If you’ve read more than one article on meditation you’ve probably seen a photograph of someone sitting in the lotus pose; feet resting on opposing thighs, back ramrod straight and eyes determinedly closed. They might also have been doing something weird with their hands, balancing on a rock, and trying hard not to grimace. And because you’ve probably seen this kind of image so often you might be wondering whether you should sit like that too.
The short answer is no, unless you want haemorrhoids (and to look really cool).
Traditionally, the recommended postures for meditation include:
- Lying down
Standing on one’s head — and skipping — are curiously absent.
Each posture has its pros and cons. However, when it comes to a formal meditation practice, there are practical reasons for choosing one position over another. Here’s why.
Lying down is usually very comfortable, particularly if you choose to recline on the couch or in bed. It does however, send many people straight to sleep.
Now if getting to sleep is what you are trying to do, then lying down will probably be the perfect posture. For most people however, sitting is more rewarding. When I’m lying down for example, my mind often feels like a sieve, and I can hardly keep track of a thing. Conversely, when I’m sitting I can be just as, or even more relaxed, and yet retain a much higher degree of awareness — and there’s something deeply satisfying about that.
You however, might be wired differently. Some people can stay just as alert when prone, and if you have back pain, (or for that matter, any kind of pain), lying down might be the only posture you can comfortably maintain. Even if you’re not in pain, lying down is usually quite conducive to relaxation and to becoming aware of subtle sensations (that would otherwise go unnoticed). Experiment, and see how it works for you. If you consistently fall asleep, or cannot remember much of your meditation sessions, then sitting may be better.
The lotus pose, as pictured above, is the classic meditation pose, but it’s not as special as some would make it out to be. For most people, it’s not worth the effort, and is more likely to result in a crook back, busted knees and considerable discomfort.
In fact, the whole panoply of recommended sitting postures — the various cross-legged and kneeling positions — do nothing for meditation that can’t be done in other ways. They’re great if you don’t have furniture or love sitting on the floor (or a rock), but they won’t magically improve your meditation practice.
You’ll probably remain a bit more alert (though people still manage to fall asleep) when you sit, and if you don’t torture yourself by sitting in some uncomfortable way, you’ll also find it comfortable and balanced.
Some traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, and give instruction so exacting you’d be forgiven for thinking the teacher had OCD. How you sit really doesn’t matter that much.
There are only really three things you need to concern yourself with:
- Can you comfortably sustain the posture?
- Can you breathe?
- Does it hurt, or damage the body, to maintain the posture?
Tip: You’ll want to be able to answer yes to the first two questions, and no to the third.
Standing meditations are found most often in tai chi and martial arts, so I suspect this is the meditation posture you adopt just before skewering someone through the guts with a sword. It’s quite a bit more intense than sitting and lying down, and as much a physical as a mental exercise.
I find it useful to do while queuing or waiting. Others find it necessary when sitting causes back pain. Some people would recommend standing if you find that you just can’t stay focused or awake (while sitting). Under such circumstances I would suggest that a better option would be to lie down and have a nap.
Walking may be the most versatile of the four traditional postures. Why? Because you can do it when you walk. Isn’t that cool?
It’s also a great relief if you’ve been on a meditation retreat where they encourage you to sit on your butt for hours on end. Some people find walking too stimulating. Others find that the movement helps them to stay present.
Walking presents a good opportunity to bring the skills developed in formal meditation practice out into the world. On meditation retreats you often see people walking around in super slo-mo, a little like zombies. I prefer to walk naturally. You can pay attention to your body in various ways, to the sights and sounds around you, to your thoughts and emotions, and to the ways you respond to what you see and hear.
Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when walking you “kiss the ground with your feet.” That sentiment can certainly bring a different quality to the way you walk.
Fine Tuning Your Sitting Posture
Whilst I was a little disparaging of the exacting postural recommendations that are presented in some traditions, it is true that paying attention to basic postural considerations is conducive to both relaxation and concentration.
To prompt this kind of attention I sometimes ask my students: “If you were required to sit perfectly still for an hour, how would you adjust your posture?”
Here are some more specific suggestions:
- Have both feet flat on the floor, comfortably apart.
- Let you hands rest comfortably in your lap, or on your thighs.
- Let the spine be comfortably upright, but not rigidly so.
- Keep the chest open and the shoulders relaxed.
- Tuck your chin in ever so slightly, so the back of the neck feels broad.
- Let the jaw go slack and allow your eyes to gently close.
- If discomfort arises during the meditation allow it to be.
- If discomfort continues, mindfully stretch, adjust your posture, and continue.