The importance of position in meditation
It is impossible to overstate the benefits the right posture can bring to our meditation. The right position can transform our minds by deepening relaxation and well-being. It can limit pain, discomfort, and risk of injury during long retreats. It helps in enhancing body awareness with a direct impact on our emotional lives. It allows us to explore and expand our understanding of the relationships between our body and our mind. Working with our meditation posture can be a full spiritual path.
In the following, you will learn the principles behind a good meditation position, the advantages of different postures, and ways to solve problems. You will gain the foundations to make your own experiments and discoveries and find the postures that work best for you. Let’s start!
The two goals of a good meditation posture
A good meditation posture is a posture that offers the best conditions for meditation. Meditation is a discipline of the mind, but it also engages the body in its complex interactions with our inner life. A suitable position for meditation must benefit both body and mind.
It must help us achieve these two objectives:
- A relaxed body
- An alert mind
A good posture will allow us to optimize these two qualities simultaneously, and it will be important to keep these two objectives in mind as we experiment with posture.
Three types of positions are commonly used for meditation: sitting, standing, and lying down. Walking meditation is another choice, but it is such a rich topic that it deserves its own article. In what follows we will spend more time on the sitting posture, but will start with the reclining (lying down) and standing postures which are important alternatives.
Standing and reclining postures: alternatives to sitting meditations
While they are less popular than seated meditation, standing and lying down postures play an important role in meditation. They can help you develop new directions in your practice and can help control pain or drowsiness when sitting posture is challenging.
Reclining meditation posture: the ideal position?
A comfortable position, but not without issues
Reclining postures would appear to be an excellent choice for meditation. They are comfortable, take no time to master, and can be maintained for a long time without fatigue. They are also an excellent solution for people who suffer from back or leg pain during sitting meditation. In short, they are the ideal posture for the body.
In meditation, however, the effect of posture on the mind is equally important: we must be able to stay alert. Unfortunately, it is not the strong point of reclining postures. Because they are the postures of sleep and rest, they can easily make the mind drift towards thoughts, drowsiness, and sleep. We should therefore avoid these postures when we are tired. And even when we feel alert, we should make the adjustments I describe below so that we can reduce the risk of falling asleep.
Adjustments: avoiding drowsiness when lying down
When meditating lying down on the back, raise the knees and point them at the sky, bent at about 90 degrees, with feet kept flat on the support. This creates a slight tension in the hips, which helps keep a physical engagement in the posture. You can additionally keep the legs parallel to each other with space between the knees. If you drift toward sleep your legs will slide to the side, which will wake you up.
Lying down on the side is another choice of reclining posture, in fact a more traditional one, but is best used when you are alert because it is more difficult to adjust to prevent sleepiness.
The standing meditation posture
When to use it
The standing meditation position might appear an odd choice for a meditation posture. It might seem too uncomfortable to help in our meditation practice. It has two significant advantages, however. First, it is a good choice when we are tired. When we are standing, we have no choice but to stay alert. Second, it can help bring the meditative experience into daily activities. As we learn to stay present and relaxed despite the physical engagement required by standing, these qualities gradually become accessible when walking and standing in daily life. This transforms these moments into opportunities for practice.
This posture can also help cultivate sensitivity to the body, which is a deep and rewarding path. For example, some forms of qigong, the Chinese discipline of cultivation of body and mind, involve standing postures held for long periods of time.
Adjustments: keep sessions short
At the beginning, only keep this posture for a few minutes, and stop as soon as you experience excessive discomfort. Holding this position takes effort, which can make the mind restless. With time, however, your muscles and motor systems will get attuned to the posture, and you will be able to hold it for longer periods while maintaining the mind at ease.
Other suggestions for adjustments to this posture are similar to those of the sitting posture and are presented below.
The sitting meditation posture: a perfect balance
The sitting posture is the most frequently used and might be the best meditation position. Why? It is an excellent compromise between lying down and standing positions, and it allows both relaxation and alertness. Because the torso is kept upright, we avoid drowsiness, and the mind stays alert. Because the legs and hips can relax, we experience less fatigue and tension, which leaves our attention available to work on the mind.
There is a wide variety of sitting meditation postures to experiment with, and you are likely to find one that will work for you. I list the most common below.
The lotus or half-lotus positions
The traditional meditation postures.
Pros: the placement of feet on the thighs locks the legs in their folded position, which holds the lower back still with limited muscular effort. This allows for a relaxed sitting even on a horizontal support.
Cons: the full lotus require a lot of flexibility and is accessible to a few of us. The half-lotus can be a suitable alternative with similar advantages but it will still require some flexibility.
The quarter lotus posture and the Burmese posture
Two accessible variants of the lotus.
Pros: in the quarter lotus, the position of the legs blocks the lower back to some extent. In both postures, a fraction of bodyweight distribute itself on the knees, which provides stability without needing flexibility.
Cons: do not offer as good of a support for the back as compared to the two previous lotus postures, it will be important to choose a seat wisely to compensate (read more about the seat further down).
The Japanese seiza position
Meditating seated on a chair
Why your seat matters : the foundation for a good meditation
The most important point for sitting meditation is the quality of the seat. There are many options, but you need to make sure that the support you choose meets the conditions below:
- It allows legs to be positioned to limit the risks of postural discomfort and pain. Choose a support that fits the posture that works best for you. For example, for a seiza posture, a meditation bench may be more suitable than a cushion.
