Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Meditation Posture

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Lying down to meditate

Lying down to meditateI said earlier “forget about lying down” and it’s serious advice. If you lie down to meditate — especialy mediating on your back — you’ll more than likely end up having a nice snooze, which may be pleasant but it’s not going to bring about a long-term change in the quality of your life.

However some people have serious back problems — either short- or long-term — and even sitting in a chair isn’t an option. I’ve been in that situation myself because of back pain that surfaces from time to time. By serious problems I mean intense nagging pain that affects your life not just when you’re trying to meditate. If it only affects you when you’re trying to meditate then you probably just need to adjust your posture.

We can learn to work with pain in meditation, but sometimes the pain is overwhelmingly powerful and dominates the mind entirely. And pain is also sometimes a sign that we’re causing damage to the body. So there can be very good reasons for meditating in a supine position.

There are two ways to lie down to meditate: on your back, or (the more traditional method) on your side.

Lying down to meditate on your back

If you are one of those people with serious back problems then you might well want to try lying down to meditate. You’ll need to have your head resting on something firm and yet padded. A thin cushion on a book can work well, as can a firm foam block. A book without padding will work for short meditations but over longer periods the back of your head will start to hurt. Even if you’re on a carpeted surface you might want to have a folded blanket or some other form of padding between your body and the floor.

The best position for lying down to meditate is the Alexander Semi-Supine position (illustrated above), where your knees are bent and pointing to the ceiling. The feet should be flat on the floor and should be roughly where your knees would be if your legs were straight. If your legs tend to collapse outwards as you relax then you might want to try turning your heels outwards a little, keeping your toes in place.

As mentioned, you’re much more likely to fall asleep if you meditate lying down on your back. This danger becomes even more likely if you keep your focus in the belly while paying attention to the breath, so I’d advise you to pay attention to the breath in the upper chest, throat, head, or in the nostrils. This won’t guarantee that you’ll stay awake but it makes it less likely that you’ll fall asleep.

Meditating lying on your side

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 then people see 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.

Miniature statue of the Buddha lying down to meditate
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 it’s probably a good idea for pregnant women to lie on the left, rather than the right, side. Sleeping on the left side has been shown to reduce the incidence of still births, and it would be wise to assume this applies to meditation as well.

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.

Comments

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Comment from Scott
Time: May 24, 2008, 10:42 pm

I fit into this category of having chronic back pain that prevents me from sitting for very long at all. I try to meditate while laying down, and yes, I do fall asleep usually. I usually have my eyes closed while meditating. Could I try with my eyes open? I think that might make the difference, although I haven’t tried it yet. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 25, 2008, 2:27 pm

Hi Scott,

I’m sorry to hear about your back pain. In the past I’ve had to meditate lying down, and in fact several days into an intensive meditation retreat I’m still tempted.

Keeping your eyes open or half-open would undoubtedly make some difference and help you to stay awake. One thing that’s perhaps even more important though is to keep your awareness in the upper body — observing the breathing in the upper chest to head. Paying attention to the breathing any lower than this will tend to lull you into sleep. Oh, I see that’s in the text of this page already, but it won’t hurt to repeat it, I suppose.

One thing that’s not mentioned above is that you can bring some more energy into the practice by using your imagination. For example you can imagine that you’re breathing light in and out of the body.

Also, pay more attention to the in-breath. If you’re counting the breaths, skip the stage of counting the out-breaths and instead could each in-breath, or say “in” as you breath in (without saying “out” as you breathe out).

If you find anything else to be helpful, please share it with us.

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Pingback from Grounded « Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word
Time: October 3, 2008, 11:55 am

[...] is exceedingly important in meditation. Indeed, some forms of meditation are meant to be practiced lying down. But oftimes, when she is engaged in a meditation practice for which it is recommended that the [...]

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Comment from Sonya
Time: March 7, 2010, 12:31 am

Thank you for posting your advice im new at meditating and will be starting tomorrow and ive been looking into diffrent ways to meditate ill use your techniques. ill also be checking back in for anything new.

