How to Sit Comfortably
In order to sit comfortably and deeply in meditation, you want to have a posture which is relaxed and attentive. When sitting in meditation you must remember three things: 1. Make a good foundation. 2. Sit up straight. 3. Relax & breathe.
Make a Good Foundation
First you have to make a good the foundation. When sitting in meditation, you should make a tripod with your knees and your bottom. This tripod allows you to sit upright and stable while at the same time being relaxed. If possible you want your knees to make contact with your zabuton.
If your knees are up off the zabuton, your back will want to curl forward and your posture will tend to collapse.
If you cannot get your knees down to the zabuton, try raising your bottom higher with a support cushion or two under your zafu – that will roll you forward so that your knees are closer to the zabuton.
If that doesn’t work, try putting a support cushion under one or both knees so that your knees have something to push against.
Or if you prefer, try knelling. Either on a kapok zafu tilted on its side, or one a meditation bench – either traditional, or center bench design.
Finally, if you’re more comfortable in a chair, by all means pull one up – you’ve still got the three points of your tripod – 2 feet and bottom.
But back to the crossed legged position. The easiest way for a beginner to sit on meditation cushions may be in the Burmese position. In this posture neither of your legs crosses the other; rather they are folded in front of you. It doesn’t matter which leg is in front as long as you are comfortable. As with all these postures, if you sit for an extended time, it is best to occasionally switch which leg is in front.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the Burmese position, you can try moving to Quarter Lotus, in which either the left or right foot is off the floor, tucked into the bend of the knee. Next comes Half Lotus, in which one or the other foot is brought up to the opposite thigh. Finally there is Full Lotus. This is the most stable and symmetrical of the lotus postures. The leg that is down in half-lotus now comes up to the opposite thigh, and you are fully pretzelled. As you graduate up the scale toward Full Lotus you may find that you can sit lower – that is, it may help to have your bottom closer to the ground. You may want to take away your support cushion or sit further toward the edge of your zafu.
Now, you may feel you’ll never get to lotus posture. But with enough time and practice it is not hard. There are many stretches that will help you sit comfortably. Here’s the one I think helps the most. It is called the Tailor pose (or the butterfly stretch). Sit on the ground or on a zabuton and pull your feet towards your bottom as far as is comfortable, with the palms of your feet together. Hold your feet and let your legs relax. That’s all. This pose loosens your groin muscle, which allows your leg to rotate more easily into one of the lotus positions. Try it – we think this simple stretch can make a big difference.
Sit Up Straight
Now that you have your foundation, the second thing is to sit up straight. When sitting in meditation it’s best to keep your body sitting up straight and relaxed. Take a look at this photo of Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker. When you are pondering something this makes for a pretty good posture. But when you are aiming to clear the mind it is better to do the opposite, and sit up straight and open.
Next you might imagine you have a string coming from the top of your head, pulling you up as you sit (or for that matter, as you stand). Held up by this imaginary string, now let your body relax. Let your shoulders, your back, your belly relax. That’s the ‘string method,’ and we think it’s a pretty good rough guide.
Another way to get to a straight and relaxed posture is to give some attention to your chest. Breathe in and out naturally, and notice how your ribcage rises and falls with your breath. Now on an out-breath gently hold your sternum (the front and center of your ribcage) in the same place as you exhale. In this way you keep your sternum and chest slightly raised and energized. The rest of your trunk – your shoulders, back, and belly, can relax if your chest is carrying the load. You don’t have to consciously straighten your back – raising your sternum will give your back the natural curve it has when you sit upright and relaxed. You might call this the ‘sternum method.’
When told to ‘sit up straight’ many of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, pull ourselves up by our shoulders. This leads to a rigid posture and sore neck and shoulders. If you hold yourself up with your string or sternum, your shoulders can relax. If your shoulders get stiff, one trick is to pull them way up, level to your ears, hold them there for a few seconds, then let them drop naturally down around a strong sternum.
Your head should be roughly straight. Not tipped forward. The whole posture should feel open, and having your head be straight helps you feel open rather than closed. The tip of your tongue lightly touching the roof of your mouth. Some meditative traditions have you sit with your eyes closed, some open. If open, then usually at about a 45 degree angle to the floor. Experiment with focus.
Consider Your Hands
During meditation your hands are come to rest in a “mudra” of some sort – a hand position. That said, the posture of your hands, like the posture of your body, may have some tension in it in order to keep the meditator awake and alert.
Samadhi Mudra. This is used by Zen practitioners.
Or closed mudra, or hands on knees.
Relax and Breathe
Finally, Relax and breathe. Breathe from your belly. Imagine your belly rising and falling like a balloon. Just notice and follow your breathing. It will naturally deepen when you do. keep your senses open to the world around you, just as it is. Allow yourself to relax into this moment. As you drift into past or future or daydreaming, come back to your posture and breathing.
Your posture should not be rigid. Our company name is ‘Still Sitting’ but in truth no one sits perfectly still, nor should you try. Your body is always in motion – your breath is moving, your heart is beating, your blood is rushing around. Your body is alive with activity. Through meditation you may learn to still a fidgety body and mind, and join the natural ebb and flow of your body.
Rather than Rodin’s Thinker, take as your model for meditation a one-year-old baby. She sits up naturally straight and relaxed. Have a good sit!