It can take a lot of trial and error to find an effective meditation posture. Often we have to go through periods of discomfort before we can learn to sit comfortably.
The importance of posture, however, goes well beyond finding a way to sit comfortably, because the way we hold the body has a profound effect on the emotions and mental states that we experience. Something as subtle as the angle that you hold your chin at affects how much thinking you do. Having the wrong angle of your seat can lead to interference with the way you breathe, and can lead to feelings of tiredness or even depression.
In this section we explain how to use your body effectively in meditation, so that you can relax and at the same time develop alertness. Although relaxation and alertness may appear at first to be opposites, they can in fact coexist during a meditative state, and are characteristic of a state of mindfulness.
We’ll explain how it’s a myth that you need to be able to get into lotus position in order to meditate effectively. There are other ways to sit, including kneeling, and in fact you can meditate while sitting in a chair or while using a meditation bench.
It’s even possible to meditate while lying down, although the results are not usually very good for this particular posture and so it should only be used when absolutely necessary, as when there are injuries that prevent any other posture from being used.
In this posture workshop we’ll take you through the whole process of setting up your posture, including what to sit on, the importance of supporting your hands, the angle of the head, and some basic trouble-shooting tips.
We’d like to acknowledge the kindness of Windhorse Publications, who allowed us to use illustrations from Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight, by Kamalashila (now republished as Buddhist Meditation: Tranquillity, Imagination and Insight) in this section of the site.
The importance of meditation posture
The first thing to learn in meditation is how to sit effectively.
There are two important principles that you need to bear in mind in setting up a suitable posture for meditation.
- your posture has to allow you to relax and to be comfortable.
- your posture has to allow you to remain alert and aware.
Both of these are vitally important. If you’re uncomfortable you’ll not be able to meditate because of discomfort. If you can’t relax then you won’t be able to enjoy the meditation practice and, just as importantly, you won’t be able to let go of the underlying emotional conflicts that cause your physical tension.
From reading that, you might well think that it would be best to meditate lying down. Bad idea! If you’re lying down your mind will be foggy at best, and you may well even fall asleep. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class that ends with shavasana (the corpse pose), where people lie on the floor and relax, you’ll have noticed that about a third of the class is snoring within five minutes.
Meditating lying down should be, in most cases, a last resort. The best way to effectively combine relaxation AND awareness is a sitting posture. You don’t have to sit cross-legged, or even sit on the floor.
We’ll show you how to set up an effective posture in three positions: sitting in a chair, sitting astride a cushion or on a stool, and sitting cross-legged. All of these work: the important thing is to find one in which you will be comfortable.
Remember: you may think it looks really cool to sit cross-legged, but if you don’t have the flexibility it takes to do that then you’ll simply suffer! Make it easy on yourself. Choose a posture that is right for you.
The elements of a good meditation posture
There are many different ways to sit for meditation, including using chairs, sitting astride cushions, using a bench, and various ways of sitting cross-legged from the simple tailor position to the full lotus.
I’m going to stress again that you need to find a position that is comfortable for you. Listen to your body.
Discomfort will distract you from your meditation and is also your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong (although you need to learn to distinguish — perhaps you can already — the discomfort of stretching from the discomfort of damaging pain; but we’ll come to that later).
We’ll look at common problems with meditation posture later, but for now, these are the things you have to bear in mind when setting up a posture that will allow you to be comfortable and to be aware:
1. Your spine should be upright, following its natural tendency to be slightly hollowed. You should neither be slumped nor have an exaggerated hollow in your lower spine.
2. Your spine should be relaxed.
3. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and slightly rolled back and down.
4. Your hands should be supported, either resting on a cushion or on your lap, so that your arms are relaxed.
5. Your head should be balanced evenly, with your chin slightly tucked in. The back of your neck should be relaxed, long, and open.
6. Your face should be relaxed, with your brow smooth, your eyes relaxed, your jaw relaxed, and your tongue relaxed and just touching the back of your teeth.
Next we’ll look at the most common ways you can sit, beginning with the easiest, and then we’ll look at some common faults in posture and how to correct them.
Meditating sitting in a chair
We’re going to start with the easier meditation postures first.
One thing I often see in beginning meditators is a desire to contort themselves into a posture that demands more flexibility than they have. This results in discomfort, distracted meditations, and even physical damage. Be kind to yourself.
You can meditate perfectly well in an ordinary dining-room or office chair. The only thing you have to do to modify the chair is to raise its back legs by maybe an inch or so (2.0 to 2.5cm). This allows you to sit upright without having to either hold your back rigidly, or leaning against the back of the chair. Blocks of wood, or even telephone directories, can be used for this.
The meditator in this photograph probably needs to raise the back legs of his chair another half-inch or so, so that he can sit more upright. Notice how his back is rounded leaning against the chair-back.
