Posture Setup Routine
extract from my Buddhist Meditation book
A good posture keeps the skeletal structure balanced and aligned; we manage the force of gravity running through the body by aligning the bones, rather than holding the muscles in a rigid pose. From there, we will need periodically to make fine adjustments.
So have awareness in the upright spine, enabling balance in the weight of the trunk above the seat – left, right, forward and back – with a minimum of muscular effort. Then, once every part of the body (especially the legs and arms) is positioned so it feels symmetrically balanced, the whole structure will feel unified.
Here is a routine for setting up meditation posture for every time we sit. It offers a systematic way of assessing posture that will eventually become second nature. It might take no longer than a second or two; at other times we may need to spend considerably more time on it. Remember though that effects of good or bad posture won’t usually be clear at first; it may take twenty, thirty or more minutes before we realise something is wrong, or that there has been an improvement. Sometimes a position is comfortable at first but becomes excruciating after ten minutes; conversely a posture may feel awkward initially, even slightly painful, but become easy and stable as the session proceeds.
- Choose a cushion or stool that seems the right height and arrange the legs in one of the ways shown. If you are sitting cross-legged, don’t be concerned for now if both knees don’t reach the ground. Eventually the legs will need to be lower than the hips or the back will slump, but the right seat height can enable that. Most people slump, and need a higher seat than they think. It’s worth experimenting with small modifications as even an inch can make the vital difference. Eventually, we’ll feel the balance to be correct at a certain height and the awareness arising from that will help us adjust the legs and back.
Incorrect cushion height usually causes the main sitting errors, arching backward and slumping forward: see figs. 11 and 12.
Arching, (or more exactly, over-arching as the spine naturally arches inwards to some extent) often occurs when the seat is too high. The extra height causes the upper pelvis to move forwards, the tailbone backwards and the buttocks to protrude out behind. This creates a general tendency for the body’s weight to fall forwards, and the upper back arches up and backwards to compensate. This strains the lower back so we begin feeling pain there. The remedy for over-arching, if slight, is to relax in the lower back, letting the spine return to a natural position. If that’s not enough, we need a lower seat.
Slumping happens when the seat is too low. The upper pelvis tends backwards and the tailbone tucks under, causing the lower back to collapse and the body weight to be thrown backwards. Then to avoid falling back one tends to slump forward and close up in the chest. This awkward position causes painful tension in the neck and shoulders. The remedy for slumping, if it is slight, is simply to sit up straight (not rigidly straight like a broom handle, but with a natural curve). It that is not enough, we need a higher seat: experiment by adding more layers of cushions or blankets.
- Become aware of the body’s weight as it presses the two sitting bones in the buttocks down on to the seat. Maintaining this awareness as a base and, keeping the weight evenly distributed between left and right, allow the spinal column to lift lightly and straighten without rigidity.
- Taking a deep breath or two, allow the chest and rib cage to open. Experience the shoulders and arms lifting slightly on the inward breath, and on the outward breath allow them to roll back and relax down so the chest stays open.
- We can then adjust the hands in the lap so that their position maintains the relaxed-back position of the shoulders and arms. It can be helpful to place some padding in the lap to support the hands, which can then relax easily. One hand can be placed over the other. This too will help the shoulders relax.
- We can now adjust the position of the head. It is important to allow the head to be supported by the spine rather than the neck muscles. There should be no sense of rigidity, a point worth checking from time to time during meditation. The neck muscles should be completely relaxed so the head can move freely. Adjust by becoming aware of the neck as an extension of the spine. If it helps, roll the head gently backwards and forwards until it feels balanced. Experience the point where the skull balances upon the spinal column, and let it tilt forward very slightly, so the gaze rests a few feet ahead on the floor. Lastly, relax the face, jaw, tongue and throat.
- We can now check the posture as a whole, especially noting the alignment of the trunk from side to side and back to front. It can help to rock gently each way from your pelvis until you feel yourself to be in equilibrium. Now we are in a position to check more thoroughly for the basic sitting faults of slumping forward or arching backwards, and make any further adjustments necessary.
