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A back tip for meditators, or how to sit with more ease

Can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit in meditation? Here’s something really simple to try. It’s actually a mindfulness practice in itself. It’s a way to balance your natural ability to relax with the forces of gravity to find a well-aligned posture that’s effortless and free. I do this myself at the beginning of every sit, and find it really helpful.

For a visual cue, imagine your body as like a bunch of children’s wooden blocks, stacked one on top of another. It can rise up pretty high, as long as you place each block squarely on the one below. Gravity exerts a pull straight down the middle of the stack that keeps it well-balanced.

Doing this in effect also creates an upward flow of energy that allows you to stack the blocks up high – certainly higher than if you piled them crooked. So even though we think of gravity as a force that pulls downward, when it’s used well you can think of it as creating a natural upward lift as well.

We can do the same thing with our bodies. If we stack our spine so that each “block” is squarely placed on the one below, we can sit upright with ease, without having to use a lot of muscular effort to hold us up. Gravity keeps each part of the body rooted on the one below, and we find an effortless way to rise up sitting.

If you normally slump, you might think that slumping is more comfortable. And for longer periods of sitting, it probably is better than trying to hold yourself up straight. But that kind of holding is a perfect invitation for back tension and pain. And it’s NOT what I’m talking about here.

Here’s how to do it. Think of your body as like that stack of blocks. It’s actually four blocks as follows:

  • Hips
  • Mid-torso/waist area
  • Upper back/chest
  • Head

So let’s start by aligning the hips. First we need to find our sit bones. If you’re not sure where they are, try sitting on your hands. You’ll immediately feel a bony protrusion from each hip digging into your hands. Those are your sit bones.

Now try this experiment. Start by tilting too far forward on those sit bones. I mean to the point where you feel way off balance. Notice the muscles in the back of your pelvic area engage to try to hold you up. Obviously you won’t want to sit like this for long. Now let’s try going too far in the other direction – too far back. And notice how your abdominals engage. Again, it’s not how you’d want to sit for long.

Now try rocking back and forth, from too far forward to too far back, in smaller and smaller increments. Each time you pass through the middle, you’ll probably feel a spot where all your muscular effort lets go, and everything feels free and easy. Try rocking around that center point a bit until you find it by feel. Don’t try to analyze or think this through. It needs to be felt. That point is the most effortless, upright position for your hips – for YOUR body.

Now let’s work on the mid-torso/waist area, doing the same thing. Try bending forward at the waist, compressing the front of your stomach and rounding out your back. You’ll be slouched forward – and it’s probably won’t be comfortable for long. Now try arching your back in the other direction, opening up your belly area and arching your back. Again, it’ll probably feel like too much. Now try swinging back and forth between those two extremes in gradually smaller increments, passing through the middle point where it feels easy. That middle is where your mid-torso is stacked most optimally on your hips.

We can do the same for the upper back/chest area. Try alternating between having your shoulders slumped forward vs. pushed back. Find that easy spot in the middle that’s just right.

Then the head. Alternate between your chin being dropped forward and tilted back (please be careful not to tilt too far back – you don’t want to injure it!) For each, we’re looking for that spot in the middle that feels easy but also firmly placed on the “block” below.

Now check how your body feels overall. Does it feel light and at ease? Does your spine seem to float and lift upward without effort? Don’t try to check in a mirror to see whether you look straight. This isn’t about how straight you LOOK, but more how it FEELS. We’re aiming for the balance point between a felt sense of ease on the one hand and lift on the other.

Keep in mind that the balance point isn’t something you find once and for all. Your body is a dynamic organism, constantly shifting and changing. What you’re sitting on, or even your mood can affect what feels best in the moment. So you’ll want to stay alert to these shifts, and adjust as needed to ever changing conditions. If your comfortable posture seems slumped, don’t worry about it. If you keep working in this way, your posture will likely straighten gradually over time.

If you approach your sitting practice in this way, you might find yourself mindfully interacting with your body and surrounding conditions in a sort of dance with your present experience. It’s your reality, as experienced through your body. And as it turns out, that’s THE most direct way possible to experience the present moment – through one of your senses.

I invite you to try it. It has woken me up to a whole new world of experience. Maybe it will for you too.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Marilyn Terhune-Young
Time: March 29, 2012, 12:08 am

This seems like a great exercise, but when I tried it, it caused alot of discomfort. I am a meditator, and I have a severe kyphosis of the spine (from osteoporosis). I have trouble being comfortable in a sitting position.; Can you recommend a way to modify this?

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Comment from Sunada
Time: March 29, 2012, 12:18 pm

Marilyn, I assume you’re able to find a comfortable sitting posture when you’re NOT meditating, right? Maybe leaning back against a chair with back support, for example? Whatever comfortable posture you know you can do, just do that for meditation. There’s nothing that says one has to meditate sitting cross-legged on the floor. I always sit in a chair and lean against the back. Just sit comfortably, whatever posture that may be. Even if it’s lying on your back — it really doesn’t matter, as long as you are relaxed and alert.

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Comment from Kate
Time: March 31, 2012, 1:48 am

Thank you. I have scoliosis and this really helped. Back pain had me lying down to meditate but I kept falling asleep. I’m very glad I found this.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: March 31, 2012, 9:12 am

Hi Kate, I have scoliosis too. I have to sit leaning against a chair, or have some kind of back support. But even with that, this approach is helpful for finding a good comfortable alignment.

