The Complete Guide to Meditation Postures - Everything You Need to Know
There are more options than you think.
Okay, so you’ve decided to meditate. You’re finally ready to start a meditation practice and make it a habit for life.
That’s great. Of all people, I know the benefits that meditation can give you. Just half an hour before I sat down to write this, I finished a one-hour meditation session and was reflecting on my experience.
I remembered all those times when I struggled to meditate and turn it into an everyday habit. Flashes of inconsistency and despair came in front of my eyes where months were spent reading about meditation but only a few minutes were spent doing it.
I remember one morning, in a hotel in Bangkok, I was trying to meditate. (I was there for a startup incubation program and not what you might think otherwise!)
I picked up a pillow from the bed and sat down on a thorny mat trying to do a full lotus pose and failing miserably. I held it for 30 seconds before it started paining. Yet, I pushed through the pain thinking the suffering would reduce if I’d focus on the breath for just a few more minutes.
I couldn’t do it. I gave up and went back to ironing my clothes or indulging in the nearest distraction available to me.
That’s how difficult it had been for me. But a major part of the reason was I had weird stereotypes around meditation that prevented me from actually learning the real art of it.
By assuming difficult postures that weren’t necessary, I wasn’t giving meditation a chance to show what it could do for me.
Had I known what I know now, I would’ve easily been able to meditate for ten minutes, twice a day — which was more than I could ask for at that time.
Since then, I’m extremely passionate to bust the myths around meditation and will be taking a hard look at meditation postures to make it easier for you to start.
This will ensure you’re not stuck in the same problem as me and perhaps thousands of others who give up for stupid reasons I mentioned above.
Types of Positions
There can be four types of positions you can use for meditation or mindfulness:
Of all four, always go for sitting meditation when you can. I might sound to stingy and demand-y here, but it’s true. Here’s why.
Sitting (in any way, as we’ll see later) is the optimal position for focus and relaxation. When your body is upright, you can be more alert yet, you can be relaxed if you sit in a natural position without discomfort.
If you lie down, you’re most likely to be too relaxed, not as attentive, and would drift to sleep (which is great if that’s your goal).
Standing for most people isn’t ideal either since even though they might be more attentive, they’re not as relaxed.
Lastly, walking meditation is a separate thing in itself. It is more of a mindful training exercise rather than meditation.
So my answer to the common question — “Is it necessary to sit to meditate?” is “Not necessarily, but it’s always preferable.”
In my opinion, this question comes from a deeper confusion in people’s minds regarding mindfulness and meditation.
Even though they’re used interchangeably these days, they are different.
John Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) defines mindfulness as, “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice used to train your attention and awareness, and achieve higher states of consciousness amongst other benefits like calmness, joy, etc.
This means, that meditation is just one of the roads to mindful living. It makes you more mindful of daily experiences and tasks that you may otherwise perform in a distracted state of mind.
However, the main difference that concerns our topic is this — mindfulness can often be practiced informally apart from sitting — which is where meditation while lying down, walking, and standing come into the picture.
Ergo, if you’re not sitting and meditating, you might just be doing a mindful exercise instead of meditation. It’s a slight difference but one to be aware of.
Phew! Now that you understand the difference between the four popular types of positions, we can dive into specific postures for each one.
Even though sitting is the best way to meditate in my opinion, I’ll still provide examples of other positions. Why? Because I like to avoid strict rules when it comes to meditation and meet people where they are.
And so if you’re just beginning a meditation practice and want to get a taste of the mindful experience, by all means, opt for any one of them that you like.
When most people think about sitting for meditation, they immediately imagine a lotus posture with fingers turned a certain way. While that can be done, you don’t have to.
One of the goals of meditation is to go beyond body-consciousness for which you need to hold the body perfectly still. This cannot be done if you assume postures you’re not comfortable with. You’ll fidget unnecessarily or feel the pain in your legs that’ll snatch your enthusiasm for meditation. Trust me, I’ve gone through this.
That said, here are some postures you can try.
Meditating in a Chair
Meditating in a chair is the ideal option for most people. When Paramahansa Yogananda came to America to spread the art and science of Kriya Yoga, he quickly realized that Americans, unlike Indians, don’t grow up with the habit of sitting on the floor.
Only until recently, we Indians have started using tables to eat and sofas to sit. Often we’d have quilts and short beds like a Shikibuton to eat and relax.
Nevertheless, Yogananda realized that the westerners wouldn’t start meditating if they’re told to sit on the floor. Thus, he advocated the use of a chair with a few points to keep in mind:
Sit upright in a chair or the edge of the bed or sofa.
