good meditation posture
 
The body's role in meditation is to support the mind and  allow it to concentrate.  So the ideal  posture is  one in which you are completely still and relaxed, yet alert, for  as long as you wish.
Since the mind needs to be alert, it is best if the body is upright if  you are lying down, you might become drowsy.  So, we are looking for  a position in which the body can function with a minimum expenditure  of energy, in which the  heart can be at its quietest, and  the  lungs unrestricted, so that the intake and outflow of  air is correspondingly quiet and natural.
Generally, if you sit in any posture which minimizes  strain,  and in which you can also be alert, this will create a sense of vitality  which makes it much easier to concentrate.  This progression relaxation  and alertness leading to vitality and  concentration is  the basic principle of working with meditation posture.
If need be, meditation can be practised in almost any position.  An  invalid may have no choice but to lie in bed, for example, and, of  course, there is walking meditation.  There is no reason why you should  not meditate standing up.  But usually some form of sitting position  works best for deep concentration.
If you can sit with the weight of your trunk balanced vertically above  your seat, then a minimum of muscular effort will be required to support  it.  If each arm and leg is symmetrically balanced with its partner,  there will be a minimum of distracting physical tension in the body.
 
principles of meditation posture
 
Let's look briefly at some principles of good posture.
 
skeletal support and postural awareness
 
Good posture employs the balance and alignment of the   skeleton not the muscles of the body.  Think about  it in terms of managing the force of gravity in your body, rather  than sitting in a certain position.
Good sitting posture is not a matter of taking up a rigid position  and then holding it indefinitely.  You need to maintain  mindfulness of the  body, and understand the principles  of meditation posture.  You will need to make adjustments, at least  occasionally.
 
pelvic balance and weight distribution
 
When you sit, the  pelvis is the main support  for the whole body structure.  To enable the pelvis to take the full  weight of the upper part of the body without imbalance, it is important  that the lower  back neither slumps nor over-arches.  More details  of these postural faults will be given shortly.
The whole weight of the upper body bears down on your pelvic sitting  bones the two bony projections that you can feel pressing against  your cushion or seat.  The weight must be  equally  distributed  over both these sitting bones so that the muscles on either side of  your back and neck are not overworked.
 
how problems arise
 
The problem that arises most often when you sit in one  position for long periods of time is physical  discomfort.   Sooner or later your knees may start aching, or your back or neck  may develop a twinge.
At first, these may have something to do with lack of practice you  may simply not be used to sitting still on the floor.  But most aches  and pains are caused by muscular  tension due to poor posture.
Sometimes  strain develops when we form an unconscious habit  of using more muscular effort than is necessary, or when muscles remain  contracted even when not in use.  Sometimes the cause is emotional.   But whatever the reason, tension habits frequently become chronic  and cause muscular pain, restricted movement, and sometimes fatigue.
Poor sitting posture outside meditation is often responsible for the  development of chronic levels of muscular tension, and neck, shoulder,  and back discomfort.  People often have to sit in poorly designed chairs,  which is stressful for the body.  If your occupation requires you to  spend much of the day sitting down, your posture should be one of  your principal health concerns.
Another cause of physical strain may be unacknowledged emotional instability.   For example, consider someone who is round-shouldered and closed-chested.   This physical stance may have an emotional cause: perhaps the person  has a poor  self-image and lacks  confidence.   Moreover, the habit of holding the body in this constricting position  may have confirmed the emotion even more, dulling energy, and making  the person `in-turned', over-subjective.  So poor posture can be both  result and cause of negative emotions.
Generally, if you can develop more awareness of the way you carry  yourself, you will naturally find yourself standing more upright,  tending to hunch less in the shoulders and being more relaxed in the  head and neck.  The overall result will almost certainly be an improved  mental state.
But there can also be straightforward physical reasons for bad posture.   If there is a weakness in one part of your body, it will cause extra  strain elsewhere.  Either that strain will weaken the affected part,  or you will develop extra muscles to cope with it.  If extra muscle  does develop in compensation, the original weakness may be confirmed,  and further degeneration may take place.  In this way a pattern of  tension and compensatory reaction is repeated throughout the body,  and thus begins a gradual process of uneven development.  For example,  a person with one leg slightly shorter than the other (which is more  common than you might think) will have to work the  back muscles  on one side more than the other.  In compensation, one  shoulder  may be held higher than the other to adjust for which the  neck  and  head will have to be held over to one side.  A slight deformity  such as this could go unnoticed for many years until it comes  to sitting still for thirty or forty minutes! Very often it is not  until people start practising meditation that their ingrained physical  imbalances and difficulties begin to reveal themselves.
The relationship between body and mind between  emotion  and posture has many positive applications.  A joyful emotional  state naturally reflects itself in the way you sit, stand, and move.   In meditation, a bright meditative state naturally gives rise to an  improved sitting posture.  As you meditate, your relatively chaotic  mental states gradually clarify.  As they do so, the body begins to  feel lighter and more relaxed, and the distracting, niggling discomforts  gradually lessen.  Then you find that your back begins to straighten,  your chest to open, and your shoulders and arms to relax.  At the very  least, you become aware of the extent to which your present position  is restrictive: a straighter back and an open chest will begin to  feel more natural, and you may start to acquire an intuitive understanding  of what good meditation posture can be.
 