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Comment from Chris
Time: April 24, 2012, 6:23 am

Lovely tips Sunada – thank you.
As you know, alignment is so much more than comfort. Chi (life force) energy will flow more easily with proper alignments. The diaphragm needs to open to allow for deep and gentle breathing which is a trigger for peace and gentleness to appear.
Chi wont flow so easily through tight muscles.
If your spine is out of alignment try this.
find a chair which is the perfect height for your legs to reach the floor flat without constricting behind the knees.
Get a piece of 3×1 flat board which you will strap to the back of your chair.
By padding top and/or bottom you can get the perfect alignment for your back.
Strap padding to the front of the board so that you have support for your spine in the right places for you.
When it is all comfortable put a throw rug over it.
This is now set up for you and will be your dedicated meditation chair which you can keep adjusting as your posture changes over time.
If you want more details then please e-mail me.
Have fun!
Chris

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Comment from Sunada
Time: April 24, 2012, 9:37 am

Thanks for that, Chris!

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Comment from Eugen
Time: May 9, 2012, 1:16 am

Hi, whenever I try to meditate on the floor I always seem to develop this annoying little kink in the lower region of the shoulder blades. I have tried putting my hands up higher, above the bellybutton using a pillow, which helps a bit, but the kink returns if I try to stay still and meditate for a while.

At first it starts off as more of an annoying tingle, that I can ignore, but as time progresses, it gets more and more distracting.

Do you have any advice that could help me?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 9, 2012, 1:19 am

I’d suggest maybe a scarf tied around the waist, rather than a pillow. You may still be holding up some of the weight of your arms using your back muscles.

It may also be that you’re sitting a little too low, and that the pain is related to trying to correct a slump. I’d try the scarf first, and if that doesn’t work then try adjusting your height in the range or an inch to two inches, and see if that helps.

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Comment from Eugen
Time: May 9, 2012, 2:29 pm

Sorry, I don’t understand by what you mean tying a scar around my waist. How would that help? How would I position my hands on the scarf?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 9, 2012, 6:51 pm

You’d need a long scarf. Tie it around the waist, just above belly-button height, with the knot at your back. And then you can just slip your hands between the scarf and your belly.

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Comment from Eugen
Time: May 9, 2012, 9:29 pm

Thanks for the responses. However, I was going to ask, I thought the hands were supposed to be together so the energy could flow better or something like that. Wouldn’t tucking your hands in defeat that purpose? Also would tying a long sleeved around the waist do the trick?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 10, 2012, 12:23 am

A sweater works just fine, although you might stretch it. You’ll find the hands are still in contact, so no worries there.

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Comment from Eric
Time: October 6, 2012, 11:26 pm

Thank you for the article. Since it is related to meditative posture, I thought this might be an appropriate place for the question(s) I am asking. When I sit for meditation-watching (and experiencing) the breath, I am naturally pulled to the seeming “blocks” in the body. I try to breath to the edge(s) of the areas of tension, but to not attempt any overcoming of the blocks. This is so subtle that I often project into the future as to how long these can go wrong and to the potential future with these blocks present (future discomfort), and what I am unconsciously doing to perpetuate it (desire for discomfort to not be present). More relevant here, and I fear related, is that when I sit down, while I am able to hold my body in a “stacked” position, my neck invariably goes into rotation and often falls backward and, it seems wishes to stay there for some time until the pain forces me to pull it back to “stacked”. This goes on as if the body and the mind need different postures for now. I was punched some time ago on the right side of my face and knocked unconscious. Since the neck goes back and to the left, my thought (please clarify any potential delusion here), is that my body is moving in ways that will help heal it. I have been holding to the idea that my body knows better than my mind the ways of healing, and since I was knocked unconscious, I may be forced on this journey to experience the pain consciously. I fear this may be true for surgeries, dental experiences and meds to stop the symptomology of anxiety, etc. The mind-body knows that which the mind alone doesn’t acknowledge, goes the thinking.

My question is this: Should I continue to simply be conscious of the stacking turned unstacked, or should I keep restacking and returning to the breath at a specific point which is not the edge of the tension or block, or should I still stay with where the breath is mostly felt? Is it possible/likely that my body is attempting integration by way of such movements? Another movement that often comes is a rocking movement, much like being in a rocking chair. It seems soothing, but is this to separate from meditation? I appreciate your article and any light that you may shine upon my questions.

Thank you,
Eric

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Comment from Sunada
Time: October 8, 2012, 2:42 pm

Hi Eric,

It’s very possible that as a result of your getting punched, your neck and spine have gotten a little rotated, and so your body on a superficial level feels more at ease to twist back and left. But ultimately, since it’s not a symmetrical and balanced position, over time I’m guessing it causes strain somewhere else in your body, and so something starts to get uncomfortable and painful. It sounds analogous to my scolosis. I have a couple major curves — one in my low back and another in my neck — so to sit up “straight,” I end up having to make a lot of modifications where I end up holding myself up in some non-symmetrical way. It’s good for a little while, but after 15 minutes or so, the strain sets in.

Rather than trying to force myself to sit up in a way that my mind thinks is “straight,” I sit in my crooked way, but go right up to the edge of what is heading toward “straight” without actually holding myself up, if you know what I mean. So I’m still within the range of my crooked comfort zone, but also not slumping back completely into it. I’m going up to the edge of where I can challenge myself toward the direction of straight.

So it’s not a matter of toggle back and forth between stacked and unstacked, but more working subtly right at the zone that’s in between the two. If you can stay mindful of the details of that experience, I’m guessing you might discover a few things about how your body works and doesn’t work, and how to shift between those two more gracefully.

As far as the rocking, I’m not really sure what to say about that. If it’s not ultimately a distraction or an unmindful habit, but something that seems to help you keep your sense of presence — then why not stay with it?

Those are just some thoughts. Does any of this resonate with you?

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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