Mindfulness-based back pain--help!
March 30, 2012 9:00 AM   Subscribe

I've recently started doing a sitting meditation, and when I do it in a cross-legged position sitting on a cushion, I'm having pain and sort of a numbness in my right mid back. I don't want to stop doing the sitting meditation--I'm finding it easier to meditate in a sitting position--but it hurts, and I'm worried I'm going to injure myself.

So I have a few questions:

1. Has anyone else experienced this? If so, what was it, what did you do about it, and did it go away?

2. I'm going to try it sitting in a chair, see if that helps, but more generally for mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is what I'm doing, can I do the sitting meditations in lying down without losing the benefit?

3. Are there any common explanations for this numbness beyond a pinched nerve?
posted by supercoollady to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer anything about the physiology of this other than to say I believe it's fairly common. I can't sit on a cushion in that fashion for more than a few minutes.
That said, I highly recommend a seiza for sitting meditation. You can also adopt a similar position with a cushion, but the seiza seems to keep all circulation and nerves nice and happy for me.
posted by piedmont at 9:07 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Finding a good sitting position for meditation can be a tricky thing, especially if you're not used to sitting on the floor. (What works for me is a buckwheat cushion under my butt bones, sitting in half-lotus, and a folded shawl under my problem knee. I still have aches and pains, but no numbness, and I view the uncomfortable aspect of meditation part of the discipline. That's just me, though.)

There could be a number of physiological causes of the pain and numbness and I won't hazard a guess, but I will say that finding a comfortable, aligned position is both possible and necessary. There is no reason to sit on the floor if you find a chair more comfortable.

And I'd recommend sitting in a chair rather than lying down; I've found that lying down for meditation is a completely different experience than sitting. However, any position that leaves your spine straight is a good one.

Find a chair that is comfortable but gives you enough back support that your spine is aligned. Roll your shoulders back and down, maybe put a cushion in your lumbar area. Put your feet flat on the floor, with your thighs parallel to the floor. Put a cushion under your feet if necessary. Rest your hands on your thighs. Breathe. Etc.
posted by Specklet at 9:14 AM on March 30, 2012

Here is an article from yogajournal that helps you work on correct pelvis placement, both for cross-leg and chair.

more generally for mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is what I'm doing, can I do the sitting meditations in lying down without losing the benefit?

I'm going to venture a qualified yes. Look into the hatha pose savasana. Of course this is a different beast, and people have all sorts of mixed feelings about jumbling disciplines, (and if you have a sensei he might be getting out his whacking stick) but it is my belief that any work on mindfulness is a boon, and the less negative feedback it creates, the better. All the best.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 9:18 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I fell out of my meditation, but in my experience, it's about where your head's at, not what you're doing with your body (witness walking meditation). If you need to be in a chair, sit in a chair. That's cool. It's much harder to get to the right place if you're in pain.

Plus, as piedmont mentioned, there are a lot of different "tools" for doing sitting meditation. I went on a yoga/meditation retreat once and had all sorts of poofs and cushions and foam blocks at my disposal, and some were definitely more comfortable than others. Do you have a local store that would let you sample the different options?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:18 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Different positions are comfortable for different people, and there is no one position that's right, or that is required.

I can't meditate lying down, because I go to sleep, but if you can meditate lying down and maintain your focus, there is nothing wrong with that.

If you want to continue to try sitting on the cushion, there are a variety of postures, in addition to the seiza position piedmont recommends. (I tried seiza for a long time but it was not agreeing with my knees so I switched to the swastikasana pose I learned in yoga class and I'm transitioning to lotus.)

If I had to guess (and I really have no expertise) your problem might be that you're sitting unevenly and there's a slight curve to your spine. You might try a different type of cushion, and using additional cushions or even just a rolled blanket or towel to help support different parts of your body. If you can show a physical therapist, yoga instructor or meditation instructor your pose and describe your problem, they could probably give you some advice.
posted by BrashTech at 9:23 AM on March 30, 2012

I cannot sit crosslegged on the floor, even with cushions, for more than a few minutes. I have trouble keeping my back straight and belly "open" in chairs, and when I lie down to meditate, I can't focus. And seizas don't work for me either (super-tight hamstrings and bad knees). What's a girl to do?