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Comment from Celine
Time: March 10, 2010, 4:53 pm

I haven’t got chronic back pain but I’m new to meditation and thought the idea of meditating sitting upright made total sense.
The trouble is that after about 5 minutes (and after having followed all of your posture advice, hands supported etc) I get pins and needles on my upper back and feel an urge to stretch my neck and shoulders.
Why would that be? I try to be as straight and relaxed as possible.
It really interferes with the meditation.
I’ve tried to lie down in the Alexander semi supine posture, but that posture is so relaxing that I feel drowsy.
I’ve looked into the Alexander technique as I must be doing something wrong with my posture, although I do a lot of yoga and have an “ok” general posture (I think, but an Alexander technique teacher might think otherwise).
Unfortunately the sessions are quite expensive and I believe you have to take several for it to have any benefit.
Is there anything else you suggest in the meantime?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 11, 2010, 11:24 am

Hi, Celine.

This is the first time I’ve heard of pins and needles in the upper back. The sensation of pins and needles is caused by sustained pressure on a nerve, but I don’t know enough anatomy to know which nerve might be affected here.

My question would be, what are you doing with your hands? At what level are they supported, and what are they supported by? I find a lot of people need to have support for their hands above the level of the navel, otherwise the weight of the arms causes problems in the upper back — although these problems generally involve pain rather than pins and needles.

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Comment from Celine
Time: March 11, 2010, 4:37 pm

Thank you very much for your answer. Yes I tried putting a cushion on my lap to support my hands, and they were above the navel (that’s sitting upright on a chair by the way), but I still got that problem.
I most definately must be putting pressure on a nerve in my neck, hence the pins and needles.
For years I had a tendency to put my head forward too much, and even though I do yoga, it’s still not perfect.
I probably will have to see a professional (like an osteopath or an Alexander technique teacher) so that they can tell me exactly what it is I am doing wrong.
In the meantime I will have to try meditation lying down but focus on the breathing in the chest rather than the belly like you suggested.
I can understand how that would help to feel less like falling asleep.
By the way I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on this website which is fantastic, and so is the french one (I am french), I recommended it to my sister (who only speaks french) and the translation has been done beautifully, especially the translation of the title “L’esprit indompté”, what a perfect name for it!!
Merci!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 12, 2010, 11:44 am

There’s a map on this page, just below the heading, “Neck and scapular pain without arm or finger pain can be caused by a pinched nerve,” showing the areas affected by the pinching of various nerves in the neck. This might help you to identify which nerve is affected — if it’s pinching of the cervical nerves that’s the problem.

This could be an early sign of trouble that could turn out to be serious, so I’d suggest talking to a health professional before turning to an osteopath or Alexander teacher. That’s my preference anyway — get the x-rays and other tests, and then use other methods as supplementary treatment. Your preferences may vary!

Thanks for your kind comments on the French site. The translations were done by various people (none of whom were me), but I’m pleased you like the name of the site, since I’m the one who came up with it!

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from ursula clyde
Time: October 20, 2010, 7:03 pm

i meditate lying down to help me fall asleep better than any sleeping tablets i do this especially if i am worried .love this site best one on internet

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Comment from Paul Dee
Time: November 4, 2010, 3:05 pm

Good evening.

I am new to mediation and have a lot of questions! I realize I can’t ask them all here, so I will just ask one.

I am currently meditating specifically to cope with my back and neck pain, neither of which bothers me when lying flat, but both instantly become problems whilst I am sitting upright. Should I sit upright and bring the pain on? How can I ‘make friends’ with the pain when it isn’t there when I’m lying. I can’t focus on something which is not there.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Paul (London).

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 5, 2010, 3:54 pm

Hi Paul,

I don’t think it’s either necessary or advisable to “bring the pain on” in order to work with it. If lying down to meditate works for you, then keep on doing that. On the other hand, if you want to try meditating in a seated position because you think your meditation might be clearer and more focused, you could try it for very short periods of time. The difference is the motivation. My view would be that deliberately setting yourself up to experience pain’s not such a good idea, while accepting pain as a consequence of sitting upright is fine. But I’ll ask Vidyamala, who recently wrote a book on pain and mindfulness (“Living Well With Pain and Illness“) to see what she says. She may have a different view from me.

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Comment from Vidyamala
Time: November 9, 2010, 6:32 pm

Hi Paul

You raise an interesting question! My response is very similar to Bodhipaksa’s. Meditating lying down will help you cultivate qualities of calm and relaxation which will help you manage the pain better when you are upright. It will help you be more ‘embodied’ and I would suggest you spend some time doing a lying down body scan meditation to help this. I say this as the pain you are experiencing in your back and neck will probably be accompanied by some inevitable aversion and desire to get away from the body which just creates more pain and tension and so it goes on.

