Sitting Posture and Meditation

PosturehumbnailNamgyal Rinpoche, as recorded in “Introduction to Meditation”, told his students that the first year of practice for monks and nuns in Japanese monasteries is about learning to sit straight. But the significance of sitting straight does not end with good posture. Namgyal Rinpoche states that:

“Awareness of posture leads naturally to awareness of emotion because energy has been unleashed.”

And what is posture?

“The Posture of Meditation” by Will Johnson is a short but highly regarded book on meditation posture. The book explains that alignment of your body allows gravity to do its work in keeping the body upright while the muscles can relax:

“So we can surrender the weight of the body to the pull of gravity and experience the feeling of relaxation. To relax in this way is to re-establish your connection with the earth. Relaxation is synonymous with grounding: feeling the whole body as a unified field of sensation surrendering its weight to the gravitational pull underneath its feet.”

This relaxed manner of sitting is not a give-in for beginners, because we have become accustomed to tensing our bodies.

“In the face of uncomfortable sensations it is all too common a reactive habit pattern to tense the body in an attempt to modify or completely conceal the discomfort.”

Will explains that to release this tenseness, our posture in meditation should be “resilient” to the sensations of the body rather than rigid.  He says more on the benefits of practicing resilience:

“When we allow uncomfortable sensations to move through us it kindles the force of purification that clears the mental and physical blockages keeping the states of awareness that are the goal of our meditation practice contained and unavailable.”

“By holding and identifying with thoughts, you invite limitation into your experience and interfere with the passage of the life force just as effectively as if you were holding back on sensations.”

Keeping in mind that we want to sit with an aligned, relaxed, and resilient body in whatever posture we take up, there are different options for postures. The postures and how you place your hands are considered a type of meditation in themselves called “mudra”. See topic on different kinds of meditation.

Thought it is not essential to sit in the full lotus posture (with both feet on your thighs), it is ideal to sit as close to this posture as possible. Namgyal Rinpoche shared interesting background on the full lotus, which also gives an idea of the significant impact that a posture can have on a meditator energetically and mentally:

“Mudra, such as the lotus posture, is for balancing the energy of the body. Two purposes are accomplished, speaking ideally, by sitting in the full lotus posture to meditate. First, particularly because of the pressure of the heels, this way of sitting balances the flow of energy in the side channels. […] The body is composed of positive and negative particles, and the lotus posture is reputed to promote their balanced flow. Secondly, by sitting in this way, one’s body assumes an architecture of triangles, which represents to the subliminal human mind a state of aspiration.”

Even once you have decided on a sitting position, and have established some alignment, relaxation, and resilience, you will likely be “moved” to move during a meditation sit, especially if your mind is agitated. On moving in meditation Namgyal Rinpoche shared this in “Introduction to Meditation”:

“If you do have to move, do it as mudra, awarely […] but try to settle into one position and not keep changing it […] posture changes affect the mind state, so there should be a secure, tripod feeling about your posture in sitting. If you haven’t got a good posture, the stresses build up and augment each other. […] Resist to the utmost the desire to change positions while seated. Excruciate rather than move, it will pass away and you can continue with the session. But if you move once, you will move again, then again – it’s just a little movement at a time, mind you, and then all is eventually washed away, each session is more and more movement and less and less meditation. After a while all your thoughts will be on the physical body. The first confrontation determines whether it wins, or you. If you win, it will subside, but if it wins it will take over and bug you.”

footprintsExercise 1: Basic Sitting

Doug Duncan and Catherina Pawasarat Sensei, during a retreat on the Foundations of a Mystical Life, gave the following instructions for sitting :

Sit with a straight spine, eyes looking straight ahead. If you are sitting in a chair be square (see below exercise on the All Square Posture). If your hands are folded on your lap, have the dominant hand underneath. Otherwise have your hands on your knees. Tilt your head slightly forward to get the crook out of your neck and to encourage the natural curve of the spine.

The teachers also add that sitting through pain helps to release it, but don’t get rigid. Allow for a little movement so you don’t feel locked down, especially at first. As you sit simply be aware of sensations in the body as they occur in the moment (a practice called Kayanupassana).

correctsitting

Additional instructions from other sources are to keep your knees at or below hip level, which allows your legs to balance some of the weight of the upper body. To achieve this, raise your bum on cushions.

footprintsExercise 2: Testing a Bad Posture

Will Johnson suggests that anyone can experiment with different ways of sitting, such as with varying amounts and placement of cushions used. Notice the shift in the balance and alignment of your body as you make adjustments. What happens to your neck, upper back, lower back, stomach, breathing, etc, when you have poor or good With poor posture certain areas of your body will become strained as they try to compensate for the unbalance.

footprintsExercise 3: Mind and Body Connection

From “Body Speech and Mind” by Namgyal Rinpoche:

In your regular daily activities watch the mind’s flow for 15 minutes, then your arm for 15 minutes. It’s likely you find the movements of your arm easier to trace or see. And you might begin to question: what emotional states lie behind the various postures of the body?

footprintsExercise 4: What is My Posture Now? And Now?

From “Body Speech and Mind” by Namgyal Rinpoche:

“If you want to practice the four foundations of mindfulness begin by slowing down the body. In the course of a day, stop and watch what posture the body is assuming. Before you can move to make it “correct,” see what it is doing. Don’t correct too much, just be aware of the posture. This is a meditation on what is.”

footprintsExercise 5: The All Square Posture

From “Body Speech and Mind” by Namgyal Rinpoche:

“The emphasis with this posture is on the feeling of the square, which is useful for co-ordination, foundation and for promoting a sense of continuity, particularly in respect to the autonomic system. The practice of this exercise prevents neurotic patterns from interfering with the automatic functions of the body.

“Practice of this posture will guard against suffering a split between mind and body. The geometry of it is all horizontal and vertical lines. You begin, as you would with any meditation practice, with non-restrictive clothing and a clean body. Sit upright with the spine straight, but instead of sitting with the legs folded, sit in a sturdy, straight-baked armchair. It is important to find a chair that fits your body properly so that your body forms a series of right angles. Feet should rest comfortably on the floor, about two fist-widths apart and parallel to each other. The seat should be neither too high nor too low, allowing the knees to form a right angle. The arms of the chair should be high enough so the forearms lie parallel to the floor, with the wrists bending at right angles, allowing the hands to hang straight down.

“Once you have established this posture, start the exercise by entering the right [dominant] hand, by becoming aware of and feeling the right hand. Either order or suggest it to relax, or feel it becoming warm. Don’t be too obsessional about this, but when you are satisfied with the result, move from hand to elbow then from elbow to shoulder. Do the same with the right foot, then ankle to knee, followed by knee to hip. Do also the left side. Then move into the buttocks, up the spine, over the whole back to the shoulders, neck, back of the skull, over the top of the head – we’re getting into ego-country now! – to the face, neck and chest. When you reach the solar plexus, you stop and enter that area. Feel a stronger warmth there, which radiates throughout the whole body. Spread that out like the sun’s rays on a summer day. Feel your entire body becoming warm.

“Continue until about twenty minutes has elapsed since you began with the right hand, then do a very cursory mental travel over the body in the reverse order, from solar plexus to chest, neck, skull, back of neck, shoulders and so forth.”

 

 

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