"Kosher" Position in Classic Meditation that Provides Full Back Support?
April 24, 2008 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Are there alternatives to the lotus position for classic meditation that don't leave the back unsupported? I've found that sitting in an unsupported position, or in a chair that doesn't have a seat back, ends up making my back ache rather strongly. I've thought about investigating meditation (and looking into the more classical, early practices), but have wondered if there's a "kosher" (accepted in the discipline) way of doing the more classical meditations while having your back completely supported (by lying on the ground, or doing it in a chair, or what have you).
posted by WCityMike to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Lotus position + small cushion stuffed under your butt = happy back. I just got back from a meditation class and most people, including myself, were doing that.
posted by forallmankind at 8:32 PM on April 24, 2008

I spent a while at an ashram in India. The sitting meditation killed my back too. They suggested you use a small pillow, but even with one I never got to a point where I really felt comfortable. The spots next to the walls were always full with people sitting back against them. I don't think it's approved but even people who had been there for weeks were doing it. I suspect that strengthening your core muscles will help support your back in the future.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:39 PM on April 24, 2008

A Zafu is the pillow thing. There's also Seiza sitting, which seems to me to be easier on the back but hell on the knees. I think you're not supposed to be terribly comfortable lest you fall asleep, and once you get the hang of proper posture with your head balanced on your spine and your spine straight, you don't have to use your muscles much. Imagine a string tied to the top of your head lifting you like a puppet. It's like mom always told you, "don't slouch".
posted by zengargoyle at 9:58 PM on April 24, 2008

If you have access to a gym, try using the Roman Chair to strengthen the lower back muscles. Combine this with abdominal exercises to develop your core. Take it slow, 6-8 reps, and take a second to breathe before standing up! After a few sets I find it near impossible to slouch, and the next day I always walk a little taller.
posted by limited slip at 10:27 PM on April 24, 2008

This is why they invented yoga.
posted by fshgrl at 10:35 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's better to develop stronger 'core' muscles than the be 'comfortable' meditating; once your 'core' is strong enough to hold you comfortably for a half hour or so there are fewer distractions of the 'oh man, I'm achy' sort and meditating is way, way more pleasurable and productive (at least for me that was the case).
posted by From Bklyn at 1:17 AM on April 25, 2008

Padmasana (the full lotus position) is used by meditators for some very good reasons. These include that it is very comfortable, very stable and that blood flow to the legs is reduced and redirected into the abdominal area.

You may not believe me that it is comfortable but once you can do it properly you will find that it is true. In padmasana with your legs folded up and your knees, thighs and buttocks on the ground a stable triangle base is formed. This base allows you to hold your spine upright for long periods of time quite comfortably.

Most importantly you can hold the body steady. It is essential for proper meditation that the body is held perfectly still. Most of us are a long way from true meditation (in the full sense of dhyana) so we don't have to worry about perfect stillness, however it's still important to move as little as possible in the lower stages of practice.

All that said, many people find padmasana difficult or impossible. One can train up for it by practising certain movements (e.g. titali asana) and there are half-way positions e.g. half lotus.

However there are also alternatives. Lying on your back is perfectly fine. There is a position called the corpse pose (shavasana) which is just this and is considered a meditation posture. The problem of course with shavasana is that it is very easy to fall asleep in.

There is vajrasana the thunderbolt pose which is the preferred position in Zen and Muslim meditation traditions.

There is also siddhasana for men and siddha yoni asana for women.

In my yoga teacher training course all these meditation positions were taught and used. Each one has certain benefits and subtle effects on the body.

That's all by way of background. To answer your question directly, yes it is fine to practise meditation in whatever way works for you. In a chair with a back, lying down etc. Just focus on keeping your spine well supported (if upright) and try to keep as still as possible. The journey inward is beautiful and one we all make eventually at our own pace and in our own time.

p.s. For very good descriptions of the meditation postures I have described above and others I would recommend the book Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

posted by Sitegeist at 2:32 AM on April 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is why they invented yoga.

