Does It Really Matter?
The answer is both yes and no. In meditation, you move into a state of being that is deeply relaxed, yet at the same time very aware. Meditation posture matters because, if your sitting position becomes uncomfortable, the discomfort can interfere, pulling on your attention and bringing you out of a meditative state. A really comfortable, well-balanced sitting position – good meditation posture – helps to take you inward.
Having said that, you can still meditate in most any position – slumped on the sofa, perched on a rock – but probably not for as long as you might otherwise / if you were really comfortable.
As a guiding principle, it’s good to be seated such that you are aligned, balanced and stable – the idea is to be so balanced and comfortable that you can completely relax.
The Cross-legged Meditation Postures
There are many good ways to sit for meditation – cross legged, kneeling, in a chair, or even lying down. We’ll start with the cross legged meditation postures – cobbler’s, Burmese, half lotus and full lotus, each progressively more stable than the last – and then go on to the others – kneeling, seated in a chair and lying down.
If you know that certain ones interest you most – say you have a knee injury and must use a chair – then by all means, skip ahead as needed.
Cobbler’s pose – also called easy pose or sukasana – is our dear cultural icon for meditation.
The feet are placed under the knees with the shins crossed in the center. The knees are level with (or below) the hips. The hands are on the thighs.
However, if you find this position unstable and uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Many people just aren’t built for cobblers pose – their hip joints simply don’t roll out that far.
The hip has a circular range of motion that differs from person to person and, particularly for Westerners, that range of motion can be pretty limited. You know you have a limited range if your your knees stick up, your lower back is rounded and you’re balancing on the sit bones, which are bearing the pressure of all your weight. If this is your situation, then you’ll be more comfortable with the supports described next.
Not to say that cobbler’s is bad! If you’re one of the fortunate ones with a great range of motion – you’re comfortable in cobblers (your knees naturally fall level with or below your hips) – then by all means do proceed!
Either way, one thing that can help make cobblers more comfortable is to sit on a couch or an oversized armchair, leaning lightly against the back. A well-placed pillow or bolster can also help.
The Key to Comfort and Stability
The key to comfort and stability is to use something that lifts you off the ground – a thrice-folded blanket, a meditation cushion (called a zafu), or a meditation bench.
You sit on the front third of the meditation cushion or blanket, as pictured above, and let the hips roll forward slightly. This takes pressure off the hip joints, knees and lower back, and allows the legs to relax and fall into place more naturally.
How high off the ground you should be depends on your build. Two inches is a good minimum. A thrice-folded blanket can provide a slight lift – two to three inches – while a meditation cushion or bench can give you much more – six to nine inches. You’ll want to experiment with height to find what works best for you.
To create even more stability, you can let the lower legs lie flat on the ground. This creates a very stable tripod, an easy, natural, position known as Burmese pose.
The knees rest on the floor where they drop naturally. The feet lie flat on the floor, crossed in the center, one in front of the other.
The hands are placed on the thighs (not the knees ), which makes it possible for the arms to completely relaxed.
This position is widely used around the world – with and without cushion.
The Beauty of a Little Lift
Being lifted off the ground and rolling your hips forward slightly does several good things for you:
1.First, this is a naturally well-balanced position. Minimal muscular effort is required and this makes it possible to sit still comfortably for a long time.
The reason is that it establishes a certain natural curve in your vertebral column. The lower back curves inward slightly, the upper back curves out, and the neck curves inward again, in a long, natural S-curve.
If you’re sitting flat on the floor without a cushion, the lower back tends to round. But if you’re sitting with a cushion – on the front third of the cushion with the hips rolled forward – everything above the hips naturally moves into these nice long curves.
2.Second, it opens up the rib cage and frees the diaphragm. The inner core is lightly engaged, but the belly is relaxed and open, making it possible for you to breath freely – easy and deep.
This is a big contrast from, say, typical sitting in a chair (or totally slumped on the sofa). In these sitting positions, the chest tends to cave in, smushing the diaphragm and creating a shallow, restricted breathing pattern.
3.Third, it takes the pressure off the tailbone. This is subtle, but when you sit for a long time, you DO feel the difference.
Balanced and Stable – How do you Tell?
Here’s an easy way to tell if you’re aligned, balanced and stable.
As you’re sitting in your meditation posture of choice, ask yourself this question: what would happen if gravity took over? In other words, if you were to totally relax your whole body, what would happen?
Would you start to fall in one direction? Roll back onto the floor?
Would you collapse in some way – would your chest cave in?
If so, then your sitting position is unstable. This means you have muscle groups working hard to keep you in place.
Sooner or later, the muscles will tire, the position will become uncomfortable, and you’ll find yourself shifting around, trying to find a better position. Yikes!
Or would you just sort of settle in to yourself?
In other words, your head might drop forward but everything else would remain in place, just a little heavier?
Lotus Pose – The Uber Posture
Finally, moving on to the most stable posture of all, we have dear, mystical lotus pose. Lotus pose is even more stable than Burmese. It does require a certain in-born flexibility, and even then it can take awhile for your body to adapt, but if you’re built for it, it can be quite comfortable.
Just so you know, as exotic and glamorous as lotus may look, there’s no mystical significance to it – nothing special it does for your meditation – except to make you very, very stable.
For half lotus, one foot is placed on the opposite thigh. Half lotus is usually done in order to work up to full lotus: you alternate legs over time, gradually gaining greater flexibility. For full lotus, both feet are placed on the opposite thighs.
Next up – Kneeling and Chair Meditation Postures
This concludes the section on cross-legged meditation postures. Next up are the kneeling and chair meditation postures, followed by a page on meditation lying down.