I also think it would be good to meditate sitting upright for shorter periods to get to know the pain more directly. See if you can move towards it as if it were a loved one who was hurting – see if you can cultivate an attitude that you would naturally have towards a child that fell over – you would most likely scoop it up and cradle it – see if you can have that kind of attitude towards your own pain. And notice how the experience you call ‘pain’ is continually changing. It is not a fixed and solid thing but more a flow of sensations. Try and stay with the sensations in this more fluid and open way.Don’t sit for too long as this will cause some tension and strain. Sit for long enough to investigate and ‘befriend’ your pain but stop when it becomes too intense. Meditation is not the same as endurance!! Work with the breath deep in the body and see if this can soothe the pain to some extent.

Good luck! I hope your pain eases up and that you enjoy your meditation adventures – both the lying down more pleasurable meditation and the sitting up explorative meditations that will hopefully also be pleasurable for you – remember that there is always more to the moment than just the pain. Pay some attention as well to pleasant sounds and sensations – there will probably be more than you think.

thanks again for writing

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Comment from jim
Time: June 6, 2011, 12:04 pm

hi there,i was hoping you could give me some advice..i have tried meditation many times and to be honest although i felt ok afterwards,i wondered what all the fuss was about..maybe i was doing it wrong,i thought..so today a yanttra mat arrived in the post and i decided to meditate lying down on the mat with earplugs in so i couldnt get distracted..i was breathing deeply into my chest trying not to think of anything..15 minutes or so in i started to feel a tingling feeling in my fingers which slowly spread all over my body,and i could also feel my body trembling slightly..now i had never had this before but i kept on with the breathing..this slight trembling was apparent on my face,body everywhere and it was feeling quiet intense..i aslo was feeling 2 points of pressure on my chest(i cant think of another word to describe it-pressure)..i checked my pulse coz i was a little worried,but my pulse was fine..after a while i slowed down the breathing and 10 minutes later i got up feeling quiet high!!..this took place over about 30-35 minutes and it took me by surprise to be honest and i thought i better get in touch with the experts!!should i have continued the meditation?what were the 2 distinct pressures i felt on my chest?should i try this daily?all these questions..i have tried meditating quiet a few times before and this hadnt happened..any help/avice would be greatly appreciated..thanks jim

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 8, 2011, 8:50 am

Hi, Jim.

This is all normal, and a good sign. The trembling is technically known as priti, and the pressure is technically called a nimitta. These things come and go, and it’s a really bad idea to “chase” those kinds of experiences or to try to make them happen. I think it was right to let the meditation come to an ends.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Vidyamala
Time: June 8, 2011, 9:25 am

HI Jim

Many thanks for writing in. My immediate question is how you were breathing? You say “i was breathing deeply into my chest trying not to think of anything..” was the breathing normal in terms of rate and depth or were you intentionally ‘breathing deeply?’ A lot of what you describe sounds to me like hyperventilation or overbreathing. This causes symptoms such as numbness or tingling in the hands, feet and lips, lightheadedness, dizziness, headache, chest pain, etc.
Counterintuitively, such effects are not precipitated by lack of oxygen or air. Rather, the hyperventilation itself reduces the carbon dioxide concentration of the blood to below its normal level because one is expiring more carbon dioxide than being produced in the body, thereby raising the blood’s pH value (making it more alkaline), initiating constriction of the blood vessels which supply the brain, and preventing the transport of oxygen and other molecules necessary for the function of the nervous system.[4] (the quote is from wikipedia). So I would suggest you try meditating where you DO NOT ALTER THE NATURAL BREATH AT ALL. Just breathe normally at whatever rate seems natural and see if this leads to a more grounded and balanced experience. Hope this is helpful and let us know how you get on.

best wishes
Vidyamala

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Comment from jim
Time: June 9, 2011, 10:09 am

thanks for the replies and advice,and great website by the way..jim

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Comment from skilla
Time: January 12, 2012, 8:52 am

im new to this but a friend of mine has been meditating for the past two weeks and he gets no pains of any kind but his hands start to heat up and if they are touching any part of the body it also becomes flowing with heat. he meditates lying down

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Comment from Vidyamala
Time: January 12, 2012, 9:50 pm

Hi thanks for telling us about your friend. I suspect if he just keeps practising gently then things will settle down. Sometimes heat can be energy freeing up and moving about the body and is just something to be aware of without fixating on it, nor trying to block it out. Just let it be as it is. It is good to heat he feels a flowing sense of the heat which means energy is moving and not blocked.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 12, 2012, 10:00 pm

I’d use rather different terminology to describe this. Meditating activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to increased blood flow to the skin and to extremities. Hence the feelings of warmth in the hands. It’s not as poetic as talking about “energy” although of course the warmth and increased movement of the blood is a form of energy. Once we start to pay more attention to part of the body because we’ve noticed increased warmth, then we become more sensitive to the sensory receptors there, and we often feel sensations of tingling as well. This can be very pleasant.