- It is high enough to keep your knees lower than your seating bone at the base of the hips. This is an important point. The position of the hips is essential for meditation but is often overlooked. When the pelvis is higher than the knees, it remains balanced without tilting forward or backward. This balance prevents the lumbar spine from arching and relaxes the hip muscles that keep the lower back straight. The spine is then better aligned and the posture can stay relaxed, which will benefit the rest of the body and your meditation.
- It should be comfortable and let the blood flow unimpeded through the buttocks and legs to prevent your legs from becoming stiff. If you find a support that works for you but is too firm, you can add a memory foam pad to soften it. Seating closer to the edge of the seat can also prevents legs from going to sleep by freeing the underside of the thighs.
- It is compact and transportable. That is a bonus. For practitioners of all levels, it is a challenge to sustain a regular meditation practice. Having a support that follows you during travels will help you stay consistent. A transportable support can also follow you during retreats and will help you adjust with greater ease to the new conditions of practice.
Dealing with problems and pain in meditation: working with posture
The biggest physical challenges in meditation, such as pain in the back, hips or knees, or stiff legs often have their source in our posture. They can be improved and sometimes fixed by checking and adjusting the points presented below.
Even when we meditate at home without pain, working on these points can be helpful. They help protect our body, make our practice sustainable, and prepare us for the long hours of practice of a retreat or a day-long meditation event.
As you test out these adjustments in your own practice, any changes you make to your current posture should be subtle and gradual.
What to do with your hands
The ideal hand position will prevent tension from building up in your arms. This will also limit tension in the back and prevent pain, starting at the shoulders and between the shoulder blades.
- Let your hands rest on your thighs. Try several locations starting from the upper thighs until you find the most comfortable position. Check the tension in your shoulders and upper back as you experiment with hand position.
- Place them near the lower belly, below the navel. In a lotus position, they can rest on your feet. In other positions, they can rest on a small cushion placed between the legs or on a shawl covering the thighs. They can be left palm up or down, but with the palm always relaxed.
- When meditating standing up, pressing the hands lightly near the lower belly may help reduce tension. Otherwise let them hang at your side. When lying down, they can rest on the chest, the solar plexus, or the lower belly.
Your mouth can stay closed or be slightly open and should stay relaxed. Make sure that your jaw rests loosely.
We are never relaxed enough when meditating. Before and during your meditation, check whether tensions are present in the body and release any you might find. If helpful, try to visualize or sense your breath travelling through and relaxing the affected areas. If you experience recurring tension, check your posture, and consider practicing using relaxation techniques such as body scans.
While we must sometimes move to relieve discomfort during meditation, seeking stillness has many advantages. Our goal here should be to work toward a natural and relaxed immobility. You should avoid stiffening up when trying to prevent movement. When you must move always stay aware before, during and after the movement.
Alignment of the spine
Keep the spine in its natural alignment, without tension, to respect its natural curves. Ancient texts suggest abandoning our spine like a pile of coins. It may also be helpful to imagine or feel a sensation of light vertical pull or buoyancy in the torso, which might appear more pronounced near or at the spine.
Tensions in the arms
Tension in the arms often manifests itself as back pain, usually near the shoulder blades. To relieve your back, leave some space between your arms and chest, seeking a sensation of openness under the armpits. Also, make sure your hands can rest on a support, as discussed above.
Forward push of the head
Many meditators, even experienced ones, keep their heads too far forward. This creates tension in the neck and arch the shoulders, which prevents relaxation of the torso, complicates breathing and impedes somatic awareness at the chest and head. Keep your head in natural alignment with the spine. You can tuck in your chin in slightly to get a feeling of vertical extension at the back of the neck. To avoid over-correcting and pushing backward too much, imagine that your head is lifted towards the sky.
Some meditators lift their shoulders in search for vertical alignment. Let them fall back casually into a natural position.
Going further : sitting like a Buddha
Our position has tremendous effects on our meditation. As practice progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that meditation can be profoundly transformed with a continuous experimentation with posture. In this section, I will share suggestions on how to start work in this direction.
The posture of meditation masters
The historical Buddha was an expert meditator. Unfortunately, we know little of the advices he was giving on posture. Ancient texts show he suggested sitting cross-legged, upright, and at a comfortable spot (some texts tell us he was practicing sitting on a pile of cut grass). The generations of meditation masters he influenced felt the need to develop and offer more specific instructions. They described an ideal meditation posture which has become a reference for many meditative traditions. They named it after a mythical Buddha: it’s the posture of Vairocana.
This posture has 7 points:
- Legs crossed in the lotus or half-lotus position, left leg over the right leg.
- Hands forming the cosmic mudra, palms up, the right hand placed flat on the left, near the stomach just below the navel, with thumbs touching lightly.
- Torso kept straight, neither bent nor leaning forward.
- Shoulders pulled back to open torso, but without puffing out the chest.
- Neck in a natural position, in line with the spine, with the chin tucked in slightly.
- Tongue touching the palate lightly, just behind the upper teeth.
- Eyes open with a still gaze placed one to two meters in front.
You certainly recognized recommendations I already shared. The others might seem like small details. However, they suggest that slight adjustments and careful awareness of our posture are important. They can potentially transform our meditative experience and help us work with our mind more effectively. As meditation progresses, it becomes clearer how these points shape our meditation. They take a deeper significance and gradually come to support realizations and breakthroughs.
Finding an authentic and personal posture
These recommendations for meditation posture might feel like a lot to take in, but we should not approach them as a rigid template. Instead, we can experiment with them in a spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Working in that direction, we come to integrate changes we find helpful and we gradually develop a personal posture. This more authentic posture becomes a dynamic and natural expression of our discoveries, our influences, our potential, and our sensitivity. It becomes alive as an integral part of our path.
I wish you fruitful explorations!