The first thing I teach people when they are beginning to meditate is that it is really important to be comfortable. Sitting in discomfort, whether because your knee is pinching or your hips are aching, is bound to be distracting, and can lead to the mind telling us stories about why this pain and that ache are occurring. Particularly when we’re just beginning to practice, eliminating as many distractions as possible is wise.
There is no particular position that is necessary for meditation, as long as you are comfortable. That said, sitting up tall with a straight spine and open front body can elevate the experience. I’ll explain why.
Our bodies and minds are mirrors of each other. When a thought pattern presents itself in our mind, our body reacts to that thought with action and/or emotion. The reverse is also true: when our body exhibits a particular movement or position, our mind responds in the same way it has previously to that particular movement or position. So paying attention to your body language and posture can go a LONG way towards influencing the way your mind functions.
When we are seated upright with our shoulders back, our chest broad and open, in a receptive, confident posture, this triggers to our mind that we are safe, and that it is time to be alert and pay attention. This is the mental space we want to inhibit when we’re meditating to calm our nervous system. On the other hand, if we are slouched over, protecting our heart space with sagging shoulders and a floppy spine, the body’s message is that we’re feeling closed, lacking confidence, sleepy or dull. Try both of these postures right now, just for two breaths each, and notice the difference in how you feel and think.
The best way to be able to sit for periods of time in comfort with an upright spine is to use props such as a cushion or bolster to sit on. Elevating your hips above your knees, whether you’re sitting on the floor cross-legged or sitting on a chair, will help you maintain a neutral lumbar spine and an open chest space.
We also want to have a solid base so we feel safe to release our body weight into the seat to feel secure and grounded. If you are sitting on the ground and your knees are lifting up high, you can place cushions under your knees so that they feel a sense of solidity to relax into. This in time will open up your hips (but really, there’s no rush!). Ideally, the more of your base that’s supported the better, to optimize stability.
When I meditate, I picture the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree just before he became enlightened. Was he slouched over, sitting sloppily with no intention? Nope (at least in all the images I’ve seen!). He was sitting with dignity and a soft smile on his lips. This posture helps remind and reassure me that everything is okay whenever I arrive on my meditation cushion. Meditating is hard enough, especially at the beginning, so making use of the body’s posture to aid in any way seems worthwhile to me.
Lara Wharton, of Listen Lightly, is a meditation teacher committed to educating people on how meditation can make their lives a little lighter.