Q: I’ve heard it said again and again that you should sit with your head, neck, and trunk straight when you meditate. Why is that so important?
There are three main reasons why it’s important to sit with your head, neck, and trunk straight when you practice meditation.
1. This is the healthiest and most comfortable way of sitting. In this pose, the spine is stretched up, the chest is expanded, and the head is held in place effortlessly. Due to the straight spine and expanded chest, the lungs, heart, and muscles of the diaphragm work efficiently and in a relaxed manner. The weight of the whole body is centered on the base of the spine and distributed through the buttocks.
In this pose the practitioner will be relatively free from sloth, heaviness, and inertia, while still remaining relaxed.
The weight creates pressure on the bottom of the spine and this pressure increases heat. As the heat increases, the pranic force at the base of the spine expands, rising upward. Because the spine is straight, the pranic energy flows freely upward along the spinal column toward the head, burning up sloth and inertia and at the same time providing nourishment to the organs located between the base of the spine and the top of the head. As a result, in this pose the practitioner will be relatively free from sloth, heaviness, and inertia, while still remaining relaxed.
2. At the base of the spine, between the first and second chakras, there is a particular energy channel called the kurma nadi. The kurma nadi originates here and runs all the way to the hollow of the throat. It regulates the stability of the body and mind.
According to yogic mythology, there is an enormous and powerful kurma (tortoise), on whose back sits shesha naga (the cosmic snake). This snake has a thousand heads and it holds the earth on one of them. When it shifts the earth from one head to another, earthquakes occur. The most powerful earthquakes happen when the tortoise—who holds the snake who is holding the earth—moves slightly.
The root of the kurma nadi is the tortoise. The stability of the spine and all that is centered around it depends on the firmness of kurma nadi. By keeping the head, neck, and trunk straight and sitting in a meditative pose, one attains firmness in the energy that is controlled by the kurma nadi.
3. Sitting in the same pose every day is a way of training our bodies and minds to be aware of the truth on which we meditate. The pose and the practice that goes with it have great impact in the formation of a fruitful meditative habit. The following story illustrates the point.
Once upon a time there was a student. He was sincere, hardworking, and quite intelligent. But his teacher was somewhat bewildered because this young man seemed completely incapable of coming up with any answers in the classroom. The teacher spent extra time with him, reviewing each lesson again and again and asking him, “Do you follow?” The student would always say, “Yes sir.” But the next day, his mind again seemed blank. Finally one day the teacher lost his temper and kicked the student so hard that the poor fellow fell down. (Thank God this didn’t happen in the West.)
As he rolled on the ground his memory returned and he recited the entire lesson flawlessly. The experienced teacher immediately understood the problem and admonished him: “Son, study your lessons sitting with your head, neck, and trunk straight, not reclining on your bed.”
Time, space, and causation are basic conditionings of the mind. How we sit and where we sit creates a deep groove in the mind. It is important, therefore, to sit for meditation every day and to sit in the same meditative pose each time. The best pose is the one in which the head, neck, and trunk remains in a straight line.
Q: Why is it that some people practice meditation sincerely for a long time and yet still seem to display “unspiritual” qualities—like greed, selfishness, and overbearing egos?
This happens because their meditation is just a mental exercise, not a spiritual practice. In order to make meditation spiritual, the aspirant has to infuse it with a spiritual flavor. Sincere meditators who fail to experience a spiritual unfoldment usually place their emphasis on the process of concentration. Consequently, that’s what they get. Concentration alone cannot help us transform ourselves.
In order to make meditation spiritual, the aspirant has to infuse it with a spiritual flavor.
Spirituality is like a bird that can fly only if both its wings are intact and equally strong. These two wings are a one-pointed mind and constant awareness of the higher goal of life. A person gains one-pointedness by practicing concentration, whereas constant awareness comes through contemplation. Meditators who simply concentrate on the object of their meditation may develop a relatively one-pointed mind, but may fail to use their own one-pointed mental energy for inner transformation.
Q: Doesn’t an object of meditation, such as a mantra or yantra, automatically pull the mind in a spiritual direction?
In theory, yes. But in practice, it is too much to expect from a mantra alone. It depends on who gave you that mantra, whether the person who initiated you is connected to the source, or whether the mantra you were given is an awakened mantra or is simply a word or phrase taken from a book. The result also depends on how lovingly, faithfully, and one-pointedly you meditate on that mantra. Are you really practicing with full determination or are you just experimenting with one of the techniques you’ve heard leads to enlightenment? All these factors make a big difference in the efficacy of a mantra practice.
An even more significant factor is how you manage your daily life outside your meditation sessions. Even if you behave like a sage during the thirty minutes you meditate every day, if during the remaining twenty-three and a half hours you do not keep an eye on your thoughts, speech, and actions, then it’s like pouring a cup of milk in a barrel of muddy water and expecting to get a barrel of milk.
Greed, selfishness, and overbearing egos are deeply rooted in our unconscious minds. Constant meditation, which is supported by self-observation and self-analysis, can help us identify these subhuman characteristics in ourselves. Once we recognize these characteristics in ourselves and come to know their exact patterns and in which particular areas of life they spring up most frequently, we can begin to work with them. This requires contemplation, which is why the prominent yoga texts, such as the Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gita, constantly advise us to make svadhyaya (self-study) an integral part of our practice.