So I duct-taped three yoga blocks together and I basically "sit" on them in a kneeling positions (one knee on each side of the block). I put a blanket over the block so I can't feel the block's edges. This allows me to sit up straight and breathe from my belly. I do this in my carpeted bedroom. I have knee issues but this position doesn't cause problems in that area. I can remain in this position for a pretty long time.

The whole setup cost me $30 at the local Sports Authority since I already had the duct tape: I'm sure you can get yoga blocks cheaper than that.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:24 AM on March 30, 2012

Sitting in a chair is typically fine. I also find it more comfortable and less distracting than sitting cross-legged. I tend to listen a guided meditations and many of them are specifically written with the assumption that you're sitting in a chair, so I don't think there is anything wrong with this method.

I'd recommend against lying down, personally. It is a very different experience (and can tend to lead to you simply falling asleep, instead of meditating).
posted by asnider at 9:26 AM on March 30, 2012

I have done yoga for more than ten years, and I still cannot sit cross-legged on the floor without pain and discomfort and sometimes numbness. My lower back is just that way.

Definitely sit on something that elevates your butt above your feet. A block, a blanket, a towel, whatever.

But you can meditate in any position!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2012

Thich Nhat Hanh says there are three possible positions for sitting meditation: the full lotus, the half-lotus, and the chrysanthemum. The chrysanthemum is whatever position is most conducive to your own ability to sit mindfully. So try different positions and different supports to see what works for you.

Personally I find lying down to be too comfortable, and I end up resting rather than meditating. The ideal position for me makes me aware of my body without being uncomfortable. Being mindful of what my body is experiencing becomes part of the meditation itself.
posted by headnsouth at 10:04 AM on March 30, 2012

Two things that have helped me:

Do a meditation practice that uses the entire body as an awareness reference point:

Body awareness exercises that go beyond "stretching and strengthening":

Actually, and three, sit in a chair. Only sit 15 minutes at a time, stand up for a few minutes and walk around between each 15 minute period.
posted by zeek321 at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2012

A hip mobility issue of some sort may be responsible - a lack of it is very likely to refer pain to your lumbar when sitting in the crosslegged position. Working on freeing up your hip flexors with stretching and massage/foam rolling should be beneficial. Since these are the same muscles holding back most people's squat, MobilityWOD has several very effective drills for mobilising the area.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 10:52 AM on March 30, 2012

Seconding the use of a seiza. I use one similar to this, all padded and comfy.
posted by THAT William Mize at 11:40 AM on March 30, 2012

In traditional Zen there is a precedent for doing whatever works for you.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:10 PM on March 30, 2012

I think one can meditate in various postures and ways, but I do think that the posture or activity will affect the experience. Not in a good or bad way, just different. For example, sitting vs walking meditation are different, but both wonderful in their own ways.

I like to meditate outside during my work break, and sitting on the ground isn't feasible in that case. So I sit on the bench with my legs comfortably in front of me. I sit into my hips, and have a thought to let the bench itself support me, not my hips and legs. I make sure my spine is extended from the tail to the top of my head, but maintain proper lumbar curve and make sure my shoulder blades are down and back. Which I'm sitting on the ground or floor, my hands rest on my knees, but when I'm on a bench or chair they rest on my thighs. It feels more comfortable and natural.

I do meditate lying in bed sometimes. It's a great experience in its own way, but it does feel different to me. Less alert and focused, maybe? When I'm sitting, I'm primarily maintaining focus and awareness, and secondarily feeling my body. Feeling my body is very important to me when sitting, but comes after awareness and attention. When I'm lying down, my primary experience is sort of melting into my body, and then on awareness and attention. Both good, just a bit different.
posted by f_panda at 12:34 PM on March 30, 2012

Oh, about the numbness. I know it can be a symptom of a lot of things. I know two, and you already mentioned pinched nerve. A myofascial trigger point can cause numbness. Do you by chance feel any kind of referred pain when you dig into any muscle knots? For example, if I press on certain points of my trapezus I feel pain where I'm pressing as well as pain in specific places in my head. The same with my neck, it refers pain to my head and face.

Less severe then a pinched nerve could be an irritated nerve. I irritated the nerve in my funny bone by leaning on my elbow when sitting in my office chair. So you could have an irritated and inflamed nerve that's heading towards more serious damage.

