Posture of Meditation, Part 1:
Posture of Meditation Series:
Posture of Meditation, Part 3: Eyes
My meditation background is largely buddhist, zen buddhist in particular. In zen buddhism it is common to sit a lot every day either in any of the cross-legged sitting postures or in kneeling posture (seiza). It is common in that school to insist on particular physical form of sitting, despite of physical troubles one may have due to long hours of sittingfor days on end.
One thing that has become obvious to me is that cross-legged posture or even sitting on a meditation cushion, are not essential factors of meditation practice, even though many schools of meditation say just the opposite.
I have found that the most important factors about the physical posture are:
- erect spine,
- erect head,
- overall comfortability of the posture which
- allows free and relaxed breathing
When these four factors are marked, you can choose to sit in any posture without loosing any of the benefits that perfect full lotus-posture (padmasana) is said to bring. There is no difference whatsoever.
Here's what Daniel Ingram says on Postures, from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha:
”The four postures for meditation that are mentioned in traditional
Buddhist practice are those of sitting, walking, standing and reclining.
Each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, and each may be useful
at one time or another. Looked at another way, this means that we can
meditate in just about any position we find ourselves... Which posture we choose doesn’t really matter from a pure insight point of view, but there are some practical reasons why we might choose one or the other for formal practice. Posture choice is mostly about finding one that works in our current circumstances and which matches our current energy level...
Sitting has the quality of being more energy-producing than reclining
and less energy-producing than walking and standing. It can also be very
stable once we learn to sit well. However, many people find that
learning to sit well is a whole endeavor in and of itself...
Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit,
with some getting particularly macho or picky about such things, but in
the end it doesn’t matter so much. The things that seem to matter most
are that you can sustain the posture, that your back be fairly straight so
that you can breathe well, and that you are not permanently hurting
yourself. Aches and pains are common in meditation, but if they persist
for a long time after you get up from sitting, particularly in your knees,
seriously consider modifying your sitting posture.
Standing is an even more energy-producing posture than sitting, with
the obvious advantage being that is it even harder to fall asleep when
standing than when sitting. It seems to up the intensity of a meditation
session even more and can be useful when the energy is really low. I
recommend standing with the eyes slightly open to avoid falling over,
though some people can do just fine with their eyes closed. If you are
sitting and finding that you simply cannot stay focused and awake, try
Walking is the most energetically active of the four postures and
also provides a nice stretch for the joints and back after we have been
doing a lot of sitting. Its strengths are its weaknesses, in that the fact that
one is moving around can make it easier to stay present and also lead to
a lack of stable concentration. Some people consider walking practice to
be very secondary to sitting, but I have learned from experience that
walking meditation should be given just as much respect as sitting
Cross-legs vs. straight legs
I once saw a documentary filmed in a Taoist nunnery in China. In the documentary whenever the nuns were seen meditating they sat on a particular kind of a chair where they had their legs straight (not cross-legged). I thought this was something interesting as their way of practice could well be older than buddhism and therefore might have beneficial time-tested factors to it. Traditionally, buddhist meditation is always encouraged to be practiced cross-legged on a meditation cushion, unless one's body or health doesn't allow it. If a cross-legged posture cannot be practiced, sitting on a chair as a secondary option is used.
I've recently tried to remember to sit down on a chair instead on a cushion to try this out. And everytime I remember to do so, it's much easier than sitting cross-legged with folded legs. Due to my hip bones not being identical, it's pretty much always been challenging for me to sit in one posture, although at some point I was sitting so much daily that it didn't matter. I've always had to shift legs every 20-30-40 minutes. I've done that when it was allowed. Now, I wouldn't join a training session where this was not allowed. Enduring pain and physical discomfort is a big waste of time and energy. It is counter-productive.
So, I've had wonderful sittings when sitting on a chair. I have to admit that I have also become habituated by thinking that ”real meditation” only happens sitting cross-legged. I've told students to use either postures for several years as a teacher but I never tried it myself, until recently. This is a good example of becoming conditioned to a training aspect of an old tradition, just because ”this is the way it always has been done and there is no other way to do it”. So be careful and have common sense of what you are told.
Mindfulness of the body
Obviously mindfulness of the body is a common issue to all styles of buddhist meditation. We work with mind and awareness through the body because body, mind and awareness are interconnected. Body is a good and concretic tool. Imagine how it would be to concentrate or meditate without a physical body. It'd be a different sport.
Comparing cross-legged and chair sitting positions, the biggest difference is in the posture of the legs. In the first legs are folded in a way that the crus and thigh are right next to each other. In the latter legs are also tilted in the knees but the angle is much wider, 90 degrees or more. This allows a lot more openness and relaxalation in the body on purely physical level which cannot but have an effect on the mental and emotional bodies, and in consequence on he recognition of awareness itself. Especially for beginners, the open sky-like mind is easier to find when the body is as relaxed and open as possible. It can be very difficult to be focused or recognise knowing awareness when the body is forcibly put into a posture where it's not used to being in. This is basic logic, right. For this reason, I'd always vote for sitting on a chair over sitting cross-legged.
Usually schools of meditation which are unanimous of the sitting posture, it is common for them to prove their point by saying that in full lotus the subtle energies of the bodymind circulate in an ideal way and that this circulation, sometimes called as ”full body seal” (mudra) is what meditation is. In a sense this is correct. It is true in the case of a yogi who 1. can effortlessly sit in this posture for an extended period of time and 2. who needs the support of this mudra for his or her meditation. For those who cannot do it or for those who don't need it as a support, this rationale is entirely irrelevant.
It is also not logical to say that one couldn't be openly aware and meditate without sitting in some particular posture. It doesn't make sense, does it. If this is the view in regards to sitting posture, it is safe to assume that the one who insists on such views is 1. biased to his view perhaps because of his tradition, in a similar way like I was and 2. there is no sufficient understanding what the connection of body and energetics (mind) to open awareness is.
Posture and Tibetan Heart Yoga
Level 4 of Tibetan Heart Yoga concerns tantric (mantra, visualisation and breathing) practice in the subtle centers and channels in all four limbs. This practice can be done in a cross-legged posture, sure. However, in my experience, it is easier to sense the body cavities, the insides of the limbs, when legs are straight. This is a universal notion, of course. For this reason I'd recommend those THY-practitioners who practice this level, to try the practice sitting on a chair.
All in all, nowadays I tend to think that the cross-legged posture is an unstudied habit of the Eastern meditation culture. There is a strong emphasis on cross-legged meditation posture which can be seen everywhere in meditation centers, temples, in paintings and statues both in East and West but ultimately, just as Dan said, it's not a big deal.
Have a nice day,
- Kim Katami,