How To Sit For Meditation
There are many possible body positions for meditation, most of them variations on different ways of sitting. But there is no one best position, only the best position for you.
There are two important aspects about whatever position you decide to use:
- that you are comfortable in it so that you can maintain it for your entire meditation session without having to move, experience pain or think about your body
- that you can stay alert during the duration of your practice without risk of falling asleep
The choice of position is, ultimately, up to you. However, here are a couple of considerations you might wish to take into account.
As you begin to learn meditation, it’s important not to encourage any kind of striving. For this reason, complex or difficult to maintain positions are less than optimal. Unless you are already quite flexible and have strong core support, any of the floor sitting positions will be difficult and you will have to strive to maintain them. Lacking flexibility, you’ll likely need to overcome feelings of discomfort or, worse, pain. At worst, if you insist on maintaining a painful position for long periods of time – as not a few teachers misguidedly recommend – you could do lasting damage to your ankles, knees or hips. Having to deal with pain each time you sit is for most people not a great way to get excited about establishing a regular meditation practice.
Another more subtle issue, also having to do with striving, has to do with our image of what it means to meditate. Practically the only images we ever see of what it looks like to meditate show someone in a floor sitting pose. Often the images lend a certain mystique or exotic air to the pose or to the person doing it: the pose might be full lotus, said (wrongly) to be the best position for meditation, or the person shown meditating is made to seem full of wisdom in some way.
It’s only natural, then, that when we sit down to practice meditation we will carry these images with us, striving to match the same mystique and exoticism we’ve seen in them. But that leaves us trying to do something – and whatever we’re trying to do is not true to what is actually happening in the moments of our meditation. Put simply, we are trying to be something we are not, rather than being fully what we are.
The following suggestions offer a good way to discover the best sitting position for you to use while meditating. We’ll suggest four different positions, each more difficult than the other. You begin with the first and easiest position while learning and becoming comfortable with meditation. In this way, you can more easily involve yourself with that process, rather than simultaneously concentrating on maintaining a position that feels uncomfortable or difficult.
The first position is sitting on a comfortable chair or sofa that provides back and head support. Typically this will be a high-back chair of some sort (lounge, recliner, easy etc.). If you don’t have access to a high-back chair, then you can place a regular low-back chair (like a dining room chair) against a wall in such a way that you can use the wall for head support. You may need to use pillows behind your back in order to provide comfortable back support. Make sure your head is not pushed too far forward or else it will be difficult to maintain it in an upright position.
This is a perfectly acceptable position to use while learning meditation. If you find that you are able to stay alert using it, then there is no real reason to change. However, if you find yourself often drifting off to sleep or into a kind of half dream state, then you might wish to try the next position.
The second position requires the use of a chair or sofa that does not provide head support while at the same time providing back support. In this way, you can relax back, but you’ll also need to maintain your head in an erect position and hence any tendency to nod off will bring you back awake.
Be careful to choose a chair or sofa that allows you to keep your back in a relatively upright position. This will keep you from having to overstrain in order to keep your head level. If your back is too far reclined, your head will naturally wish to fall backwards and you will need to exert your neck muscles to keep it upright. This, in turn, will likely result in discomfort and strain in the neck muscles, leaving you anything but relaxed.
This position is fine, especially in the early weeks and months of your practice when you may not be practicing for longer periods of time. The truth is, however, virtually any chair or sofa used in this way will likely fail to provide an alignment between your back and neck that will completely negate any and all straining. For this reason, you may find this position unsuitable for longer sittings.
The third position corrects this alignment problem, making it potentially more suitable for longer sittings. For this position you sit towards the front edge of a chair, typically a dining room chair or folding chair, and maintain an erect position with good alignment between your back, shoulders and neck such that you no longer need to strain to keep your head level.
