Posture for the Skillful Practice of Meditation
October 26, 2004
By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)
Friends, the traditions that promote the absorption states typically recommend extending the meditation sit for long periods of time. The reason for the extended meditation sit is the absorption states (jhanas) simply require one's psychophysiology a period of time to settle into these deep subjective states. Also, when one is learning how to give rise to the absorption states (jhanas), then it can take longer than for one who has mastered them. This is the reason why one needs to develop the long sit, simply because it typically takes at least a 1/2 hour for one to settle into the absorptions. And, for the novice it can take an hour or two.
There are some traditions and practitioners who believe one cannot make progress without impeccable posture. While I am not one of those, I do believe one will find success and great relief in improving one's posture. I had backache and knee troubles for many, many years during extended sits, and I was unable to gain the benefit of the long sit, until I corrected my posture. But, I still had considerable benefit from a regular daily sitting practice in spite of a poor sitting posture.
To improve my sit duration, I began a regimen of daily Hatha yoga. Often one's difficulties with sitting on the floor in meditation are typical of one who has been under the influence of Western culture for a long time. I have found the Western lifestyle of sitting in chairs, and having chronic stress in one's life, and not spending much time sitting on the floor, had a deleterious effect on my meditation posture. Consequently I entered into and sustained a daily Hatha yoga practice for about 15 years. At one point I even got rid of all of my furniture in the house to force me to sit on the floor with an erect spine at all times.
Hatha yoga helped me to restructure my sitting posture so that I could sit without difficulty for an hour or 2, 3 times a day, as I do now. I regret that I do not have my yoga book for reminding me of the posture names I used, but I would recommend that one take a weekly Hatha yoga class and spend at least 15 to 30 minutes everyday conducting a Hatha yoga sadanna (daily practice). I found it best to practice Hatha yoga in the morning, after meditation.
The postures I recall conducting were various head to knee poses, spinal twists, neck roles, squatting, cobra and downward facing dog, and finally a head stand. Those new to Hatha Yoga may want to leave the headstand out until one is very advanced in the practice. Downward facing dog is really the central practice, for the thoracic back pain that is typical of the Westernized body.
One could simply conduct the Sun Salutation, which incorporates many of the above postures into a cohesive prostration practice, which also helps in self-effacement, which is so essential in any contemplative tradition. But, whatever one does, it should be regular if one wants to make progress.
Additionally, I believe practicing a regular daily contemplative practice is far more important than worrying about one's sitting posture. If one is more comfortable sitting in a chair while meditating, then do so. But, one is likely to find that sitting in a chair is just not as comfortable as sitting on the floor in cross-legged fashion. But, it may take one several years to get there. In between time begin each meditation sit cross-legged on the floor, even if it's only 5 minutes, then by all means sit in a chair for the rest of one's practice.
Sidharta Gotama recommended several acceptable sitting postures, which are basically sitting, standing, walking and lying down. Considering this variation, these postures imply that one can meditate in any posture; and it also implied that one should perhaps meditate at all times in all postures. This is what I believe is meant by moment-to-moment mindfulness. That is, to maintain the meditative state throughout the day and night. This may take a few years, but I assure you it is possible and a noble goal.
For my practice I actively meditate everyday in all of those postures. I awake at 4:30 AM and sat for about an hour or 2 in cross-legged position. Then I went about my day. At noon I sat for another hour with my community (sangha). Then, when I got home in the late afternoon, I lied down in Shivassana (corpse pose, or lying flat on the back) for about 1/2 to 1 hour; then I have my evening interactions with my son; then at 9:00 PM I shower and meditate in cross legged position for 1 to 2 hours, then I lie in Shivassana again for the remainder of the night, about 5 1/2 hours, then I get up and start it all over again. This practice strategy (sadanna) has been of great solace to me, others may find it a useful strategy as well, but do not be concerned if it seems too rigorous. I certainly started exactly where all beginners ar, and I built up to my practice over a 30 year period.
Some details on sitting practice may help. I have found in sitting practice that if I sit with an erect spine, with the idea that I am lifting up and out of the top of my head, in the same sense that an Iyangar yoga teacher will say, "Extend out the top of your head, as though you are being lifted by a string attached to the top of your head," then my posture is impeccable and I can sit for a very long time.
It may be wise to look at pillows as a prop for one's sitting practice. I believe that one's pillows should be high enough and not higher than to allow one's knees to come to rest on the floor. If one is so stiff that no matter how much elevation one gives to one's rear, one's knees will not touch the floor, then elevate one's rear until one's spine is erect and balanced so that one nether feels that one is falling forward or backwards. Then, if the knees are still elevated off the floor, then place pillows under one's knees so they can relax and rest.
When sitting cross-legged do not cross the ankles, just let one leg rest in front of the other. I have found if I have one limb resting on the other, then the limb on the bottom will eventually lose blood pressure and go to "sleep". I have heard this posture called "easy pose" in the Yogas, and Burmese pose in Theravadan Buddhism.
Some yogis believe sitting in full lotus will give one great benefit. After 30 years of daily practice, I have never found full lotus to be of any use to me. In fact full lotus rarely constitutes a proper sitting posture for anyone because it tends to cut off circulation in the legs. And, sitting for long periods in this posture beyond the sensation of pain can cause severe and permanent leg and knee damage. So, don't worry about it, just find a comfortable sitting posture and sit as though it is one's last act in this life.
The sole purpose of posture is to be able to sit for a long time to cultivate the absorptions. Thus the need for developing the long sit to cultivate the absorptions makes posture an extremely important issue. But, there is nothing magical or mysterious about the posture. One need only find a posture that is conducive to a relaxed body and a calm and luminous (alert) mind that will allow one to remain in meditation for a long time. Therefore one need only find a posture that works, any posture.
May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,
Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)
First posted on the Jhana Support Group, message # 27, Sun Apr 20, 2003 8:20 am, as Subject: "Re: My experience, posture, jhana, chakra"
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