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Comment from Vidyamala
Time: January 15, 2012, 11:17 pm

thanks bodhipaksa that is very clear and heloful.

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Comment from Anna
Time: January 23, 2012, 9:02 am

I used to do a lot of meditaion when I was a Martial Arts student. We did a lot of standing (‘holding the ball’) and sitting meditation. I stopped meditating many years ago, and am trying to get back into it. For the past few days I have been practicing lying down in the supine position. I LOVE it and am more motivated to do it this way than the other postures. As long as I don’t fall asleep, am I getting the same health benefits?
Thank you for this forum. It is wonderful! :)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 23, 2012, 9:40 am

Hi, Anna.

If the supine position is working for you, then I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t get the same health benefits as if you were meditating in a sitting position.

And you’re welcome!

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Comment from Andrew
Time: May 7, 2012, 10:08 pm

I guess in this sense I’m fortunate that for some reason it’s nearly impossible for me to fall asleep on my back.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 8, 2012, 12:49 am

That’s an unusual talent :)

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Comment from James
Time: July 4, 2012, 6:07 am

I work as a nurse and use meditation as a relief from my stressfull (but rewarding) job. I don’t have much experience meditating lying on my side, but in nursing we are alway encouraged to position patients on the left side. Lying on the left reduced pressure on the inferior vena cava (the large vessel that returns blood from the body to the heart). This means you have better circulation during meditation, and is the main reason it is recommended for pregnant women. Also, it’s a more natural position for your GI system. For those reasons I would postulate that meditating on the left vs right puts your body in a more natural position.

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Comment from Kaitlyn
Time: November 5, 2012, 12:26 am

Hello! While I was reading this (take note I am getting ready to go to sleep), I see that the text talks about the danger of falling asleep while meditating. What does that mean? I just wanted to become relaxed and calm to fell asleep, but it sounds kind of scary the way that the article states it. Is there a bad thing that happened to your thoughts or mind or something if you fall asleep? I have never meditated before, I would like to know how to search through yourself in order to properly accomplish a meditation period, I don’t known how you would say it. Does this website explain a little bit of that or will you just find a way by concentration and finding yourself?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 5, 2012, 9:37 am

Hi, Kaitlyn.

There’s nothing dangerous about falling asleep while meditating. It’s just that if you’re asleep you’re no longer meditating.

If your purpose in meditating is to help you to fall asleep in bed, however, then that can be a very effective and useful thing to do.

If you dig around on the site under the “meditation guides” heading you’ll find structured guides to a variety of meditation practices.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Pingback from Day 19 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
Time: January 19, 2013, 12:02 am

[...] to lead to a rather sleepy experience, but it’s better than nothing. However, you can also lie on your side, which is a very traditional, although little-used, meditation [...]

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Comment from jason
Time: January 27, 2013, 12:46 pm

I have been meditating for a few weeks started because I wanted to try it. I tried sitting up but things feel uncomfortable in that position and if I lie down it works well, my body goes numb and I focus and feel very happy. What does sitting up do that you won’t gain from lying down position? Also recently these past few days I’ve been dreaming and finally able to remember them I started writing down details because I can remember them so well. I’m keep a notes about everything and been studying online to try to understand everything. Do I need to translate those dreams should I focus my energy on what they are or ignore them for now?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 27, 2013, 9:51 pm

Hi, Jason.

You asked “What does sitting up do that you won’t gain from lying down position?” My answer would be clarity and energy. And hopefully your body wouldn’t go numb, since numbness is not what we’re aiming for in meditation.

Dreams can be very interesting and sometimes quite significant. It’s really up to you how much you want to explore them. There are not “rules” in such situations :)

It’s good you’re experiencing more vivid dreams. This often happens when people are starting meditation, or meditating more than they usually do.

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Comment from Noor
Time: March 13, 2013, 3:29 am

Technically in short if I have concentration power , can I meditate while lying ??

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 13, 2013, 9:47 am

If you have a well-developed ability to meditate, then meditating in a seated position will be even more effective. Lying down is definitely a “second-best” option. If you can sit, sit.