However, though commonly recommended by meditation teachers, this position can nevertheless be difficult for many people to maintain comfortably (and without striving to maintain it) for periods longer than a few minutes. This can be due to using a chair that is too high or too low, or else because of weakness in the practitioner’s core muscles, making it difficult to hold the back in alignment without straining. If you find this to be the case, then it’s best to take a two-fold approach: step back to the first or second position for the time being, while working on strengthening your core muscles and overall posture until you can maintain the third position comfortably for longer periods of time. You might try out the exercises in this video:
The only remaining disadvantage to this position is that the circulation to the legs is not reduced in any way, and consequently as you become more relaxed, blood can pool in the lower regions of the body. This can cause various issues if you intend to use this position for sittings of longer than half an hour or so. For this reason, you may wish to pass to a floor position. Folding the legs beneath the torso will, for most people, maintain a better balance of blood circulation throughout the body during longer sittings.
Therefore, for the fourth position we move from a chair to the floor and into one of the traditional cross-legged sitting positions. Specifically how you choose to place your legs is of course entirely up to you. Again, however, it must be in a way that is natural and comfortable to you. As mentioned before, there is a very real risk of damaging your ankles, knees and hip joints by assuming a position, such as full lotus, when you are not easily capable of doing so. Furthermore, despite what certain teachers may say, no advantages accrue to the practitioner capable of assuming a difficult position such as full lotus. No “magical alignment” exists, nor are any special energy points “activated”. On the contrary, subtle feelings of pride and self-admiration can distort the relation of such a practitioner towards his or her own practice as well as towards other practitioners. This is especially true in western cultures that lack a tradition of floor sitting and in which acquiring the ability to sit in full lotus can appear, wrongly, to be some sort of advanced spiritual attainment. This is simply a delusion and represents one more belief structure that will eventually need to be dismantled if the practitioner is to make real spiritual progress.
Hence, unless you grew up sitting in full lotus because that’s the way your parents and grandparents sat or unless you’ve already been practicing for years within a tradition in which full lotus is encouraged, it’s probably best not to even bother with this position, despite the fact that it’s the one position that above all others appears to be associated in the popular imagination with spiritual mystique, exotic wisdom, “true” enlightenment and so forth and so on. Indeed, that’s the best reason of all not to use it.
A relatively easy to assume floor sitting position is what’s traditionally called (appropriately enough) easy pose in which one foot is placed on top of the opposite calf. You can move your feet and legs around until you find what fits best for you. Use of a blanket or thick mat beneath your legs and a pillow beneath your seat is encouraged. The blanket or mat keeps your knees off of a hard, cold floor, while the pillow allows you to adjust your position to find a suitably comfortable angle between your hips, thighs and knees.
Here are some tips on how to sit comfortably in this position:
- Unless you are already quite flexible and have good core strength, before starting to use this position try some of the limbering up/strengthening exercises in the video above.
- For the first few months, use a high pillow that will raise you well off the floor. You’ll likely find that the more gentle the angle between your thighs and hips, the more comfortable the position is. Continue to use the pillow as long as you like, even for the rest of your life! There is nothing wrong with this (and you don’t get closer to enlightenment the lower to the ground you are).
- Allow the top of your pelvis to tilt slightly forward. This will help maintain the natural curve of the back, allowing your chest to remain high and full, your neck long and straight, and your head well balanced and aligned above your shoulders.
- Think of a straight line extending from your ears to your sit bones, passing through the middle of your shoulders and along the outside of your lower back, and entering your pelvis at the highest point on your hips (the iliac crest). This is more or less the optimal alignment – though it will vary somewhat for different builds – and it should allow you to sit comfortably for long periods without strain (as long as you have adequate flexibility and core strength).
- The main muscles used for maintaining the position should be your core muscles, those that run from within your pelvis to attach onto your spine. If you are using your back, thigh or abdominal muscles to maintain this position, you will eventually feel strained and tired, and will end up concentrating more on maintaining the position than allowing yourself to meditate. If you find this to be the case, use one of the chair positions instead and work on your core strength for a couple of weeks.
- It’s a good idea to alternate which leg rests on top each day. This will avoid the creation of imbalances over the long term. After all, half an hour a day for 10 years is over 1800 hours, plenty enough to gradually bend your skeleton and ligaments into misalignment.
In conclusion, the most important thing to remember is that the position you sit in does not matter. What matters is that you remain comfortable and alert without striving to do so. If using the first position allows you to accomplish that, then there is virtually no reason to “graduate” to the other positions. No cookies are awaiting the practitioner who moves “up” to a more difficult position, only subtle feelings of pride in a place where pride has no place.
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