If you can’t sit cross-legged in comfort, there are still many meditation postures open to you. You can sit in chair but many people find it’s not as satisfying as sitting on the floor.
Strange but true: somehow, being on the floor gives a more “grounded” feeling that makes it easier to calm the mind. All the same, I’ve often had to sit on a chair for various reasons and you do get used to it.
The most common alternative to a cross-legged meditation posture is to kneel, having the weight of the body supported on cushions or a meditation bench.
Finding good cushions is important. They need to be really firm, and most pillows just compress too much and can’t give you enough support.
The same goes for most ordinary, household cushions, which tend to compress too much. However, I have a lovely buckwheat pillow that is perfect when I turn it on end.
This meditator is using cushions (called zafus), that are specially designed for meditation. He’s kneeling with them between his legs, although cushions can of course be used for sitting cross-legged as well. Most people who sit astride cushions need two or three, depending on the height required.
The important thing is to get the right height. If you sit too low, you’ll end up slumping. Slumping interferes with your ability to stay aware, and can lead to discomfort.
If you sit too high, then you will have too much of a hollow in your back, which can lead to pinching. When your back is relatively upright, without you having to use any effort to keep it that way, then you’ve got the height about right.
Although the meditator above has his hands resting on his thighs, I recommend having your hands supported in front of you (see hands section). You can either have another cushion in front of you to rest your hands on, or you can tie something round your waist and rest your hands on that. I’ve often used a sweater with the arms tied behind my back. If you arrange the sweater carefully, you can make a little “nest” for your hands to rest on.
A blanket can also be used to provide support for your hands. Tie the blanket fairly tightly round your waist so that it covers your legs (also keeping your legs warm). Then arrange the blanket so that it provides a little “ledge” that you can rest your hands on, or tuck your hands inside it. A double (full) sized blanket is ideal. Blankets for a single (twin) bed tend to be a bit too small to tie properly around the waist, especially if you yourself are “full” sized.
Meditation benches are very useful. You can buy one, have one made, or make one yourself. We have a design for a simple bench that you can download (you’ll need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader).
Some meditation benches have rounded ends on the legs, so that it adjusts to the right angle as you sit on it. Others are at a set angle, which is great if you know exactly what height and angle you need your bench to be cut to. It took me several attempts to get a bench that suited me, and experienced a lot of uncomfortable meditations on intensive retreats before I hit on the right combination.
(An aside about terminology: my editor at Windhorse Publications pointed out that a bench is a long seat for more than one person, while a stool is a low seat, usually for a single occupant. So really they’re meditation stools, and not meditation benches. But if you try to correct every meditator who refers to their stool as a bench you may well have a sad and lonely existence.)