Thursday, February 4, 2021

How to Sit for Meditation and Pranayama [with a Straight Back]

How to sit for meditation

Sitting comfortably with the back straight and upright is one of the most important requirements for meditation and pranayama. Unfortunately, this is a skill that takes years to develop. But we can make this journey easier by adapting the posture to the limitations of our bodies.  Here are a few ways to achieve just that. 


The importance of keeping the back straight 


In my previous blog, I talked about the reasons why we should keep the back straight and upright whenever we sit for meditation or pranayama.  

I talked about the effect of the posture on the breath, on our mental clarity, on the energy channels, and so on. 

In this blog, I will explain what exactly does it mean to keep the back straight and I’ll give you several alternatives to be able to achieve that posture.

In my next blog, I will talk more in-depth about the diaphragmatic breath.  If you don't want to miss it make sure that you sign up for my mailing list here.  Once you sign up you will also be able to download my free meditation e-book.

Also, if you want to put this into practice you might like to listen to my free guided meditations here.


Falling into meditation


Before you continue further I should say that none of this is strictly necessary to be able to meditate. 

You can experience meditation spontaneously and without any effort, regardless of your sitting posture.  In fact, some of the greatest Indian yogis had terrible body postures.

But most of us are probably not at that level.  

So we can use every aid we can to make our meditation journey easier for us. Having the correct sitting posture will prevent many obstacles that arise in our meditation sessions.


What does it mean to sit with the back straight and upright?


A healthy spine has an S shape (or a bow type of shape as Paramahansa Yogananda explains below).  When we sit for meditation we try to maintain that shape.  

In other words, whenever we say to sit up with the back straight and upright we mean to say to sit in a way that we can maintain this natural curvature of the spine.  

To achieve this we want to keep the lower abdomen in with the pelvis rolling slightly forward (anterior pelvic tilt, the opposite of tucking the tailbone in), the shoulders back and the chest open.  

You also want to keep the head, neck, and spine in alignment.  This means to avoid extending the head forward or raising the chin up compressing the back of the neck.  You want to keep the chin parallel to the floor and slightly tucked in.

A very useful visualization to maintain this posture is to imagine that, while you are sitting, you are being pulled up by a thread attached at the top of the back of the head.  

This will naturally help you to keep the chin slightly tucked in and it will somehow help you to lengthen the spine, creating space between the vertebras.

Paramahansa Yogananda,  in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna, says about the meditation posture: 

“He straightens his spine: by holding his neck straight, pulling his shoulders back and pushing his chest forward, and drawing his abdomen in. This position of the spine, curved in the front and not in the back, is called “the bow of meditation,” well strung and ready for the battle with the senses!”

Further, he says:

“One should sit in a comfortable posture with the spine erect. The lumbar region of the spine (opposite the navel) should be gently crooked forward, the chest up and shoulders back (which places the inner edges of the shoulder blades closer together). 

Each hand, palm upturned, should be put on the corresponding thigh at the juncture of the thigh and abdomen to prevent the body from bending forward. The chin should be parallel to the floor. While maintaining this correct position, undue tension in the muscles should be relaxed. 

When the yogi holds the spine in the form of a bow by the above-mentioned posture, he is ready successfully to engage his reversed mind and life force in a battle with the outwardly pulling senses. Without any strictures or pinching of the spinal nerves, the mind and life force are easily directed upward by the yogi.”

These instructions are based on meditation according to the yoga tradition.  In Tibetan Buddhism, they actually lean the head slightly forward.  Zen Buddhists seem to follow the same instructions as the yogis.


What about an even pelvic tilt?


Now, you might have heard in yoga classes to actually keep the tailbone tucked in, or to maintain the pelvis in a more neutral position.  I actually give this same instruction during my yoga classes.

So why should we then roll the pelvis forward for sitting in meditation?

In my opinion, when we are doing different yoga asanas (postures) we want to keep the activation of the lower abdomen and pelvic floor to protect the lower back and to generate strength.  That's why we root the tailbone down.