The entire sitting position needs to be as balanced and symmetrical as possible. Ideally each part of our body is balanced by another part, so there is minimal strain on the system. Setting up the posture in the systematic way just outlined helps achieve this. However we can’t always trust our feelings: the fact that the posture feels right doesn’t mean it actually is! Often, what feels ‘right’ is merely what we are accustomed to. When a friend or teacher places us in better alignment it may feel awkward and crooked at first, and the tendency will probably be to gradually move back to the familiar, incorrect and unhelpful posture. So, especially if you have practised meditation for a long time, you should not take the feeling of rightness or wrongness in posture as the only guideline, but occasionally seek some objective assessment. Ask friends and teachers to take a look, and attend classes or retreats where posture instruction is available.
One obvious indication of incorrect posture is pain. Some aches and pains are best ignored – minor discomforts that soon pass, feelings of awkwardness, itches, and other irritations. There can be no end to these, and we’ll never be able to settle down unless we consciously decide to put up with them. These discomforts are often linked with inner restlessness, an unsettled mind fastening on to and becoming obsessed by, a relatively minor irritation. Indulging this will prevent us from connecting with meditation, and people practising alongside us will also be disturbed. If this really is all that’s happening we should recognize the fact and put our attention elsewhere. But it’s important to be sensitive in assessing this, because some pains may be danger signals. Pins and needles, or numbness, for example, should not be ignored. It is certainly not good for limbs to become completely numb. And sharp pains invariably suggest that something is wrong.
It may be that one part of our body is being pressed too hard against the floor or another limb. Cushions and pads are generally good for alleviating this; a small pad or roll of material makes a helpful cushion for an ankle that is pressing into a thigh. Generally, unless the weather is really hot, a surprisingly effective way to avoid pain is to keep the legs and hips insulated. If we wrap our hips and legs in a warm blanket and sit upon a doubled blanket or a zabuton, it will take the edge off temporary, inconsequential aches and pains. This also protects the knees, and when kneeling eases any pressure on ankles and the upper parts of the feet.
The body is where Buddhist practice begins, and it is also a fitting point at which to leave this book. Buddhist tradition reminds us that the human body is something exceedingly precious and difficult to obtain. We should therefore treat it with kindness and respect, for it serves as the basis from which anyone can meditate, gain insight and attain Enlightenment. Awareness of the experience called ‘body’ enables awareness of feeling and the great ethical transformations that become possible when we simply notice our actual emotional responses. Then taking the Buddha’s instruction and looking very deeply into our experience of self and world, based on our mysterious embodiment, allows the possibility of seeing all things, everywhere, as they actually are.
At least sometimes, most meditators have to deal with physical aches and pains during meditation. Pain recedes into the background once we’re deep in concentration, but often our back muscles or knees nag at us long before we get to that point, and pain can scupper the whole enterprise unless we can counteract it. A lot of pain derives from unhelpful habits coming from a lifetime’s contact with poorly designed chairs. Unfortunately, people normally adopt slumped sitting positions that support their back temporarily, but in the longer term are harmful and difficult to correct. What we need is a practical understanding of the principles of good posture and this short chapter aims to give enough advice to avoid serious problems as well as some overall guidance on the principles of meditation posture.
The core principle is this: the best meditation posture is one in which we can become completely still, completely relaxed and completely alert. Sitting in any posture that minimizes strain and in which we can also be awake and alert, creates a sense of free vitality that makes it much easier to concentrate. Relaxing from the strain supports awareness, and that awareness enables further relaxation. This is revitalising and refreshing and frees new energy that helps us direct the mind in concentration. This progression is similar to that taught by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta in which he shows how mindfulness of the body supports awareness of feeling. Once awakened, these aspects of awareness enhance our sense of presence and purpose, helping us give attention more wholeheartedly. Maintaining mindfulness of the body is the way to learn, experientially, the principles of meditation posture, because it enables us to understand the body mind relationship.
Postural work has little to do with holding a particular pose, as meditation can be practised in almost any position if that is necessary. An invalid, for example, may have no choice but to lie in bed, but that need not present any problems once he or she is accustomed to it. In walking meditation, we are standing up and moving, and there’s no reason why we can’t learn to meditate standing still. But most people find some form of sitting position gives the easiest access to still, deep concentration. We are seeking a way to sit with a minimum expenditure of energy, with the heart at its quietest and the lungs unrestricted so the air intake and outflow is gentle and natural.
So have awareness in the upright spine, enabling balance in the weight of the trunk above the seat – to both left, right, forward and back – with a minimum of muscular effort. Then, once every part of the body (especially the legs and arms) is positioned so it feels symmetrically balanced, the whole structure will feel unified. A good posture keeps the skeletal structure balanced and aligned; we manage the force of gravity running through the body by aligning the bones, rather than holding the muscles in a rigid pose. From there, we will need periodically to make fine adjustments.