posture as a meditation method
 
As well as serving as an important basis for physical  health and meditation practice, posture can be approached as a meditation  method in its own right.  Postural  awareness,  on its own, can help counteract hindrances to meditation.  Sometimes  just a subtle movement of the angle of the pelvis, or the alignment  of the head on the neck, can suddenly make  energy available  and  concentration easier.
It is worth experimenting.  Sometimes either your mind or your body,  or both, are dull and sleepy, uninterested in meditation.  At such  times you are unlikely to engage with a proper meditation practice;  in fact you are probably set to drift away into day-dreams.  As an  antidote, you could decide to spend the meditation session trying  to maintain a good posture.  Even if your mind is unable to grasp a  more subtle meditation object, you can at least make an effort to  remain awake and sit correctly.  If you persist in bringing your attention  back to your body, checking for arching in your back or slumping and  other points which will be explained later the  hindrance  is likely to disperse before the end of the session, and you should  be able to move on to a definite meditation technique.  But even if   sloth and torpor is extremely strong (as it sometimes  can be), and you are not able to meditate properly even after half  an hour or forty minutes, nevertheless, you will have weakened its  power over you just by holding it at bay.  And you will probably notice  an improvement in subsequent meditation sessions.
You can also do something about the opposite mental extreme, the hindrance  of  restlessness and anxiety, through concentration  on posture.  A method of counteracting both the mental and physical  agitation is quite simply to determine to sit absolutely still.  Your  mind cannot be made to be still, but your body can if you definitely  decide that it is going to be! By taking the stillness of your body  as the main object of your meditation practice, your restless mind  will eventually calm down and be at peace.  If the agitation is very  strong, this process will probably take some time.  But if, without  forcing your mind, you persist in patiently stilling the body, you  will be successful in the end.
 
the ideal meditation posture
 
Now that we have outlined the principles and seen the  causes of some of our problems, let's explore ways of sitting in more  detail.
Cross-legged postures are not the only options available when sitting  for meditation.  You can use an upright  chair, or kneel on  a meditation  stool.  But if your hips are supple enough to  allow you to sit cross-legged, you should try that posture first of  all.
 
The meditation posture that affords the best quality of relaxation  and alertness is the well known `full  lotus' position  (see illustration).  Unfortunately most of us are too restricted in  the hips and thighs to sit like this comfortably, or even cross our  legs in this way at all.  Even those who  can  do so should avoid  long periods of sitting in full lotus until (through exercises like  fig.25) their hips have loosened and the posture has become fairly  easy.  This is important, because otherwise the knee joints will be  under too much tension damage could result.  Meditators need to  take care of their knees.
 
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Figure 1 – full lotus
(My apologies for the quality of the photos in this chapter – I hope at least you can see what is going on - they’ll be replaced eventually - KS)
 
The full lotus posture consists of seven aspects:
(1)  The legs are crossed with each foot placed,  sole uppermost, upon the thigh of the other leg.    (2)  The spine is upright, neither arching backwards nor  slumping forwards.    (3)  The hands are held in the lap, two or three inches  below the navel.  The palms both face upwards, one over the other so  that the thumb-tips lightly touch (fig.6).
(4)  The shoulders are relaxed and rolled  somewhat back, to keep the chest open.    (5)  The head is balanced evenly on the spine.    (6)  The eyes are directed downwards, either lightly closed  or half open.    (7)  The mouth is relaxed, teeth unclenched, lips held  lightly together.  The tongue just touches the palate behind the teeth.
It must be stressed that this is an  ideal  posture.  Points 2  to 7 may present little difficulty for many people, but few will find  the full lotus leg position easy, at least to begin with.  Luckily,  it is not essential to have your legs folded like this, since there  are a number of variations which are almost as good.  Many people can  manage a half lotus, which is very similar.  If you look at the diagrams  that follow, you should be able to find a position which suits you  for the time being.
 