But when we sit in meditation we want to maintain the natural curvature of the spine, as when we are standing.  The more natural it is, the more effortless it becomes when we sit for longer periods of time.

So when we sit down we roll the pelvis forward to counterbalance the tendency to roll the pelvis back and to be able to keep the natural curvature of the spine.  


How to test the natural curvature of the spine


The easiest way to test the natural curvature of the spine is to do it in a standing position.  This is what I learned from my teachers at the Himalayan Yoga Tradition in India.

Stand up for a moment and place the back of your hand on your lower back.  You will notice the concave shape of the lower back.

Testing curvature of the spine

Now, sit down directly on the floor, without any support, in a simple crossed-legged position.  

Place again the back of your hand on your low back and notice if you are able to maintain that same curvature.

Most likely you won't.  Instead, the pelvis will roll back (posterior pelvic tilt) eliminating the natural curvature of the spine.  


If you try to meditate like this you will struggle to keep your posture.  It will lead to lower back pain and your breath will be restricted.

It's ok to sit like this for a couple of minutes, for instance at the beginning or end of yoga classes.  But it is not ideal for long sitting sessions.

As I explain further below, to be able to maintain the natural curvature of the spine we need to use a support, like a cushion or folded blanket.  


What are the characteristics of the right sitting posture?


Besides keeping the back straight and upright, with the head neck, and spine in alignment, the most important aim of the meditation posture is to feel comfortable and steady.  

You don't want the body to become an obstacle.  Rather you want it to be so comfortable and steady that it's barely noticeable that it is there. You want the body to become still like a mountain, completely immobile and firmly grounded.

When you feel comfortable in your posture you are then able to relax the body properly.  And when you are relaxed you are then able to concentrate, since relaxation is a requirement for concentration.

When we learn to sit with the back upright, keeping the natural curvature of the spine, we are then able to achieve a comfortable and steady posture.  This is because or back is then supported by the spine itself, without any effort.  

This of course requires a lot of practice.  The more we sit for meditation the more our posture will improve.  

Having a regular yoga asana practice will make this process easier.  It will help us to strengthen the back muscles, to make the spine more flexible, and to open the hips, among many other benefits. These are all important skills to be able to sit with ease.


What are the best sitting postures for meditation and pranayama?


Whenever you choose a meditation posture try to keep in mind that the most important goal is to keep the back straight and upright.  The position of the legs is not that important.  

Like Swami Rama says, in his book Meditation and Its Practice:

“There is actually only one important prerequisite for a good meditation posture—it must allow you to keep the head, neck, and trunk of the body aligned so that you can breathe freely and diaphragmatically.”

Further, he says:

“There are many positions that allow you to keep the spine aligned and to sit comfortably without twisting your legs or creating any discomfort. In fact, the arms and legs are not really important in meditation. What is important is that the spine be correctly aligned.”

So sitting in a chair for meditation is perfectly all right and appropriate.  However, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, if accessible to your body, provides the most stability and firmness.


Sitting crossed-legged on the floor


Most people, meaning 99.99% of the population, will need a support like a cushion to sit on the floor.  The idea of the cushion is to raise the hips above the level of the knees so that you can keep the natural curvature of the spine.  

sukhasana with cushions
Sukhasana (easy pose). Compare to the image above without cushions

Many of my friends who are yoga teachers and really advanced asana practitioners, even those who come from Asia, even they can't keep this natural curvature when sitting directly on the floor.

They don't know it yet but I have been looking at their postures during our philosophy classes here in Mysore.  Lol.

Even they will benefit from using a cushion.

In my experience, the only posture that allows you to keep the back straight when sitting crossed-legged, with no support or minimum support, is padmasana, the lotus posture.

However this posture is inaccessible to most people, and it is actually not recommended as a meditation posture in some traditions.  

There are a variety of more accessible sitting postures that we can use like sukhāsana (easy pose), swastikāsana (the auspicious pose), and ardhapadmāsana (half-lotus).  