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Comment from Laura
Time: April 23, 2013, 11:21 am

I have chronic pain and sitting while meditating can be excruciating. I can sometimes manage it in a well-supported reclining position and I do so when able, but what feels best is lying flat on my back. But I’d like to add this factor: I suffer from chronic insomnia and have for my entire life. It takes hours for me to fall asleep. Is the likelihood of falling asleep the main reason not to meditate lying down? Because I don’t get sleepy when I meditate lying down, not even a little. I’ve paid careful attention to this and I am not only just as focused but perhaps more so because I’m not fighting the agony of back pain. I do not get into that hazy sleepy feeling at all. I also listen to audio books this way because I’m often bed bound in pain and I don’t ever fall asleep during those either. I honestly don’t remember a time when I’ve “accidentally snoozed”, it takes a great deal of effort for me.

So would I be an exception to the rule or is there some OTHER reason why lying down is frowned upon? Also, isn’t it better to meditate in a less than ideal position than to not meditate at all because I’m avoiding pain? That’s not sarcasm, I ask that genuinely. Thanks so much.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 29, 2013, 10:36 am

Hi, Laura.

No, it’s just that people tend to fall asleep or be more prone to daydreaming while lying down. If you’ve trained yourself to be alert while lying down then there’s no reason for not meditating that way, especially if you have pain while sitting up. But as I’m sure you know, from a “sleep hygiene” point of view you shouldn’t do this in bed.

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Comment from Vidyamala
Time: April 29, 2013, 4:59 pm

Dear Laura
I would suggest you simply meditate in the most comfortable position for you. Throw out the ‘rule book’ and experiment so you build up a positive experience of meditating in your body. No one else knows what it is like to be you. I know many people who meditate effectively lying down when to sit up would be an unpleasant and aversive experience due to physical injuries and pain. I also think it is OK to meditate in bed if that feels the best place. You never know, it may help ease the insomnia! good luck and best wishes

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Comment from DWH
Time: August 6, 2013, 8:39 pm

I have been meditating for several years laying on my side. I get great results. Do I fall asleep at times–Yes–then do I call this meditation–No–I call it Sleep which my body apparently needed.

So I think meditation positions is a personal preference.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 9, 2013, 10:24 am

Well, obviously it’s a personal preference which way we meditate, but the fact remains that our posture has physiological effects on us, and the choices we make affect the quality of our meditation. Lying down in less than ideal. It may be necessary at times for some people, and necessary all the time for others, but if you have the ability to sit upright then it’s best to do so whenever possible.

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Comment from Lucide
Time: October 3, 2013, 2:19 am

Hello there, wondering if someone can help me. I’m relatively new to meditation, willing to be patient with it and just make it a daily practice. But when I sit up, I just feel like my breath is labored no matter what. When I lay down, it’s not. I know this must be psychological, as I don’t breathe laboriously when I’m just sitting not paying attention to my breath. It’s only when I pay attention to my breath, suddenly it feels like I’m breathing in too hard and breathing out too hard as well. This continues the entire time I am meditating. And then it builds and my breath just feels so voluntary. When I lay down this doesn’t happen; then I have the experience of being able to observe and follow my natural breathing rhythm. I also have very poor circulation in my legs and they go numb when I meditate. Thanks for your input, I greatly appreciate it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 23, 2013, 9:29 pm

Sorry for the delayed reply.

It’s not uncommon to find that we’re controlling the breathing. If you keep going you’l probably find that at some point you just “forget” to control your breathing and it’ll happen naturally. Controlling the breathing is something I’ve been asked about before, so I’d suggest reading this article if you haven’t already.

Your legs going to sleep is more likely to be due to poor posture than to poor circulation, but since I can’t see you meditating I’m afraid I can’t give much advice in that regard.

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Comment from Paulette
Time: January 2, 2014, 11:54 pm

I’ve been reading the comments above with great interest. Over the past few years I’ve meditated sitting on the floor, on a chair and lying down. Each experience is totally different but I honestly can’t say any one is better than the other for me. Once I’m comfortable and able to focus my mind, my posture seems irrelevant.
Falling asleep is certainly an issue if I’m very tired but that’s probably not the best time to meditate and I will nod off just as easily whether I’m sitting down or lying down. When I’m alert I get tremendous benefits from meditation regardless of my posture.
Thank you for your wonderful website. Your articles and advice are written with great intelligence and insight and it’s a real joy to read them.

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