In the 5th century, the Buddha’s posture was a treasure of alignment, proportion, and grace. But flash forward 1,600 years and images of the Buddha, though still noble, seem wearier. In the modern statue shown below, the torso no longer sits straight. The shoulders are rounded and the chest collapsed. With the head thrown forward and the spine sloped back, the image has lost much of its vitality. Can this posture support a fruitful meditation practice?
“Without proper posture, you will face numberless obstacles in your meditation. And meditation is the core of all practices.” <br/>–Swami Rama
The two Buddhas reflect radically different states of mind, and we can take a lesson from them. The posture of the Sarnath image mirrors the quiet alertness so essential for spiritual awakening. But the form of the second figure drifts toward sleep rather than centered awareness. The contrast reminds us that to awaken rather than dampen self-awareness, each of us needs to discover how a good sitting posture looks and feels. Shoring up a slumping posture lifts more than the spinal column. It brings light to meditation itself. Let’s see how.
Sitting poses are designed to support the work of the mind. The brain and the spinal column have a relationship akin to that of a lightbulb and its wires. Sitting erect empowers this relationship. When the spine is upright, energy flows freely along it, and the discomforts and distractions caused by misalignment are reduced.
Like well-placed scaffolding, a good posture holds the body erect and steady. It grounds the base of the spine, and brings the head, neck, and trunk into alignment. Then the mind is freed to turn inward, and body awareness gradually recedes. In the end, a good sitting posture is transparent—a simple seat within which meditation unfolds.
In the early stages of practice it is easy to get caught up in the technicalities of sitting. You may find yourself struggling to sit “correctly,” but gaining little satisfaction in the process. Or you may react in the opposite way, ignoring suggestions on how to improve your meditation posture because they seem to impose too much discipline and structure. Neither approach is helpful.
The well-known dictum of the sage Patanjali simplifies matters by telling us to make the seated posture comfortable and steady. These two traits serve one another. When comfort can be achieved without sacrificing alignment, you are on the right track. And when complete alignment is achieved without sacrificing comfort, you are there.
How to Align the Spine
To align your posture you must balance the vertebral column and correctly position the head, rib cage, and pelvis. A line running from the base of the pelvis to the crown of the head forms a central axis within the body. Ideally, the natural curves of the vertebral column fall on either side of this line, maintaining alignment with it.
The head, rib cage, and pelvis must also be positioned along this central axis. In a good sitting posture the pelvis forms the base—the foundation for the lower back. The rib cage and chest, which tend to fall forward and down (aided by gravity), must be gently lifted. Finally, the head must be balanced above the rib cage.
Sound difficult? Try this exercise. In a standing posture, imagine that someone has placed a book on the crown of your head. Remain grounded in your feet, and elevate the book toward the ceiling in one integrated movement. As you do, you’ll find that your entire torso is involved. Don’t try too hard. Just notice the following reference points in your body:
Your lower back is lifted and elongated.
Your chest is gently elevated.
Your shoulders are released down and away from the ears, and to the sides (neither back nor forward).
Your head is drawn slightly in (like a turtle).
Your chin is tipped slightly down.
The back of your neck is elongated.
The central axis of your body is lengthened through the crown of your head.
Maintain this posture without turning into a robot. Then walk around a bit, feeling the pleasant elevation and ease of motion it supplies.
How to Sit Comfortably
The next step is to align your torso while you are sitting. For most of us, the lotus pose (the leg position adopted by the Sarnath image) is not a good posture for the task, nor is it recommended. There are other sitting postures that make it easier to balance the spine in comfort, without contorting the legs. But no matter which pose you choose, it will need to resolve any persistent discomfort in the knees, hip joints, or spine.
The long-term answer for tension or weakness in these areas lies in practicing a series of hatha yoga postures to stretch and strengthen sitting muscles. The series should include such poses as the bound angle (butterfly) pose, reclining leg cradles, quadriceps stretches and strengtheners, spread-legged forward bends, variations on the locust pose (for lower back strength), the staff pose, the chair pose, and a variety of seated forward bends.
These yoga postures are designed to complement meditation and they will work wonders. But changing the ingrained habits of muscles and soft tissue is a process that takes time. In the meantime, there is an approach you can adopt that will enable you to sit comfortably now. That approach is to cushion your hips and legs with the precise amount of support your body needs. You won’t find cushioned poses immortalized in museum images, but in real life they are used to support the lower back and relieve strain in the hips and legs.
Although yoga offers many poses that are suitable for meditation, the pose that is most comfortable for the majority of students is the simple cross-legged pose called sukhasana. You probably used it as a child when you sat on the floor. This pose minimizes tension in the hips and knees while naturally gathering energy at the base of the spine. With proper cushioning, it relieves lower back strain and reduces rounding in the lumbar spine. It also permits you to make adjustments so that the placement of the pelvis feels natural and secure.
Cushioning is the key. Use cushions and blankets to lift the hips and build molded support for each leg. Only the feet rest on the floor. Raise the hips, a little at a time, until any more cushioning feels counterproductive. Don’t be concerned that you are elevating the hips too high. With generous cushioning, you will find yourself sitting effortlessly. Later, when your hips and back announce that they are ready, you can lower the level of cushioning.
Examine the side view of the pose carefully. The legs are fully supported with cushions (or blankets), reducing discomfort in the hip joints and strain on the knees. The knees are lower than the hip joints so that the thighs slope downward. This relieves tension in the abductor muscles and pressure on the lower back. The pelvis is tipped slightly forward, creating a pelvic/lower back alignment that is neutral—neither rounded nor overarched.
To sit in this (or any) pose for longer periods you will need to strengthen your lower back muscles. Weakness in these muscles allows the spine to round. Actively elevating the lower back, on the other hand, eliminates rounding and allows you to elongate the lumbar spine. Until you have strengthened your back muscles, you may want to place your meditation seat near a wall for extra support. Sit back against the wall when your back tires or when you become uncertain of your alignment.
Once the lower back is stable, the chest can be slightly elevated as well. This creates a sense of spaciousness and allows you to release your shoulders comfortably to the sides. As you elevate your chest, watch for strain or overarching in the lower back that tells you that you have gone too far.
Finally give attention to your neck and head. The head is retracted (like a turtle) so that it rests over the neck. The chin is tipped down a little. With practice these two movements will feel relaxing and create a sense of ease in the neck and head. Then the back of the neck can be lengthened, elevating the crown of the head.
Finding Yourself in Your Pose
The yogi and philosopher, Swami Rama, remarked that balanced cross-legged poses are “the healthiest and most comfortable way of sitting.” “Without proper posture,” he added, “you will face numberless obstacles in your meditation. And meditation is the core of all practices.”
It is not as difficult as you might think to sit comfortably. With cushions for support, tensions that once plagued the body can be neutralized and the spinal column can be returned to alignment. Soon, energy flowing along the spine will enliven the muscles needed to sit erect, and a good posture will follow effortlessly.
The ideal of a steady and balanced sitting pose has persisted in yogic art and iconography for millennia, reminding us that a well-aligned posture is one of the essential ingredients of practice. But art leads only so far in the actual construction of a good pose. You must add the finishing touches yourself by returning to your meditation seat each day. There, you can develop a posture that suits you, and sit up with the heart of a calm and steady warrior. Soon, your posture will become a gateway, a safe passage to the quiet and illumined spaces within you.