Sukhasana (easy pose)
Sukhasana (easy pose)

Sukhasana II (easy pose)
Sukhasana II (easy pose, aka Burmese pose)

Swastikasana (auspicious pose)

ardha padmasana (half-lotus pose)

As you can see in the above photos, the knees always rest on the floor (except in sukhasana or the easy pose). This will give you the most stability in your posture and it will ensure that the knees remain at the same level or below the level of the hips.

Whenever you sit with knees above the level of the hips it will force you to roll the pelvis back.
 
If you are not able to rest the knees on the floor then you might use a folded cushion or block under your thighs.  


Kneeling


I love kneeling.  This posture is called vajrāsana (thunderbolt posture). It's the easiest posture to keep the curvature of the spine since the hips are raised and supported by your heels and ankles.  


Unfortunately, for most people, it's not easy to hold this posture for long periods of time.  I can kneel for about 10 min only.  After that my legs will get completely numb.

However, you can make this posture more comfortable by placing a bolster, a meditation cushion or yoga blocks between your legs.


This is an excellent alternative for those who have tight hips and can't sit comfortably crossed-legged.  

Whenever I notice a student with the knees very high when sitting crossed-legged on the floor (some people's knees reach the level of the armpits) I tell them to sit on their heels instead, with a bolster between their legs.

Some people might experience pain in their ankles in this posture though.  If this is your case, try to place a thick folded blanket or yoga mat underneath to prevent any discomfort.

You could also use a wooden kneeling bench or seiza bench, like this one on Amazon.com.  It gives the same benefits as using the bolster but it also prevents any pressure on the ankles.




Sitting on a chair or bench


Whenever I lead meditation or pranayama classes, I always encourage people to sit on a chair if they need to. But for some strange reason, everybody prefers to ignore this instruction, even when they are clearly uncomfortable sitting on the floor.  Lol.  

When I started my meditation journey I actually started sitting on a chair.  It was only a couple of years later, when a teacher told me that it was time to sit on the floor, that I decided to give it a try.

Once I moved to the floor I started with the easy pose with each knee above the opposite foot, using the support of a big cushion.

Over the years, with continued practice, my hips became more flexible.  So now I either choose half-lotus, or the second variation of the easy pose, aka Burmese pose.

It is good of course to have the desire to progress and being able to sit crossed-legged on the floor, and to achieve that you do have to practice it.  

But you should also include in your meditation sessions a more comfortable posture so that you can actually meditate.

That's why it is good to try meditation sitting on a chair, particularly if you have a stiff body.

Even today from time to time I still practice meditation sitting on a chair or a bench.  Actually, some of my best sessions happened when I’ve been sitting on a bench in a park and even on a bench in a train station. 


How to use a chair for meditation


When sitting on a chair you want to sit at the edge of the chair so that the back remains free.  

Meditation on a bench
We didn't have a chair but you get the idea

In this way, the head, neck, and back are supported by the spine, and not by the back of the chair.  This will allow the free movement of the diaphragm, in all three dimensions.  

Ideally, you want to use a straight and flat chair that helps you keep the knees bent at a 90-degree angle.  Your dining table chair might do the job.

If you don't have a flat chair you can use a folded blanket to make the seat more comfortable and even.

If your hips are a bit higher than the level of the knees that's ok, but if the knees are above the level of the hips then you will inevitably round your back.  You’ll need to find a higher chair then. 


Can we lean back on a chair or a wall for meditation?


Like I mentioned before, when we sit on a chair for meditation we normally try to sit at the edge of the chair to allow the free movement of the breath.

If we lean back on the chair or if we sit crossed-legged on the floor with our back against a wall, the pressure against our back won't let us maintain the three-dimensional diaphragmatic breath.  

Instead, this posture will emphasize abdominal or belly breathing, which is relaxing but also conducive to sleep.

This means that it is more difficult to remain alert and aware when we sit with our backs supported by a wall or chair.  We might get drowsy or sleepy faster. But this doesn't mean that we should never try this for meditation.  

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why you want to sit for meditation with your back supported.  

First, if you have body limitations that don't allow you to sit with the back straight.  And second to be able to experience a deep state of relaxation that otherwise is difficult to achieve, especially at the beginning.  