Either way, numbness is pretty much always cause to see a dr, because it can be a sign of very serious things.
posted by f_panda at 12:41 PM on March 30, 2012

FYI, "seiza" means "correctly sitting". It refers to the posture. The cushion is called a zafu. Traditionally, you would place it on a square cushion called a zabuton. If you're searching for one, google "zafu", not "seiza".
posted by ellF at 1:43 PM on March 30, 2012

It is perfectly okay to meditate from a chair. Walking meditation is also nice, and works well for ADD types like me.
posted by cross_impact at 2:00 PM on March 30, 2012

Okay, with the seiza posture, you are seated in such a way that you are stable and your back is straight (there is the slight spinal curve, but not hunched over).

With the crossed-legged posture, your weight tends to be more on your butt and less on your knees. Half-lotus is slightly better, and full-lotus even better than that, but even in those cases, the weight is a bit too far back and it leads to a slight tendency to hunch over.

So when you say you are sitting on a cushion, the cushion should be under your butt but not under your legs and knees. This should even out the weight distribution and you should be able to sit straighter, which should help with lower back numbness.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:01 PM on March 30, 2012

I was on a 10-day silent retreat several months ago through a place that focused specifically on the Vipassana school of practice. We sat for about 10 hours every day for 2-4 hours at a stretch. Which was hell, right, but we were told to maintain our focus and work to achieve some level of equanimity with our pain—the whole point of the exercise was to be aware of our reactions to everything. And I found it worked. I had brought along a little pine meditation bench I put together and which by the end of the week I was using bare, having borrowed a cushion at first because everything hurt—I didn't know just sitting could be so goddamn painful. But then my relationship to pain and suffering in general changed, and while by the end it sometimes didn't hurt any less, I was pretty okay with whatever was going. I'm not suggesting you don't do anything about your numbness, but that it might also be useful to look closely into the nature of your discomfort for perspective.

And all of this is coming from a relatively young guy with no history of serious injury or anything, so take from this what you can. But there was a fairly broad demographic at the place I was at and I saw people using everything from multiple layers of cushions and backrests to sitting on folded blankets or just the bare zabuton. And, most of us being beginners at this thing, we were changing our setups constantly. Every single one of us over the course of the retreat experienced severe and acute numbness or pain—what our teacher sagely referred to as "intensified, solidified gross sensations"—so I don't think it's abnormal for anyone having a go at it for any extended period of time.

It seemed, though, that anyone who was experiencing persistent levels of unease, or who had a history of specific injury, had opted to sit in chairs.
posted by onwords at 2:11 PM on March 30, 2012

One other thing -- do not be afraid to use multiple cushions, or fold over the cushion you have. Crossed-legged will require more cushioning than half-lotus, which will require more than full-lotus. A rough guide might be enough cushioning so that some part of your knees actually touch the floor.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:33 PM on March 30, 2012

I am a sometimes meditator in a group on my college campus. Anyway, the leader showed me how to kneel on a Crescent Zafu. It's like in the Seiza Position on this website -- the picture to the far right, where the guy is wearing all red and straddling a blue thing (zafu). I often have numbness and pain sitting trying to sit in the lotus position, and I found that this form of sitting/kneeling was far more comfortable. The buckwheat zafu is super supportive, so I don't know what it'd be like trying it with just a pillow. Good luck!
posted by amileighs at 4:46 PM on March 30, 2012

If you've started sitting only recently, it may be partly that your back muscles aren't very strong yet. I remember getting a lot of mid-back (just below the shoulder blades) discomfort when I was new to sitting. Several years down the road now, that's not a problem, and it's very much my perception that it's due to my back becoming stronger, just from practice.
posted by Lexica at 7:31 PM on March 30, 2012

People have mentioned shifting positions, but I wonder specifically whether this still happens if you cross your legs the opposite way? If not, it could indicate some muscular imbalances may be at work.
posted by windykites at 3:26 AM on March 31, 2012

I sit on the edge of a folded blanket but cross my legs more at the ankle, where one heel is basically resting on the other ankle, and my knees are angled out, if that makes sense. I find this more comfortable for my hips and low back. I do this rather than sit with my legs crossed with my feet under my knees which is what most people do in the traditional pose.
Also, you might try sitting against a wall, with or without blanket lifts, which is supportive and nice for your back.
posted by bookshelves at 9:42 PM on April 1, 2012

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