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Figure 2 - full lotus, side view
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Figure 3 – half lotus
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Figure 4 – one foot on calf  (NOTE wrong illustration)
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Figure 5 – one leg in front
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Figure 6 – hand position (dhyana mudra)
 
 
posture setting up routine
 
It is useful to learn this routine for setting up your  posture.  If you do it every time you sit to meditate, you will have  a systematic way of assessing your posture.  After some practice the  routine will become second nature.  It might take no longer than a  second or two; at other times you may need to spend more time on it.
Stage 1  Choose a cushion (or stool, or whatever you use)  which seems the right height, and sit, arranging your legs in one  of the ways shown (figs.7, 8, 9, 10).
 
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Figure 7 – kneeling with cushions
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Figure 8 – kneeling on stool
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Figure 9 – sitting on a chair
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Figure 10 – sitting with back against a wall
 
There is no need to be concerned for the moment if both of your knees  don't reach the ground.  Once your posture is set up your legs will  need to be lower than your hips otherwise the back will slump but  the main thing at this stage is getting whatever you are sitting on  to be at the right height.  Even a variation of an inch can make a  vital difference.  At a certain height you will feel the correct balance  of your body, and this awareness will then make it easier to adjust  your legs and back.
Two common sitting faults, caused by incorrect   cushion height, affect the way you hold yourself.   These are arching backwards and slumping forwards in the  back.
Arching - or  perhaps we should say  over-arching,  since the  spine naturally arches inwards to some extent - often  occurs when the seat is too high.  The extra height causes the upper   pelvis to move forwards and the  tail-bone backwards,  so that the  buttocks protrude behind.  This creates a general  tendency for the body weight to fall forwards, so the upper back arches  up and backwards to compensate.  This strains the lower back so that  you begin to feel  pain there.
The remedy for over-arching, if slight, is to relax in the lower back,  letting the spine return to a natural position.  Otherwise, you can  experiment with a lower seat.
Slumping  may  occur when your seat is too low.  In  this case the opposite happens: the upper pelvis tends backwards and  the tail-bone tucks under.  You then collapse in the lower back and  the weight of your body falls backwards.  To stop yourself from falling  backwards you tend to slump forwards, closing in your  chest  at the same time.  Painful  tension is caused in your  neck  and  shoulders by this awkward positioning.
The remedy for slumping, if slight, is simply to remind yourself to  sit up straight (not rigidly straight like a broom handle, but with  a natural curve).  Otherwise, you can experiment with a higher seat.
 
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Figure 11 – over-arching backwards
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Figure 12 – slumping forwards
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Figure 13 – ‘direction’ of spine, chest, shoulders, and arms
Stage 2  Become aware of the weight of your body as it  presses the two `sitting bones' in the  buttocks down on  to your seat.  Maintaining this awareness as your base, and keeping  your weight evenly distributed between left and right, allow your   spinal column to lift lightly and straighten, avoiding  rigidity.
Stage 3   Take a deep breath or two, and allow the  chest  and rib-cage to open.  Experience your  shoulders and arms  lifting slightly on the inward breath, and on the outward breath allow  them to roll back slightly, and then relax down so that the chest  stays open.
Stage 4  You can then adjust your  hands in your  lap so that they are not working against the relaxed-back position  of your shoulders and arms.  It can be helpful to place a small `hand-pad'  in your lap this will provide a flat surface for your hands, which  can then relax more easily.  This too will help your shoulders to relax.   One hand can be placed over the other.
Stage 5  You can now adjust the position of your  head.   It is important that you allow your head to be supported by your  spine,  and not by the muscles of your neck.  There should be no sense of rigidity it's  worth checking this from time to time during meditation.  The  neck  muscles should be completely relaxed, so that your head can move freely.
So adjust by becoming aware of your neck as an extension of your spine it  may help to roll your head gently backwards and forwards until it  feels balanced.  Experience the point where your skull balances on  your spinal column, and let it tilt forwards very slightly, so that  your gaze is upon the floor a few feet in front of you.  Lastly, relax  your face, jaw, tongue, and throat.
 
