Until recently, I had been fortunate: After more than half a century of gymnastics, dance, and yoga, my knees were reliable, happy, and cooperative. But something was changing; lately, whenever my right knee touched the ground I felt a harsh burning sensation. With certain movements or unexpected weight shifts the sensation was so strong that I cried out in pain.
After trying rest, ice, and acupuncture, I found a sports medicine specialist. I confidently anticipated one of those impressive diagnoses that sporty people get—an injury that might (for example) be familiar to a member of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team. After an examination and some imaging, the doctor turned to me sympathetically and said, “I think I know what is causing the pain—it’s called fat pad syndrome.”
I hadn’t ever heard of this condition...and it didn’t sound so glamorous, let alone sporty, right?
There was a second surprise too. After some discussion of my lifestyle and habits, as well as a review of recent changes in how my right knee spent her days, it seemed that what my poor fat pad was so irritated about was the marked increase in time I had been spending in seated meditation over the past six months.
A meditation injury?? Holy mindfulness!
As I began to share this tale among other yoga and meditation teachers it became apparent that I was not alone. Although, as one friend put it, meditation and injury seem like two words that don’t belong together, anecdotal evidence revealed that a wide variety of problems were showing up in meditators’ knees, hips, and lower backs.
Am I suggesting that meditation is unhealthy or dangerous, or that injury is inevitable? Absolutely not. But I do think it is worth reflecting on some of the reasons that meditation injuries appear to be on the rise.
First of all, teachers may be noticing more injuries associated with sitting practice simply because of the sheer numbers of people who have taken up meditation in the last decade. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 2012 and 2017 alone, the number of meditators in this country more than tripled.
Secondly, while some injuries, like mine, may seem to come without warning (more on that later), in other cases, long periods of sitting might be the last straw in an already compromised knee, hip, or lower back. Many people already spend too much time sitting in their regular lives and adding an additional period of seated stillness, often without detailed teaching on posture, is potentially problematic.
Yet meditation is, of course, the central practice in the eight-limbed path described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. After all, the sutras define yoga as the settling of the mind into silence. The first four limbs of the path help us to become ethically centered, physically strong, and energetically ready for the meditation practices that follow. When studied in this methodical way, yoga provides its own deep and thorough preparation for the rigors of sitting.
Most students do not have the opportunity to practice as the Yoga Sutras advise. Many yoga classes are primarily focused on asana (poses), with glancing reference (if any) to the other limbs. While yoga asana can indeed physically prepare our bodies to sit, without the guidance and training of the other limbs of the path, our preparation is incomplete and the very nature of practice can become confusing.
In an email exchange with Buddhist meditation teacher and yoga therapist Janice Gates, she described one aspect of this confusion:
“Many classic yoga texts encourage meditating in [padmasana].…Advertisers everywhere portray a blissed out meditator sitting cross-legged on the ground. These images imprint in our psyches as the 'right way' to meditate....I like to remind people that the Buddha actually taught four positions for meditation: seated, walking, standing, and lying down. In the end, the question to ask yourself is—Why are you sitting in the first place? If your entire meditation is consumed with managing the pain in your knees or back, or if you pay for it later, you may want to try another way.”
Gates is pointing to the importance of svadhyaya (self-study), one of the five niyamas (inner observances). The niyamas are the second limb of yoga and offer guidance in how we relate to ourselves. Practicing svadhyaya in your yoga class, for example, might help you notice that you tend to push your body too hard to achieve a posture. Is this quality of pride or grasping that you notice in handstand making a stealth appearance on your meditation cushion?
The object in mindfulness is not to transcend the body but to find an attentive, workable, and friendly relationship to it—in stillness, in walking, and eventually in every other “posture” of life.
The Buddha was actually a pretty driven yogi himself and spent many years trying to punish his body into submission. But what he eventually found in his journey of awakening was that denying the body’s needs was not a skillful practice. To the contrary, he realised instead that compassionate attention to the body could become the first means of establishing mindfulness and stepping forward on the path to awakening. The object in mindfulness is not to transcend the body but to find an attentive, workable, and friendly relationship to it—in stillness, in walking, and eventually in every other “posture” of life.
The remaining four niyamas can provide additional wise guidance toward a more responsive and mindful relationship with the meditating body, honoring it as the one true home in which awakening is possible.
Tapas (purification through discipline) brings the fire to our practice. Seated meditation is physically demanding, and the ability to sit in daily practice, or for long periods on retreat, requires diligent preparation. Postures such as those done in yoga class can ensure that the body is physically ready and that deep attention to the body is awakened. Discipline might also include a willingness to change your posture each time you sit, rotating among at least three or four different possibilities. While it is tempting to sit in a way that seems familiar or easy or even correct, if it is always the same seat, or even if the same leg is always in front in a cross-legged pose, you may unintentionally deepen unhelpful patterns, which could increase the risk for injury.
Santosha (contentment, joy, satisfaction) can be a reminder to practice with a lighter heart, an attitude that will always serve the body well. For Carla Stangenberg, co-director of Jaya Yoga Center in Brooklyn and a meditator for 20 years, santosha is a guiding principle. She finds contentment and even pleasure to be a skillful way to feel more at home in her practice and life. It is also a good counterbalance to tapas. “When my meditation teacher taught me to locate feelings of contentment and pleasure in the body and spread them around, it was a great revelation. I use this technique as a way into the flow of the present moment and have found ease and a different relationship with the body.”
Saucha (purity) can be helpful to meditators in terms of purity of motivation. Gates wrote to me that “Injuries related to seated meditation often have little to do with structural issues, posture, or alignment, and everything to do with pride. On a meditation retreat, you may notice older practitioners are often the ones sitting in chairs. Is this because they have injuries? Maybe. But it could also be that they are less concerned about what others think of them and are less likely to be trying to prove anything. They tend to trust that they know what is best for their own bodies.”
Ishvara pranidhana (surrendering to the True Self) is the last niyama. Meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach often encourages her students to surrender their thoughts and look beneath their ideas about how life ought to be. Eventually, she suggests, we can also surrender resistance to the feelings underneath the thoughts and be with things as they really are. In this way, by tuning more directly into our experience, we have access to the body as a vehicle of awakening, rather than one more element over which we are trying to exert control.
Overall the niyamas invite a sense of personal responsibility. Some schools of meditation are very strict in terms of posture, while others offer little guidance at all. As the population of meditators expands to include a wider and wider field of practitioners, perhaps it is time to begin a conversation on how to better care for our meditating bodies.
For me, the pain in my knee was a wake-up call and returning to the niyamas has reminded me to be more mindful of the totality of my experience. More specifically, I had gotten habituated to always sitting in hero pose (virasana). It was so comfortable on my sensitive lower back that I kind of ignored what I was feeling in my heretofore happy knees! I modify virasana more carefully now and rotate between other sitting postures too. I also take more care that my body is prepared when I sit, especially early in the day when my joints feel creaky. Once or twice a week I choose walking or lying down meditation.
The clear-eyed self-care that is integral to the yoga path has helped me to unravel the grip of excessive conceptual interference, of some idea outside myself controlling what my practice should look like.
In guiding us to befriend ourselves in meditation, the niyamas can redirect us toward yoga’s deepest promise, the settling of the mind into silence.