Mar 26, 2012
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:
- Mid-torso/waist area
- Upper back/chest
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.