It takes years of practice to be able to sit crossed-legged on the floor without any discomfort and with the body completely relaxed.  Even if you sit at the edge of a chair, you still need to develop this skill over time.  

Sitting with the back supported will make it very easy to keep the body relaxed.  This will also teach you how you want your body to feel when you actually sit without any support.

This is why I recorded this easy mindful breathing practice for stress relief and anxiety.  The idea here is to sit with the back supported so that you can experience a deep state of calm and relaxation, with ease.

I actually do this myself.  

I sit crossed-legged with a cushion on the floor for about an hour or so during my daily meditation sessions. But throughout the day, or in the evening, I also do short sessions with my back supported.

Even after years of practice sometimes it's inevitable to feel tension when sitting on the floor.  By sitting in a simple and comfortable posture, with my back supported, I make sure that at the very least I enter once a day a deep state of relaxation.

If you try the guided meditation I mentioned above you might experience this by yourself. 

You want to make sure though that the chair you are using is flat with a straight back.  You can also sit on your bed with your back resting on the bed frame, or you could sit on the floor with your back resting on a wall.

Remember, this is good to do occasionally and for short meditation sessions of 10 to 15 minutes, aimed mainly at relaxation.  

If you want to do longer meditation sessions, or if you want to practice pranayama, you want to make sure the back is free and supported by the spine alone.

In my experience, the problem with drowsiness will occur when you try to sit like this for longer periods of time, let's say for more than 10 or 15 minutes.  


The easiest hack for a comfortable sitting posture


One very easy way to achieve a comfortable and relaxed posture with the back straight is to support only the sacrum.

You can do this when sitting on a chair or on the floor.

Instead of leaning back, you can place a firm cushion or yoga block between the sacrum and the back of the chair or wall.  The block will prevent the pelvis from rolling back.


In this way, you can experience the best of both worlds.  The back will be free so the movement of the diaphragm is not impeded, but you will also have some support so you can maintain the posture with less effort.  

You can also use this hack if the only chair that's available to you has an angle that forces you to lean back.  


The worst seats to use for meditation


In my experience, the worst type of seats for meditation are airplane or car seats.  They are in theory designed for comfort but all they do is force you to round your spine, collapse the chest and inhibit the free movement of the diaphragm.  

I guess that's why I always find it challenging to meditate on a plane.  It is difficult to remain clear-headed and alert with a bent spine.  Instead of a long sitting session, I tend to do several short sessions during the whole trip, to avoid falling asleep. 

Of course, this doesn't mean that we can't practice meditation when we are traveling.  

I just mention this so that you can be aware of the importance of the sitting posture for meditation, and to keep in mind what is more appropriate and what would make it easier to breathe properly, stay focused, alert and relaxed.


What is the best support or cushion to sit upright?


When choosing a meditation cushion you want to find something that is soft but firm at the same time.  You want softness to avoid pain and numbness, and you want it to be firm to avoid unsteadiness in your posture.  You want to feel fully grounded and to be able to lengthen the spine up.

The height of the cushion will depend on the flexibility of your hip joints.  Remember, you want to keep the knees below the level of the hips.

The most comfortable type of meditation cushions I have tried are the zafu meditation cushions filled with buckwheat hulls.  It doesn't have to be a zafu shape, but the buckwheat filling makes it very firm and comfortable as they take the shape of your sitting bones. 

Another really good option is to use a folded wool blanket.  This is what we use at the ashram where I studied in India.  You need to learn how to fold the blanket though in order to avoid any unevenness.  

I don't recommend using yoga blocks.  They are ok only for shorts periods of time, and if you have no other options.  


Conclusion


Whatever posture helps you to feel comfortable and steady, maintaining the back straight and upright then that's the posture you should use for meditation.  Period.

None of this is strictly necessary to actually meditate though.  There are many known realized masters that don't have a “proper sitting posture” yet they have reached the highest levels of spiritual development.

But this advice will make it easier for most of us to feel more comfortable and at ease when practicing meditation.  
  
I hope you’ve found this blog useful and informative. If you like this type of content and if you like to be informed about my online classes make sure you subscribe to my mailing list here

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