Whether one sits in full lotus, half lotus, (accomplished pose) or (easy posture), in a chair or on your knees, most all the major texts that discuss asana advise keeping the head, neck, and torso aligned during seated meditation and breath practices.
But what does that mean? Should the back be flat or curved? Should we use muscular strength to stay aligned, or should it feel effortless?
At the beginning of most of my yoga and meditation classes, I try to address such confusion by asking students to gather whatever props are needed to achieve the same upper-body alignment in a seated posture that they do in (mountain pose). They are often surprised at the number of props they need in order to find a similar sense of effortlessness. Most people need at least one bolster and a couple of blankets before they can access their natural lumbar (lower back) curve, with their head resting lightly atop the spine and their chin above the notch between the collarbones. Students’ initial surprise is frequently followed by their astonishment at being able to comfortably remain in a seated posture for so long.
This could prove helpful for meditation, don’t you think?
Even so, we often resist props. We don’t like the fuss, and we don’t want to put them away later. We may view our need for them as a handicap, or we think we should be actively stretching even in meditation—which is really a time for letting go of body focus and moving inward. Or we practice a lot of asana and want to believe in our uniform flexibility, that our hips are sufficiently "open" enough to withstand a sustained lotus pose without repercussions. Or we want to look like those pictures of ancient gurus sitting on bare rocks in deep bliss.
Regardless of our reasons for foregoing support, the truth is that many of us have —from walking, running, or sitting a lot—which may be accompanied by challenges related to our individual hip and pelvic structures. But whatever the cause, sitting low to the ground is physically challenging, and when practicing meditation, the challenge should be about our minds—not our backs, necks, and shoulders.
Here are some suggestions for using props to find more ease in your sitting practice.
Begin on all fours, with a high support of at least three folded blankets or a solid yoga bolster directly behind you (this is generally a good starting point, but know that you can add more support as needed). Cross your ankles; then, keeping your knees grounded, sit back on the high support. (Note that a high prop setup is required for this maneuver, or you’ll just end up sitting on your ankles!) If your knees pop up when you sit back, or if your lumbar spine tires or aches after about five minutes, that means more support is needed. You may notice that when the hips are resting lightly on a high enough support, sitting in a cross-legged pose like sukhasana or siddhasana feels a bit like “standing on your knees.” The fold at the hip crease is shallow, and the knees touch the floor.
Lean slightly forward so that your weight is near your pubic bone, and then settle back a bit to rest toward the middle of the pelvis. Configuring your props so that they slope downward—by sitting more toward the front edge of your supports, or angling a bolster with a blanket under its back edge—will encourage the forward tilt of your pelvis.
If you have knee or hip discomfort and find that sukhasana (“easy posture”) is not so easy, for longer periods of sitting I recommend trying a kneeling “horse rider seat”—straddling a yoga block and sitting on a folded blanket (as pictured), or straddling two stacked bolsters, or a bolster with folded blankets. In this posture, when you are propped appropriately, the alignment of the spine should feel quite effortless. If the wide straddle on the bolsters isn’t comfortable, a small wooden seiza bench (which allows the legs to be closer in a kneeling position) may be a good investment.
Chair sitting is practically resented by some yogis for not being sufficiently “yogic.” But my meditation teachers felt that an upright posture in a chair was far superior to pain and fidgeting during practice (three of my teachers even sat in chairs themselves for meditation).
If you choose to sit in a chair, do not elevate your feet so much that the thighs are parallel to the floor, as this tends to cause the low back to round. Do place a folded blanket or small cushion on your chair seat to allow the pelvis to tilt forward, and do not let your back slump against the chair. A person with shorter legs can use a foot support or adjustable chair to keep their feet comfortably grounded (making sure the knees stay lower than the hip creases). A small pillow placed behind the lumbar spine can also help the spine find its ideal alignment in a seated posture.
When sitting in a chair for meditation, think: feet grounded; knees slightly below the hips; pelvis angled forward; and spine, neck, and head stacked.
Why can’t we just lie down and practice meditation and pranayama (breathwork)? Aside from the obvious fact that sitting up keeps us from falling asleep, another reason relates to the energy currents known as nadis. Yogis may be familiar with three major currents—ida, pingala, and sushumna—but less familiar with another very important current that is said to influence our ability to be attentive. The kurma, or “tortoise,” nadi runs from the perineum (pelvic floor) to the throat (near the brainstem). A tantric text known as the Raja Yoga Sutra states that when the kurma nadi is open, we are able to focus the mind, withdraw the senses (like the limbs of a tortoise retreating into its shell), and achieve physical and mental stability. Applying pressure at the kurma nadi’s base (at the pelvic floor) is said to be key to awakening it. According to scholar Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the tantric yogis of yore also saw the stability of the mind as inextricably connected to the stability of the body, and they were able to achieve the calm and focus they sought by resting the weight of the body at the perineum (pelvic floor).
The alignment goal in any meditation posture, then, is for the pelvis to tilt forward, with your weight centered over the perineum and your lumbar spine assuming its natural curve. Your shoulders will then be stacked directly over your hips, and your head will rest easily atop the center of your spine. Yoga Sutra 2.46 states: “The posture for yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable, and this is the third of the eight rungs of Yoga (sthira sukham asanam).”
Intentional seated posture is important because this ease in alignment is key to quieting restless thoughts. Your next seated practice, give mindful attention to optimally propping the body. And see if the mind doesn’t align as well.