“By establishing a stable base of support, the body naturally comes into alignment with the directional flow of gravity. The deeply purifying process of meditation has no choice but to begin.”
– Will Johnson, The Posture of Meditation: A Practical Manual for Meditators of All Traditions
Will Johnson’s book on the postures of meditation—one of our favorites—tells us the base of support is the literal foundation of meditation practice. Johnson writes that meditation does not favor one body type over another—meditation is for every body— and finding a comfortable seat is key to developing a practice that you’ll return to day after day.
There are many options for creating your perfect base of support, including zafus, mediation benches and Tibetan seats. In this post, we’ll focus on the zafu.
The zafu originated in China and came to be associated with the Zen traditions of Japan. The word “zafu” speaks to the cushion’s original stuffing—cattails—while the seat itself has had many uses over time. The zafu has secured a place in Zen meditation for its size and shape, which enable optimal alignment of the knees, hips, pelvis, and spine.
Round or Crescent?
If you’d like to try a zafu, you’ll want to choose one of two shapes. The classic shape of a zafu is round, while the crescent shape is a more modern development. Each shape performs the key function of raising your pelvis above your knees.
The classic, round zafu ensures that your pelvis can tilt forward, preserving the natural curve of your spine, and freeing your knees to face downward. From here, your legs can adopt whichever folded position you find most comfortable, and your knees, along with the base of your seat, can support your weight in a tripod.
The crescent expands this tripod, supporting your weight not only from the base of your seat and your knees, but also through your hips. Practitioners who prefer the crescent zafu report a feeling of greater support through the hips and legs, and a broad, comfy foundation. The crescent may also help those who struggle with legs falling asleep during meditation.
Buckwheat or Kapok?
Once you’ve chosen the shape of your zafu, it’s time to choose a filling. Buckwheat hulls and kapok have long been used to stuff cushions, and each has its own unique properties.
Buckwheat hulls come from one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world—the same buckwheat you might see ground into flour in your pancake mix also provides hulls for cushion stuffing. Buckwheat hulls are a popular filling because they keep cool and keep allergies at bay.
In zafus, buckwheat acts as a sturdy but malleable support, ready to contour to your body. Most people are familiar with the feel of buckwheat stuffing from bean bags or travel pillows. “Buckwheat hulls are the hard outer shells that house the seeds of buckwheat grain.The hulls are strong, aromatic and do not retain or reflect heat, making them an ideal allergy-free alternative to feather or synthetic fiber fills for pillows and upholstery.”
Kapok is a lightweight, luminescent fluff that comes from the seed pods of the formidable Ceiba tree. Found in tropical areas, the Ceiba grows spikes on its bark to keep predators away. Fully grown, it can reach a tremendous size, big enough for carving into family-sized canoes.
Kapok floats, and has been used as stuffing in life preservers. In the zafu, kapok feels like a firm and buoyant pillow. At Still Sitting, we pack our kapok tightly, offering you maximum lift off the ground. With kapok as well as buckwheat, you have the option of customizing your zafu height by pulling some of the stuffing out.
Buckwheat versus kapok comes down to personal preference, and we stand behind both.
If you are a beginner, however, and asked us to choose, we’d steer you toward kapok. Not only does kapok offer a higher seat, but a softer one as well, which can be important in lessening the pressure on your sitting bones when you’re first starting out.
The kapok zafu also offers an additional seating position: place it on its side and sit with your legs folded on either side in seiza. For more information on sitting positions, check out our tips on How to Sit Comfortably.
Standard or Deluxe?
Once you have a handle on your zafu shape, fill, (and color!), you’ll want to choose between a standard or deluxe. The deluxe offers a removable, machine-washable cover. This makes for easy care over the long-term, and allows you to switch your outer cover to different colors or patterns when you’d like.
If you’d like to discuss these options, please give us a call at 800-433-0977 or email us at email@example.com. We stuff each of our zafus by hand here in our Vashon Island workshop, and we’d be happy to talk zafus with you!