Place your arms and hands on your lap
Place your feet flat on the floor, un-crossed
Finally, most important, try not to lean against the back of the chair. If you’re having trouble with this, place a cushion or folded blanket behind your lower back. You can also place a cushion below your hips and feet if that makes you more comfortable. Moreover, feel free to keep a cushion on your lap to place your hands.
The point is this — use as many cushions as you need but don’t lean against the back of the surface or use a cushion as a padding layer for your middle or upper back.
If you do that, you’ll not be as attentive and are likely to dose off in between. Keep your spine naturally straight and your head and neck in line with the spine.
Meditating Using a Bench (Seiza)
Sitting on a meditation bench can be quite comfortable if you use the right techniques. As in the photo above, you can use padding below your knees so they don’t start hurting.
You can do this with a full-size mat or multiple cushions. For resting your hands, you can again place a cushion on your lap if that’s comfortable.
Overall, the Seiza position keeps your back straight and can be a great way to meditate.
Meditating With the Easy Pose
This is the easiest posture when it comes to sitting on the floor. It is also known as the Sukhasana (the easy pose). Just place your feet on the floor and sit comfortably.
Meditating With the Half Lotus (Ardhapadmasana)
This is a slightly difficult variation. You place one foot on the opposite thigh and the feet left then goes underneath the top leg. I use this method and supplement one of my knees with a cushion
Meditating With the Full Lotus (Padmasana)
Simple to explain, yet difficult to accomplish, the full lotus is when both your feet are resting on the top of your opposite thigh.
This posture is often recommended (if you can do it well) because it locks the legs in and holds the spine up straight. This helps you to forget about the body easily while meditating and be still during your practice.
Now that we’re done with the postures, here are a few things you must keep in mind no matter which posture you pick:
1. The Spine
Your spine should be mostly unsupported and straight. In yogic terms, a straight spine allows the astral energies to move freely and without any obstructions.
Imagine yourself as a puppet being pulled up by a string. It is important to keep your spine straight since it has an uplifting effect on your brain.
Try it for yourself — sit straight right now and you’ll notice a sudden increase in focus and attentiveness since the energy in your spine can easily make its way up to the brain.
2. Your Hands
You can hold certain mudras with your hands which yogis and Buddhists recommend. But that’s beyond the scope of this article. Yet, I’ll mention one example from each:
Gyan means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ in Sanskrit. And thus Gyan Mudra translates to the Mudra of Wisdom. It’s a sacred hand gesture or ‘seal’ used to direct energy and maintain focus used by Buddhists, Hindus, and Yogic traditions.
Its main benefit is that it smoothly increase blood circulation in the brain and thus makes you alert, focus, and overcome the dullness of mind.
It is the Mudra of Meditation and is a variation of Gyan Mudra. It helps to deepen awareness and take the mind to a meditative state. It is also believed that Buddha practiced this when he attained Enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree.
Yet, there’s no need to get too lost in Mudras. The simplest thing to do is to rest your hands on your lap. Remember, when in doubt go for the option that makes you feel attentive yet comfortable
Push your shoulders slightly back. This gives you a firm spine as well as opens your heart and chest.
Place the chin parallel to the ground. Often during meditation, you’ll find yourself trying to look up or tilting your head down.
When you notice this, correct it and bring it back to parallel.
While many spiritual practices advocate relaxing your gaze or even keeping your eyes open, I beg to differ.
As per my experience, it’s best to focus on the point between the eyebrows which is called the Agya Chakra or the Spiritual Eye. It’s also the esoteric center of concentration.
It is not a physical object located in the body, but a light which is actually visible there, ‘behind the darkness’ of your closed eyes. Through that light (the spiritual eye), the deep meditator can gaze into subtler-than-material realms.
You can learn more about it here.
Meditation Whilst Lying Down
There’s no problem in lying down if you cannot sit due to discomfort like back pain, foot problems, etc.
Since you’re not trying to fall asleep, find a mat or a blanket to lie down on the floor. This will reduce your chances of drifting off and keep you alert and attentive.
Also, if lying down is your thing, it’ll be good to ensure you’re not sleep-deprived otherwise I can almost bet you’ll be drowsy as soon as you lie down!
That said, there are a few things you can do when lying down to meditate:
This one of the simplest but most effective Yoga asanas I’ve come across. To practice it, lie down on a flat surface, palms facing upwards.
Now, practice 2–3 rounds of tensing and relaxation. Breathe in, tense your whole body, and then relax gently. Do not shock your system by rapid tensing and relaxing. Feel the energy flowing to all the parts of your body.
Once you’ve done this, be very still and take deep breaths. Notice the air through your nostrils and observe your belly moving in and out. Let the breath be natural, don’t restrict it.
