Growing up on the "space coast" of Florida, I lived with a constant awareness of NASA and America’s space program. Traffic would regularly clog our downtown roads when certain launches were taking place, and as a kid I had a great interest in anything having to do with space exploration. Watching a night launch would always take my breath away, as the entire sky would light up and I’d feel the rumble from the shuttle’s engines. I heard that when the Apollo missions were in their heyday, they’d shatter windows all over my town.
Especially amazing to me was the time I went to the Space Visitor Center and realized how tightly compacted the cabin of the Mercury mission was. The astronaut sat in a space about the size of the driver’s seat of my Honda Civic and rode a capsule only slightly larger than said Civic into space on top of a rocket going over 17,000 miles per hour. He couldn’t really move his body except to manipulate some controls or go to the bathroom (while still in his suit). I think this gave me an early appreciation of what sitting in one place for an extended period of time could mean.
When I first began my study of yoga and meditation, the swami who was my teacher told me that maitryasana (sitting upright in a chair) was a perfectly acceptable meditation pose. He told me that in order to support proper yogic breathing, it’s most crucial to keep the spine erect but not tense. Since then (about 17 years ago), I’ve been on numerous meditation retreats and have seen many people of differing ages and health states struggle with cross-legged floor poses. I myself struggled with the shame of not being able to comfortably sit on the floor in a cross-legged pose (I guess because I’ve seen paintings and sculptures of Buddhas and yogis sitting that way and just assumed it was necessary if you want to succeed). But then I’d remember the words of the swami, and I’d forgive myself for sitting in maitryasana at the back of the meditation shrine. Besides comfort, another benefit of this pose is that you’re usually high enough in the room to watch dharma talks without having to stare at the back of someone’s head.
Strangely, it’s not unlike the sitting position of those early astronauts.
Maitryasana literally means "friendship pose." It is deceptively simple. It’s just sitting still in a straight-backed chair. It requires attention to posture, with the body held neither too tight nor too loose. And from that position of comfort, ease, and stillness, a journey into inner space is supported. Strangely, it’s not unlike the sitting position of those early astronauts. Both require simply sitting in one place (although the astronaut pose was a little more reclined than friendship pose). And both poses facilitate travel through space.
Our culture is not one that finds sitting cross-legged very comfortable. Of course there are exceptions, and of course it can be developed, but generally you won’t find folks in an office building sitting cross-legged on the floor. You won’t go to a doctor’s appointment and be asked to sit cross-legged in the waiting room by a receptionist sitting cross-legged behind a wall of plastic. We don’t go to the movies and sit cross-legged in front of a giant screen. And the last time I rode a train, I didn’t sit cross-legged in the train car. It’s safe to say we’ve built our culture around an unconscious sitting pose that looks a little like maitryasana.
At what point does an action like sitting in a chair actually become asana?
So how do you take this most pedestrian of poses into inner space? What makes sitting down maitryasana, rather than just "sitting down"? We could probably do some pretty good work just contemplating that question for awhile. At what point does an action like sitting in a chair actually become asana? It has to do with intention. Rather than staying in the habitual groove of turning the senses outward to the smartphone, the scenery, people-watching, or some other distraction, one practices maitryasana when one starts to turn inward—really examining the inner world and, without judgment, stepping into a hitherto unexplored internal process.
To really practice maitryasana alert and engaged, but neither hyper-alert nor tense, is a great and heroic feat, even if everyone else around you is struggling with their cross-leggery. One’s back should be straight but not straining, and of course one should not be slouching. “Good head and shoulders,” as Trungpa Rinpoche said.
Not too tight. Not too loose. And then what? Usually we’d say that once the posture is taken—assuming you’ve done your best to make yourself reasonably comfortable for the time being, eliminating the need for adjusting clothes or fidgeting—you just sort of sit there and relax. Then what? Then you can bring your attention to an alambana, which can be defined as a peaceful resting place or support for meditation. This could be a mantra, or even just the sensation of breath in the nostrils. And then you just kind of stay there. Or I should say you intend to stay there, because inevitably you won’t be able to stay. Your attention will wander, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself very far away from the place you intended to rest your mind. But this is not cause for alarm or self-criticism. You can simply notice your distraction, and then bring your attention back to the resting place.
What happens next is a mystery. Or at least there’s the possibility of mystery...
And then what? You just keep doing that very same thing for the period of time you’ve allowed for this practice. It could be a minute. It could be twenty. And you could be practicing in a group, or it could be just you, by yourself. You can do this practice in the morning or the evening. It could be after a handstand. It could be immediately upon awakening. That's the practice. Invite your mind to rest on the alambana, and when you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back. That’s it. What happens next is a mystery. Or at least there’s the possibility of mystery, because I couldn’t hope to tell you what you’ll experience if you do this practice regularly. I suppose even in this sense, there are similarities to what those early astronauts experienced in that similar physical pose. No one really knew what they would experience when they went into outer space. And no one can really know what they’ll experience when they sit in maitryasana and rest the mind gently in the peaceful flow, traveling into inner space.