It is noticeable that when sitting the main support for the body structure is the pelvis. To enable the pelvis to take the full weight of the upper part of the body without imbalance, the lower back should neither slump nor over-arch: these are the two most typical sitting errors. The entire weight of the upper body bears down on the pelvic sitting bones, two bony projections that press against the cushion or seat. The weight should be distributed equally between these so the muscles on one or the other side of the spine and neck work evenly. The sitting bones themselves need to roll evenly front to back; in other words, the tailbone should neither protrude outwards nor turn inwards.
The problems that usually arise from long sitting in one position are that the knees, back or neck start aching. Initially, these may have to do with lack of practice, but the likely cause is muscular tension that has been set up by our poor posture. Sometimes the tension develops because of an unconscious habit of using more muscular effort than is necessary, or when muscles remain contracted even when they’re not in use. Sometimes the strain is emotionally conditioned, as we’ll see in a moment. Whatever the reason, tension habits frequently become chronic. The result is muscular pain, restricted movement and fatigue. Chronic levels of muscular tension, and neck, shoulder and back discomfort are often an outcome of poor posture. It stresses the body to sit for hours each day in an uncomfortable chair and if your occupation entails a lot of sitting down, your sitting posture will be a substantial influence on your health.
Some postural defects come from the body itself. A weakness on one side of the body will strain things on the other side, which will weaken the affected part or cause the body to develop new muscles compensating for the difference. Patterns of tension and compensatory reaction can alter the way we hold ourselves in several parts of the body. A person with one leg shorter than the other, which is not uncommon, has to work the back muscles on one side more than the other. To compensate, one shoulder is held higher than the other and the neck and head tilt to one side as a result. This slight irregularity may remain unnoticed until they start sitting still for forty minutes every day.
Another cause of physical tension is emotional strain. Someone who is round-shouldered and closed-chested, for example, may have a poor self-image and lack confidence. The habit of holding the body in this constricting way may also have strengthened that negative emotion, dulling our energy and making us over-subjective. So posture can cause negative emotion as well as be caused by it. Physical awareness can help in generating positive emotion. If we notice how we are carrying ourselves we can learn to stand more upright, hunching less in the shoulders and relaxing in the head and neck; our mental state will almost certainly improve. Just as a joyful emotional state is reflected in the way we sit, stand, and move, a happy state in meditation naturally enables an improved sitting posture. As we meditate, relatively chaotic mental states gradually clarify as the body feels lighter and more relaxed; the distracting, niggling physical discomforts gradually lessen. The back can straighten, the chest can open and the shoulders and arms relax. At the very least we can notice how restricted the present posture is, and sooner or later a straighter back and an open chest will begin to feel more natural. In this way, we start acquiring an intuitive understanding of how to work with physical posture.
Physical awareness, on its own, is a very effective way to work constructively in meditation. Sometimes just a subtle movement of the angle of the pelvis, or of the alignment of the head on the neck, suddenly makes energy available and concentration easier. It is worth experimenting with slightly different alignments sometimes. When our mind, body or both are dull and sleepy, it can seem painful to try to practice at all. We can feel so reluctant to engage with meditation practice that it seems inevitable that we will drift into daydreams. This kind of condition can have so much power over us that it seems impossible to work with. However there’s a good antidote: spend the whole session working to maintain a good posture. Though our mind is unable to grasp a more subtle meditation object, it’s possible to make the effort to remain awake and sit correctly. If we persist in bringing attention back to the body, checking for over-arching in the back, slumping and other posture points, the hindrance is likely to disperse before the end of the session, allowing us to move on to a definite meditation technique. But even if sloth and torpor is overpoweringly strong, as it sometimes can be, and we are not able to concentrate at all ,even after half an hour or forty minutes, nevertheless we’ll have weakened its power over us just by being active and holding it at bay; we’ll probably notice an improvement in subsequent meditation sessions.
It’s easier to work with the body in the case of the opposite mental extreme, the hindrance of restlessness and anxiety; we just determine to sit absolutely still. The stillness needs to be relaxed and calm, not forced. By taking that resolution as the main factor in the meditation the restless mind will eventually calm down and be at peace. If agitation is very strong, though, there will be resistance; patience will be very necessary and the process will take some time. But if without forcing we persist patiently in stilling the body, we’ll eventually succeed.