Good posture facilitates effective breathing and energy flow through the spine. It keeps us alert and aware. It also allows us to sit for extended periods of time without pain and discomfort; however, it is possible to over-emphasize posture in teaching meditation. ‘Correct’ posture is difficult and even painful for many people, and a rigid approach to the subject can unnecessarily discourage people from trying meditation. Difficulty with posture is a common reason people give up meditation. In silent sitting meditation, our concentration is deeply inward. The focus we give to the body is a transitional step in support of that deeper inwardness. The best posture for you will be the posture that allows you to go deep into your own consciousness with little or no thought about your body.
The ideal posture for meditation is upright and erect but without stress or straining. The details of body position vary slightly depending upon whether you are sitting cross-legged on a cushion or in a chair, but the basic formula of upright and erect will always apply.
Sitting in the Cross-Legged Position
You will need a firm and high cushion to sit on. Pillows and sofa cushions will not do. You will want to purchase a zafu, a cushion created specifically for sitting meditation. A zafu is usually round and filled with a densely packed material like kapok or buckwheat hulls. This will support you stably. An unstable sitting cushion will result in back pain and over time it may result in back problems. You sit on a hard surface, you should consider a zabuton, a thick pad large enough for your cushion and ankles. If you sit on a highly padded carpet, you may be able to do without the zabuton.
Once seated, cross your legs and gently rock back and forth a few times to get settled in. Your cushion will shape itself to you. Your hips should be positioned directly beneath your shoulders, your spine erect. Allow your shoulders to relax and drop back a bit, so the chest is open. This will facilitate good breathing [link to Meditative Breathing] It is important to be relaxed and not strain while maintaining your posture. I once spent two months at a monastic meditation retreat. I sat many hours a day in the cross-legged posture. I wanted to be correct in every way, so most of those hours were spent in pain, struggling to maintain the traditional posture. This resulted in poor meditations and joint damage that took years to correct. Don’t let this happen to you. If sitting in the cross-legged position is painful, make the necessary adjustments, or sit in a chair. The ‘magic’ of meditation doesn’t come from posture, it comes from the quality of your concentration. Your posture must support your concentration.
Once settled on your cushion, allow your head to tilt slightly forward. Your eye line will place your gaze on the floor a few feet in front of you. This will prevent neck pain. If you use a meditation altar, it should be low enough to accommodate this posture; otherwise, your head will be tilting back as you gaze up at your altar. For floor sitters, an altar height of more than 24 inches may be too high. Consider using a sitting bench or tan to give you more height, or consider lowering your altar.
What to do with the hands? Mudras are graceful and beautiful to look at, but as a beginner, you will be better off just allowing your hands to find their own position. This may be in your lap or resting on your thighs. Respect your bodies dimensions. Avoid hand placement that causes the shoulders to be pushed up or pulled forward causing you to slouch. If you have a long torso and short arms, consider using a lap cushion to support your hands. Your hand placement should not alter your basic posture. Once you have found a comfortable sitting position, take a few deep breaths and settle into your meditation. Begin by being aware of your posture but don’t fixate on it. Just relax and ‘drop off body and mind.’ Don’t be surprised if it takes a while to find a posture that is just right for you.
Sitting in a Chair
The above posture principles apply to sitting in a chair – upright and erect, without strain or stress. Your shoulder should be directly over your hips. Try not to lean forward or backward while sitting. A simple straight-backed chair with a firm seat cushion is preferred. Lumbar support may be required if you cannot sit upright without using the back of the chair. The seat of your chair should be parallel to the floor. Most folding chairs tilt you backward. If you must use a folding chair, employ firm padding to correct this tendency.
Your feet should be flat on the floor and directly under your knees. In this position, the knees should be the same height as the hips, or just slightly lower. If the knees are higher than the hips, it will cause back strain, if lower than the hips, it may cause circulation problems in your legs. To correct the knee-hip relationship, add firm padding to your seat to raise you up, or some support under your feet to lift the knees.
The most important thing to remember about posture is that it shouldn’t distract you from your meditative concentration. Minor aches and pains can be ignored for a short time, but persistent or severe pain should be quickly addressed. ‘Upright and erect’ is the optimum posture for meditation because it facilitates concentration; but it is possible to meditate in any bodily position. If need be, experiment. You will be able to find a posture that keeps you alert and awake and allows you to stay well focused.