When I use a chair to meditate I like to have only the very base of my spine touching the back of the chair. It’s best not to lean back in the chair — I think it encourages underachievement! When you’re slumping against the back of a chair then you’re not taking responsibility for your body, and this also encourages an attitude of not making an effort with the mind.
Of course there are always exceptions, and some people with back problems may need to use the seat-back as an extra support in order to be able to sit for the length of time it takes to meditate.
In this picture you’ll see an ordinary dining-room chair being used very effectively. You’ll note that the back legs of the chairs are raised on wooden blocks. This means that the meditator’s back is straight and is only touching the back of the chair at the very bottom, meaning that he’s basically self-supporting. This meditator is also quite short and his feet don’t touch the floor. He’s therefore using a folded blanket to prevent his legs from simply dangling.
One compromise I’ve found that allows for a small amount of back support from the chair-back while avoiding slumping is as follows: Sitting on a chair, bend forwards from the waist so that the belly is along the thighs. Then wiggle backwards until your derriere is lightly touching the back of the chair. Then sit up, and you should find that the very base of your spine gets a slight support from the base of the chair-back, helping you to keep your back naturally upright.
Your hands need to be supported, so rest them on your thighs, palms down. If you have a long back then you may need to have a cushion on your lap on which to rest your hands, in which case have your palms face up.
Have your feet flat on the floor if you can. If your legs are very long or very short compared to the chair, then this might not be possible. If your feet don’t reach the floor, then you can use another phone book to rest your feet on. If your legs are too long, then ideally you should find another chair, or put a cushion or folded blanket on the seat of the chair to give you a bit more height.
Some office chairs are perfect for meditating! Set the seat so that it is slightly tilted forward, and make sure that the backrest is only making very slight contact with your lower back. Adjust the height so that your feet are flat on the floor.
There are specialist meditation chairs available to help you sit comfortably in an appropriate posture. Searching on the internet is the best bet, but Zen By Design has a good, although expensive range.
Meditating while kneeling, using a cushion or stool
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.
More meditation posture tech-talk
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.)
Not everyone can meditate cross-legged — I’m one of them!
Fortunately, there’s no need to be in a cross-legged posture to meditate. In fact if you force yourself into an uncomfortable cross-legged posture then you may do long-term damage to your joints, and you certainly won’t be comfortable enough to meditate effectively.
However, if you have the flexibility then sitting cross-legged is a very stable and grounded posture. There are a number of ways of sitting with crossed legs.
The first picture is the tailor position, which is the simplest cross-legged position. It’s also probably the most common cross-legged posture.
It’s very important for you to have both knees on the ground, to give you adequate support. Having three points of contact (your butt, and both knees) gives you a lot of stability. When was the last time you saw a photographer trying to keep a camera stable on a dipod?
If you can’t quite get both knees on the floor, then you can use some padding (a thin cushion or folded scarf) under your knee to keep you stable. If one, or both of your knees is more than an inch (2-3cm) off the ground, then use a chair or try sitting astride cushions or a meditation bench or stool. You can always do some yoga to loosen up your hips, and then come back and try a cross-legged posture later.
Again, if your hands don’t rest naturally on your lap, keep them supported, perhaps on a cushion or on a blanket. You might want to alternate which foot is in front from time to time. This is a good thing to do because any cross-legged posture is slightly asymmetrical. If you alternate the position of your feet, then you’ll even out the imbalances and not “build them in” to your posture.
Meditating in lotus and half-lotus
These postures are only suitable for those who are very flexible. I have a friend who had to have the cartilage removed from his knees after years of forcing himself into lotus.
If you feel any pain in your knees, or this posture becomes very uncomfortable, then try one of the earlier postures that we looked at. You really can do yourself serious damage by trying to force your legs into positions that are uncomfortable.
In the full lotus, the feet rest on the opposite thighs, with the soles pointing upwards (if you have pain in your ankles then stop! and find an easier posture).
Full lotus is said to be the best position for meditating. The meditator who is able to sit comfortably in full lotus is close to the ground (which, for some reason, seems to be helpful in feeling “grounded”), and is also in a very balanced and symmetrical posture.
In the half-lotus, one foot is on the opposite thigh with the sole pointing upwards, while the other rests on the floor, as in the tailor position. This position comes very close to the stability and groundedness of the full lotus position.
Sitting on a chair or kneeling with cushions or on a bench are even more symmetrical postures, but there’s less contact with the floor. (If this business of not being on the floor puzzles you, then you need to experience the difference between meditating on a chair and meditating on the floor.)
Lying down to meditate
I said earlier “forget about lying down” and it’s serious advice. If you lie down to meditate — especialy meditating 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.
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.
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.