Pain in the knees. Pain in the back. Pain in the neck.
Anyone who has started a regular meditation practice knows pain is something that is part of the practice. But is there anything we can do to minimize the issues of pain in our meditation? While many meditation instructions discuss the challenges of the mind, they less frequently discuss the challenges of the body.
Beyond the mental, there is a physical aspect to understanding how to improve our meditation. Good posture isn’t just for making a good impression on a date, but a way of reducing the strain and aches our body experiences in meditation.
The body is subject to the laws of physics. Proper poster can reduce the strain on muscles and ligaments. It can also help improve your health and muscle tone. Good meditation can be good exercise.
- Be sure to sit up straight. A straight spine puts the weight of the body directly over the each vertebra. It distributes the weight evenly as possible and reduces strain on the lumbar region as well as the shoulders. When the shoulders are slumped the weight is not directly over the spine and forces the body to pull the body upright.
- Chin up. Put a bowling ball on top of a broomstick and you can quickly see how much pull the head has on the body. When the chin is parallel to the floor the head is directly over the spine. When the chin drops, the head (like a bowling ball) pulls the body forward. The shoulders start to slump and the back has to pull extra duty to keep the body up.
- Pushin’ the cushion. Not everyone can perform a perfect lotus position with their butt on the floor. Most of us need to sit in some other way. Sitting akimbo (Indian style) is acceptable, and so is sitting Burmese style (both feet on the floor but not under the legs). What is important is to have the buttocks lifted 2-5 inches above the ground so that the knees are doing their best to plant into the ground and create a “tripod” effect. This creates stability. If the knees are too high then only the spine is holding the body upright and that requires constant use of the muscles—leading to strain and pain. Also do not sit too far back on the cushion to help create that tripod effect.
- Sitting in the chair. If there are issues that require you to meditate in a chair, then make sure that the buttocks are moved forward and the back is away from the backrest. Sitting too far back makes it hard for the feet to plant into the ground and create a tripod. The back rest also puts the spine into a relaxed state that makes it difficult to maintain posture and will lead to fatigue. Finally, if you sit too relaxed in a chair (or against the wall if you are on a cushion) the body is tempted to fall asleep.
- Stretch. The more limber the body is, the easier it is to stretch as gravity pulls on it. Do lots of back, shoulder, and leg stretches before meditating and “limber up!”
- Shoulders back. Putting the shoulders in a relaxed but attentive position maintains the body in good posture as well as keeps the mind aware. I also keep my hands up slightly off the lap with the thumbs slightly touching. When I drift, I can notice that my thumbs separate. When I concentrate too hard, I can feel my thumbs pressing hard together. It is just one more way in which our body can give us immediate feedback to our practice.
Meditation should be relaxed, but it should also be a state of alertness. Maintaining good posture not only reduces strain, but it maintains a sense of awareness. It is easy to observe the mind “drifting” when the body starts to “sag” and breathing become too shallow. Sitting for any length of time will bring challenges of pain and discomfort, but understanding the physics of the body can reduce unnecessary aches.