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Figure 14 – position of head
Stage 6  Now check your posture as a whole, especially  noting the alignment of your trunk from side to side and back to front.   You can rock gently each way from your pelvis, if it helps, until  you feel yourself to be in equilibrium.  Now you are in a position  to check more thoroughly for the basic sitting faults of slumping  forward or arching backwards, and make any adjustments necessary.
 
`feeling right' may not mean that it is right...
 
The entire sitting position needs to be as balanced and  symmetrical as possible.  Ideally each part of the body is balanced  by another, so that there is a minimum amount of strain on the system.   Setting up your posture in the systematic way outlined earlier helps  achieve this symmetry and balance.
But there is one important problem: you cannot simply rely on whether  or not your posture feels right.  Very often, what feels `right' is  merely what you are accustomed to.  So when you are placed by a  friend or teacher in a better posture, it will probably be unfamiliar  and may even feel awkward and crooked at first.  Your tendency will  probably be to move gradually back to the familiar (but incorrect  and harmful) posture.
So even if you have practised meditation for a long time you should  not simply accept a feeling of `rightness' or `wrongness' in your  posture as the only guide-line, but try to get an objective assessment  sometimes.  As with many things in life, it is not so easy to see,  let alone change, your bad habits! You need personal attention and  feedback, so from time to time you should ask your friends to take  a critical look at your meditation posture, as well as attending an  occasional meditation  class or retreat where posture  instruction is available.
 
pain
 
One obvious indication of incorrect posture is  pain.   Certainly there are some aches and pains which are best ignored minor  discomforts which soon pass, feelings of awkwardness, itches, and  other irritations.  There can be no end to these, and you will never  be able to settle down unless you consciously decide to put up with  a few of them.
As we have already seen, these discomforts are often linked with inner  restlessness, an unsettled mind fastening on to, and becoming obsessed  by, a relatively minor irritation.  By indulging such restlessness,  you will not connect with your meditation, and other people meditating  with you will also be disturbed.  If this is all that is happening,  try to recognize the fact, and try to put your attention elsewhere.
But it's important to be sensitive in assessing your pain, for some  pains may well be danger signals.  Pins and needles, or numbness, for  example, should not be ignored; it is certainly not good for limbs  to become completely numb.  Neither should sharp pains, for they invariably  suggest that something is wrong.  If you are in any doubt about the  significance of what you are feeling, talk to someone with more experience.   Some people seem to think that meditation practice necessarily involves  a little discomfort, but if this means ignoring danger signals, you  run the risk of damaging yourself.
Buddhist tradition reminds us that the human body is exceedingly precious  and hard to obtain; since it serves as the basis from which you can  meditate, gain insight, and even attain Enlightenment, it should be  treated with kindness and respect.
 
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Figure 15 – soft floor covering to protect knees and ankles (NOTE wrong illustration!)
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Figure 16 – padding supporting raised knee
 
 
ways to make sitting practice easier
 
The long-term solution to posture difficulties is  to learn some kind of physical training which will give the body more  flexibility and strength, and instil some postural awareness.  We will  soon be looking at a few helpful exercises.  In the short term, however,  there are a number of ways to make sitting easier. 
Unless the weather is really hot, it is generally helpful to keep  your legs and hips warm.  Warmth takes the edge off those temporary,  inconsequential aches and pains mentioned in the last section.  Beneath  your legs, whether you are kneeling or cross-legged, you should place  a doubled blanket or a foam-rubber pad (though if the foam-rubber  extends under the cushion it may make your seat unsteady).  This not  only insulates the legs but protects your  knees.  For people  who are kneeling it also takes the pressure off their  ankles  and upper parts of the feet.
In fact, cushions and pads are generally good for alleviating pressure.   Some people find a small pad, or perhaps a roll of material, helpful  to cushion an ankle which is pressing into a  thigh.  If one  knee (or both) will not touch the ground, a small cushion can be placed  there for support.
Uncomfortable  hands can be a source of distraction.  It is  therefore very helpful to have some  padding beneath them,  a flat surface on which they can be placed evenly.  The position  of this hand pad should be high enough to relieve the weight of your  arms from your  shoulders, so that the shoulders can more  easily relax down the back, allowing the  chest to open more  freely (fig.17).
 
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Figure 17 – padding supporting hands and knee
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Figure 18 – blanket for warmth