Feel deeper relaxation with each exhalation.
If the corpse pose doesn’t feel right, you can keep a thin pillow under your head, and elevate your knees to 90 degrees so your feet are flat on the ground.
You can also keep a pillow under your knees and keep the legs on the floor.
Again there are end number of options but ensure you don’t get too comfortable.
Often we believe that to experience stillness and mindfulness, we need to stop moving. And while that is true, stillness doesn’t always mean the cessation of movement.
You can move and be still at the same time. The stillness we’re after is deeper than your physical state.
Walking meditation unlocks a different state of consciousness, especially after a sitting session.
Since the coronavirus lockdown has ensued on the world, we all have found more time on our hands than we know what to do with.
I’ve used this time to inculcate a much-needed practice of an evening walk. I walk without headphones for at least ten minutes after which I am free to take calls if I have to.
By far, this has been the single-most effective investment in keeping me fit and creative and help me embrace boredom.
There are other reasons too why you should try walking meditation. You see, most of your time is spent rushing from place to place. We all are preoccupied with what is to be done next.
Researchers have found that most mind-wandering in our brains is related to the next 24-hour period. Hence, we’re not really experiencing every moment, rather thinking about how to live the next one.
Walking is perhaps one of the most automatic activities we perform.
You don’t think about placing one step in front of the other or shifting your weight from the heels to the toes, every time you take a walk. It just happens.
So while doing a walking meditation, the goal is to reverse this cycle — from automaticity to awareness.
This can increase our enjoyment of our own physical bodies, nature, and the surroundings in general — all the things we tend to miss out on when we live on autopilot.
From a larger perspective, it helps us be aware not only about where we place our feet but also our emotions, and actions — for the mindfulness you experience while walking percolate to other areas of your life as well.
A meta-analysis of 20 studies found that the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) which includes an 8-week training program including walking meditation, improves symptoms and psychological wellness of participants suffering from a variety of illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and depression.
Here’s a simple way to do it today, or even right now:
Find a spot where you can pace up and down for roughly 15–20 steps. It can be indoors or outdoors.
Start walking for 15–20 steps, and stop and breathe for as long as you like when you’re done. When you’re ready, turn, and repeat.
- Think deliberately: As we discussed, you need to cultivate hyper-awareness about movements you otherwise do automatically. Particularly, you can focus on:
- Lifting one foot
- Placing the heal of the next foot in the front
- Placing the toes on the ground
- Shifting of weight on the front step as the heel of the previous step lifts
- Lifting your back foot off the ground You can continue this for as long as you like. Feel free to add on other elements like walking barefoot on grass and feeling the surface. There’s no limit to awareness, when you think you’ve gone deep, go deeper still.
Walk at a natural speed — don’t try to control it too much
Keep your hands and arms the way you like — at the side, front, back, etc.
- It’s definitely an acquired taste — you may not like it at first, but it grows on you the more you practice.
Since most of us sit for 9.3 hours a day (which is two hours more than we’re sleeping) we can probably benefit from a standing meditation.
Yet, remember as we talked about a few paragraphs ago, it’s more about mindfulness than meditation.
Standing meditation is also one of the crucial training practices in Chinese martial arts.
Unless you practice qigong or tai chi you might not be aware of standing mindfulness practices. While I’m not going to dive deep into them, I’ll outline a simple practice that you can do anywhere — during your commute, standing in the grocery store line, etc:
Stand with your legs should-width apart. Keep your feet parallel and knees soft. Don’t lock your knees, just bend them a little.
Relax your neck and let your arms gently lie on the sides.
From here, start noticing the sensations on the feet and at the top of your head. You can also do a quick body scan.
Then, start to feel the breath moving from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head — you can visualize this any way you like — as a light, stream of water, or nothing at all.
Repeat this over and over and you’re bound to feel at peace and find a sense of calmness transcend your body.
The whole point of outlining tons of postures is to help you find what works best for you so you finally stick to your practice of meditation.
I’ll rub it in again — there’s no right way to meditate as told by one philosophy or teaching. Apart from taking care of a few basics, there is an end number of possibilities that you can explore.
Try to see if sitting practices work for you. Assuming most people are comfortable with and habitual of sitting in a chair, sitting would be the way to do.
However, if for some reason that’s not possible, you may go for other ways I mentioned above.
There’s also no reason to stick to only one of them. I have a sitting practice every morning and evening but also try other methods like walking meditation and standing when I want to be more mindful during the day.
Meditation in that sense is a way of living life and not just about the practice itself.
To conclude, pick one for yourself and start today. I hope I solved all your doubts and there are no more excuses left for you to go to.
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