Wednesday, January 13, 2021

5 Reasons to Sit Straight and Upright for Meditation (and Pranayama)

Sitting Posture for Meditation
Photo by Max on Unsplash

If you've ever attended a meditation or a pranayama class you might recall the teacher asking you to sit with the back straight and upright.  But why? Why is it important to sit with the back upright?  Can we just lay down for meditation instead? I will try to give you a clear answer in this blog. 


How to sit for meditation and pranayama


I recently started uploading guided meditations online and even teaching a beginners pranayama class via Zoom.  Pranayama is a form of breath control or conscious mindful breathing.  

One very important requirement for both, meditation and for pranayama, is to have the proper sitting posture.  This means keeping the back straight and upright with the head, neck, and spine in alignment.

In live classes it's easy to demonstrate what is the right way to sit up, but online, through a webcam, or through an audio recording, it's a little bit more tricky.  Especially because of the time restrictions.

So I decided to write this small blog series as a complement to my online classes. I want to be able to share in detail with you the how's and why's of sitting for meditation and pranayama.

In this first blog, I will focus on why it is important to sit with the back straight and upright.  

In my following blogs, I will talk about what exactly does it mean to sit with the back straight and upright, what is the best way to achieve this posture, and what is the difference between diaphragmatic breathing and belly breathing. 

So make sure you subscribe to my mailing list to be notified as soon as those blogs are published.  Once you subscribe you'll be able to download my free meditation e-book.

Now, let's start with the most common question first.


Why you should never lay down for meditation


A question that I get often during my classes is if it is possible to lay down for meditation.  

Although some people might disagree with me, my answer is no, not at all. 

The most obvious reason is that laying down will make it easier to fall asleep, which is one of the obstacles to a meditation practice.  

You know, it's already difficult to remain alert and awake while sitting in meditation.  Imagine what happens if you lay down?

But there are other not so obvious reasons.

I can illustrate them with a couple of examples.  

Have you ever had the experience that when dealing with a certain challenging situation in your life you wake up the next morning, thinking about that particular issue over and over again?

While still in bed you try to find a solution, the right course of action, or at least understand what you are going through. But you find no clear answers or ideas whatsoever.  

Instead, you just keep tossing around in bed with these thoughts in your head, for hours and hours.

Eventually, you get out of bed to start your day.  

You sit up for your morning coffee and then, almost miraculously, you are somehow able to understand better the situation.   Perhaps you even find a solution to your problems, or at least you stop thinking obsessively about it.

Have you ever had that experience?

The point is that it doesn't matter how many hours you stay in your bed thinking about your problems, there is just no sufficient mental clarity to find a solution. Nothing is solved while laying in bed.  You need to sit up, and even better journal about it.  

Another example is studying.

You can lay down in bed or on a sofa to read an easy book, a novel perhaps.  But if you want to study a complex subject, do you lay down or sit up?

I guess you will try to sit up, and you'll probably try to find an appropriate space and an appropriate time where you can be clear-headed and focused. 

Well, it is the same with meditation.

When we practice meditation we want to remain fully alert, fully conscious, fully present, and very clear-headed. You can't do that while laying down, trust me, unless you are a very advanced yogi.

This alertness during meditation helps us to remain focused on our object of concentration and aware of the changes that go on within the mind. 

Laying down on our backs, in a posture called shavasana, is good for relaxation, for yoga nidra, or for some forms of visualizations that are aimed mainly at relaxation or as a preparation to fall asleep.  But not for meditation.

The only situation in which I would advise you to lay down for meditation is if you have some physical limitations that prevent you from sitting up properly.  But I would first suggest to sit up with your back supported by a straight chair or a wall if needed.


Why it is important to sit straight and upright for meditation and pranayama


Now that we made it clear why you should not lay down for meditation, let's talk about why it is important to sit with the back straight and upright.


1.  Proper breathing function


One of the most important factors to sit with the back straight and upright for meditation and pranayama is proper breathing function.  

To have proper breathing the diaphragm needs to move freely.  When the diaphragm moves freely you will feel the region of the upper abdomen, lower ribs, and the mid-back expanding and contracting with each breath.

If you sit with the back rounded, leaning the chest slightly forward, this will obstruct the movement of the diaphragm and will force you to breathe with the chest.  

You can test this right now.  

Just round your back slightly, look towards your belly and notice what happens with the breath.  Where do you see the movement in the body? Does it feel free or restricted?

Well, in meditation we want to avoid as much as possible upper chest breathing.  

When we breathe with the chest we stimulate the stress response in the body.  When we breathe with the diaphragm we stimulate the relaxation response, and this is really important for meditation.  

To be able to focus the mind first we need to learn how to relax.

When practicing pranayama, conscious breathing exercises, we might also engage the upper chest.  But before getting there we need to have mastered our diaphragmatic breathing.


2.  Alertness


One of the most common complaints about meditation, and one of the reasons people quit meditation, is because they believe they are not able to focus the mind.

They sit still in silence trying to meditate only to experience an unending parade of thoughts. 

Has this ever happened to you?

Well, usually the problem is not that we don't have the capacity to concentrate but rather that we don't have sufficient alertness to notice when we get distracted.  

This is really important.