Just to add much more concisely, fshgrl speaks the truth. Hatha yoga practices (what we understand as yoga in the West) were formulated for the sole purpose of clearing blockages in the body and purifying it in preparation for meditation (dhyana). Without these preliminary physical practices most people are unready for and will not be able to go very deep into meditation.

posted by Sitegeist at 2:40 AM on April 25, 2008

If you want to see what the poses Sitegeist mentioned look like, I have found that Yoga Journal has some great info and pics online. Click here for a list of restoratative poses, with pictures and step-by-step directions.
posted by kirstk at 3:12 AM on April 25, 2008

My friend designed this meditation chair with the help of his grandfather (who has been meditating for years)... I've sat in them -- admittedly not for more than an hour or so -- but it's surprisingly comfortable on the back. Apparently one of his biggest customers are moms who want something to sit on while playing with their kids on the floor, and this takes enough pressure off their backs to make it comfortable to do so. It's basically a glorified version of a pillow or cushion, but it maintains the right kind of angle to keep your back feeling okay. Could you hack together something similar to try?
posted by olinerd at 4:17 AM on April 25, 2008

Um. Not that I'm an expert or anything, I've always laid on my back, palms by my sides face down or even arms extended perpendicular to my body, palms up.

I've also done one perpendicular to a wall, butt up against it, legs flat going up the wall.

Seems kinda crazy to me to be uncomfortable or in pain while trying to clear your mind of thoughts.
posted by indigo4963 at 7:14 AM on April 25, 2008

Check out these postures. What about a meditation bench?
Full disclosure, I may actually know the people running that second company through friends of friends, which is why I added another image, that first one. It could also be a totally different group, and they were the first link for "meditation bench."
posted by salvia at 8:42 AM on April 25, 2008

I like sitting in Virasana to meditate. It's like kneeling, but your butt rests between your legs instead of on them. You can sit on something to raise your pelvis if you find sitting on the ground too hard on your knees or circulation. I find this pose puts my upper body in line with my center of gravity so it takes a lot less effort to stay there for a while.
posted by rhiannon at 12:30 PM on April 25, 2008

I have a generally unhappy back, so meditating for even short stretches has always been an issue for me. For a long time, I sat on one of those huge workout balls. This allowed my spine to subtly shift when needed, and it never became uncomfortable. It did give my legs a bit of a workout, but it's the only thing that absolutely didn't bother my back at all. I've always been curious about kneeling chairs, too, but I never tried one.
posted by zeek321 at 1:35 PM on April 25, 2008

I sit kneeling, with a couple of pillows raising my butt so that it is above my knees. I'm sitting about two hours a day at the moment, and I've had no trouble with my back.

Zendos usually have small benches which you can also use for this purpose. I have used those for extended periods with no back pain, too.

Whatever position you adopt, you do have to remember to keep your lower back relaxed, though. I have found this easier to remember since I started practicing tai chi, as relaxing it is an explicit tai chi principle.
posted by Coventry at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2008

Strengthening yourself to sit in Lotus is best. If that's not going to work for you, or you have to sit longer than you're able, here's a good method. Get a long scarf, sit in your best meditation posture, Lotus if possible. Hold the scarf so the middle is behind your back. bring the right end around your front and tuck it under your left knee. Bring the left end around front and tuck it under your right knee. You won't be exactly leaning back, but your back will be supported enough so you can sit comfortably. Of course, this requires that you have some yoga background, but as mentioned before, usually the asana training comes first, then the meditation. And, just so you know, nothing comes quickly in yoga.
posted by Joe13 at 5:51 PM on December 28, 2008

The important thing is that you meditate, not what position you sit in. Lorin Roche advocates sitting however you feel comfortable. Sit on the couch if that's what works for you.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:25 PM on January 29, 2009

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