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How to meditate lying on your side

I have a vertebra that tends to slip out of alignment. Regular visits to my chiropractor keep it in place and prevent too much discomfort, but when I’m on retreat my back sometimes gets so painful that I have to lie down to meditate.

When I first had to do this on retreat, the posture that was suggested was the Alexander semi-supine position, where you lie on the back, with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, and the head raised on a cushion.

This is comfortable, but it’s very hard to stay alert in this position, and I’d tend to fall asleep. Even if I didn’t fall asleep my head would feel fuzzy. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional — and badly neglected — approach.

{a href="http://shop.wildmind.org/product.php?productid=492&cat=61&page=1"}Miniature statue of the Buddha lying down to meditate{/a}
Oddly, very few people seem to try meditating lying on their side, even though images of the Buddha doing this are abundant. This may be because the Buddha passed away while meditating on his side, and when people see statues depicting this posture they don’t think “that’s the Buddha meditating on his side” but “that’s the Buddha dying.” So the connection between this posture and meditation tends to get lost.

The Buddha didn’t lie down this way only when he was dying. He lay down like this often when he was meditating. In fact this is how he advised monks to go to sleep, so that they could be mindful right up to the last moment. So this is a meditation posture in which the Buddha happened to die, not a special posture for Buddhas to die in!

Actually the Parinirvana (death) statues and the meditation statues are different. In death, the Buddha’s hand is no longer supporting his head. In the image above you can see that the Buddha is clearly alive!

This is actually quite a comfortable posture to meditate in. I’ve used this when I’ve been sick, or when I’ve wanted to meditate at the end of the day and have felt physically exhausted. Here are some basic pointers:

  • Lie on your right side.
  • You’ll need to have some cushioning under the whole body. You can lie on a mattress or a couple of zabutons (meditation mats) laid end-to-end or even a folded blanket or two.
  • The left arm rests on top of the body.
  • The right elbow rests on the floor, with the hand supporting the head.
  • The knees should be slightly bent. Bend the upper knee a little more than the lower knee so that there isn’t undue pressure between your ankles and between your knees.
  • You’ll need to have a cushion under your right armpit or upper chest, to take some of your body’s weight.
  • The pressure of your hand on your head may cause discomfort, so you’ll probably need to move your hand from time to time. Be aware of the intension to move, and be mindful of the movements themselves.
  • If you have neck problems this posture is not recommended, but for most back problems it should be fine.
  • Someone on Facebook said that she found this a good way to meditate during her pregnancy, and that she’d meditated lying on her side for six months. But (see the comments below) it’s probably a good idea for pregnant women to lie on the left, rather than the right, side.

In this position you’re far less likely to fall asleep compared to when you lie on your back, and it’s easier to maintain a sense of mental clarity.

Is this a posture you’re tried out? Have any advice? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from A Dutch woman
Time: March 3, 2012, 3:16 pm

Thank you very much for this interesting article.
I think,in some instances, it might be wise to consider lying on your left side. Pregnant women for instance will often be advised to sleep on their left side. I think it had something to do with the baby getting more oxygen, because lying on the right side causes the uterus to compress an artery.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2012, 3:25 pm

That’s very interesting. I did find news reports of a study suggesting that still-births are more common in pregnant women who sleep on the right side. The authors of the study suggested not making too much of it, but it seems sensible for pregnant women to avoid lying on the right side.

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Comment from A fragile woman
Time: March 4, 2012, 6:23 am

This really sounds good for the back. But what about wrists? Doesn’t it get really painful soon for the right wrist with the weight of the whole head leaning on it?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 4, 2012, 7:31 am

Actually, the whole weight of the head is not resting on the hand, because it’s borne by the neck as well. So I’ve never had sore wrists. That may not be he same for everyone, though. Also, however, with Amy meditation posture there tends to be discomfort at first, until the body adapts. Try it and see.

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Comment from Angus
Time: September 24, 2013, 1:01 am

Very happy to see somebody mentioning this. I’ve found that it is a very effective position for relieving tension in the body and the gut in particular and also that it is a more than comfortable enough sleeping position.

(I have slept in it numerous times and the only discomfort has been very mild numbness in my hand in which case I often switch to the other side or flip over my hand and rest my head on my fist)

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Comment from Angus
Time: September 25, 2013, 1:28 am

*Apologies I have slept in a position closer to the Alexander semi-supine position but not this one but I’ll try it out and see how it goes.

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Comment from Cassie
Time: January 19, 2014, 5:27 pm

I have never thought about this, or even read about it. I don;t have cronic back pain, but it is very hard for me to relax in a sitting position. I just can’t relax my body enough to get into a deep meditation. I am going to have to try this! Thanks again!

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