If the mind is tired and fatigued, if we get even slightly drowsy during meditation, we are not able to notice the distracting thoughts the moment they arise.  

When this happens our mind is taken over by our thoughts for a ride, without us even noticing it.   It is only several minutes later that we realize we are in a faraway land instead of on our mediation cushion.
 
Sitting with the back straight and upright not only help us to have a clear and alert mind but it also prevents sleepiness or drowsiness, if we know how to engage the diaphragm properly.  

Of course, there are many other things that we need to do to prevent sleepiness during meditation. For instance, having proper sleep at night, eating only the necessary amount of food, avoiding stress, exercising regularly, and breathing properly.  

If you have taken care of all these preliminaries, sitting with the back straight and upright will definitely help you remain alert and conscious during your meditation sessions.  This means that you'll find concentration easier than otherwise.


3.  To sit for longer 


Another reason why it is important to sit with the back straight and upright is to be able to sit for longer periods of time.  When we learn how to sit properly our head, neck, and back are supported by the spine, without any effort.  

That's why sometimes I like to say during my guided meditations, “Imagine that your back is supported by the spine, as if the spine was the back of a chair.  Allow your body to relax unto your spine.” 

This will allow us to sit comfortably for longer and longer periods of time, which is important to progress and deepen our meditation or pranayama practice. 

But we need to know what exactly does it mean to keep the back straight and upright.  I will discuss this in my next blog so make sure you subscribe to my mailing list to be notified as soon as it's ready.


4.  Inducing a sense of calm


If you try to imagine three people in front of you; one in a depressed state, one dealing with anger and another feeling confident, what differences do you see?

The main difference probably is going to be their posture.  

It is a well-known fact that the mind has an effect over the body.  When we are in a depressed state we tend to round our backs and drop our heads.  

If we are dealing with anger we might raise our shoulders and clench our fists. When we are feeling confident and secure we might stand tall with the chest open and the shoulders back.  

And this also works the other way around.  

Our body posture also has an effect on the mind. If you purposely assume an aggressive or defensive posture, you might notice that the mind also becomes tight and tense, ready to jump or react.

Just give it a try now.  Raise your shoulders, round the upper back, and clench your fists for a minute.  

Do you notice any difference?

This is one of the principles used in hatha yoga. Every form that the body assumes, say warriors, down-dog, child pose, camel pose, and so on, has a particular effect on the mind.  

The meditation sitting posture is also an asana, another form the body assumes, that has an influence over the mind.

If we sit with the back and shoulders rounded this is going to have a depressing effect on the mind.  But if you sit upright with the chest open and the shoulders back it will have the opposite effect. 

We want our sitting posture, our meditation posture, to reflect not only equanimity, serenity, calmness but also confidence, courage, vigor, vitality. 

You have to sit like a yogi to become a yogi.

Sit still like a mountain, completely immobile and serene.  Sit tall but firmly grounded, with the inner sight fixed on the infinite.  

Sit knowing that you are indeed the lord of the universe, without arrogance but rather humbleness.  

Even if you don't feel these subtle emotional or mental states, you can contemplate on them and bring them to your sitting posture.  Contemplating these qualities, while sitting up, can also be a form of meditation.


5.  Free energy flow


One of the main reasons that my teachers always mention as to why keeping the back upright is to allow the energy to move freely through the spine, or rather the subtle pranic body.

In the yoga or tantra tradition, there is the belief that there is an energy system in the body, a sort of subtle counterpart to the nervous system.  

The main energy passage in this pranic body is the sushumna nadi which passes through the spine, from the bottom of the spine till the top, piercing each chakra or energy center along the way.

If we round our spine the energy flow will be impeded, inhibiting the rising of this energy which is necessary for going into deeper and deeper states of meditation.

Paramahansa Yogananda says in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita:

“Just as a rubber tube, squeezed in the middle, stops the flow of water forward or backward, so the pinched spinal nerves, due to misplaced vertebrae, do not conduct to the senses the amount of outgoing energy necessary to obtain clear sense perceptions; and during meditation, the squeezed spinal nerve plexuses obstruct the retirement of energy from the senses to the brain. 

Thus the devotee who meditates with a bent spine gets little spiritual result. His bent spine is a broken bow, unable to protect him against the forces of restlessness.

When he tries to concentrate and fix his attention at the point between the eyebrows, he finds his consciousness tied with the outgoing nerve current flowing toward the senses. Owing to the pinched nerves, the flow of life force cannot reverse itself through the spinal centers.”

I can't say that I have personal experience with these energy channels. I have never seen them or experience them clearly, at least not at a conscious level, but maybe we can infer their existence.

Perhaps everything that I mention above like mental clarity, alertness, and meditative attitude is also the effect of this free flow of energy within the pranic body.  


Conclusion


One of the most important steps in the practice of meditation and pranayama is sitting with the back straight and upright.  This is going to help us breathe properly, remain alert, sit comfortably for longer, and to induce a state of calm and equanimity.

In my next blog, I will talk about what it means to keep the back straight and upright and how to achieve that.  So make sure you subscribe to my mailing list to be notified of my next updates.

I hope you've found this blog helpful and informative.  Can you think of any other reasons why it is important to keep the back straight and upright for meditation? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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