Your arms weigh a lot. If your hands are not supported, then your shoulders have to carry all of that weight. That means either that your shoulders and back will tense to bear the weight of your arms, or your shoulder muscles will be overstretched. Either way it’s going to be uncomfortable.
Make sure your hands are supported.
If you’re in a low cross-legged position, then you may be able to rest your hands comfortably in your lap. However, you may want to have your hands supported higher.
This will allow your shoulders to roll back further and be more relaxed. If you’re sitting in a chair, you can usually rest your hands on your thighs, but some people with long backs may need something to support the hands. If you’re kneeling, using cushions or a stool, then you may need to have some substantial support for your hands. In this case another meditation cushion, or perhaps a sweater or blanket tied round the waist, can be used.
If you feel knots of tension gathering between your shoulder-blades while sitting, this usually means that you need to have your hands supported higher. The knots are forming because your back is making an effort to stop the weight of your arms from pulling your trunk forwards.
Depending on factors like the relative length of your back and arms and your muscular flexibility, you may have to have your hands supported as high as just above the navel. To achieve this it’s usually necessary to have a blanket tied around the waist.
If you live in a climate where it gets hot then a blanket around the legs may not be practical (it certainly isn’t in a New England summer, although I’ve used many a blanket on Scottish “summer” retreats) then a scarf tied around the waist may be a more acceptable alternative. Make the knot behind you, keeping the scarf snug, but not so tight that it constricts your breathing. And then slip your hands between the scarf and your belly, preferably with your hands in dhyana mudra. If your hands feel a bit crushed then loosen the scarf a little.
The word “dhyana” just means “meditation” and “mudra” means “position of the fingers.” The illustration shows the classic meditation mudra, with the right hand resting on the left, thumb-tips lightly touching.
This is a very comfortable position in which to rest the hands. It also acts as a “meditation effort meter.” When you’re slacking off in meditation and your mind is daydreaming, you’ll find that the thumbs drift apart. On the other hand, when you’re straining (which often happens unconsciously) the thumbs will be pressed together, making a small “mountain.”
So if you keep monitoring what’s going on in your thumb-tips it will help you to become more aware of whether you’re making too much or too little effort — of just the right amount.
When your meditation is going well and you’re alert but relaxed (i.e. you’re making just the right amount of effort in a relaxed and sensitive way) the thumbs are lightly touching.
Often people find that as they start to relax in meditation they begin to have pleasant sensations in the hands, and in the tips of the thumbs in particular. It can feel as if a mild current of energy is flowing between the thumbs in a very enjoyable way. This is normal. It’s nothing to worry about (people worry about all kinds of things, even pleasurable ones). In fact it’s a good sign because this only happens when you’re beginning to relax and when the mind is calming down significantly.
At that same time it’s nothing to get excited about. It’s not a sign that you’re enlightened and although it is an indication that your practice could go deeper, getting excited will actually stop that from happening. Telling you this probably won’t stop over-excitement happening in your practice — you’ll have to learn by experience — but it may help you to catch yourself sooner and just relax into the meditation practice when this sort of phenomenon happens.