As the story is told, the Buddha became enlightened while sitting cross-legged under the Bodhi Tree over 2,500 years ago. The cross-legged sitting position in meditation carries powerful meaning behind it, but its origins aren’t so mystical. The reality is that the Buddha, as well as followers of the later Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, sat for meditation exactly how they sat most of the time – on the ground with their legs crossed.
All this is not to say your meditation posture doesn’t matter. It does.
Why does your meditation position matter?
Properly arranging your body is a first step in supporting meditation, whether you’re seeking enlightenment or a simple boost to your mental health. Based on millennia of experience, there’s agreement that arranging the body in a cross-legged, straight-spine posture does support mental clarity. And this strong connection between the body and mind has now also been validated by science.
Practically speaking though, most of us today live in cultures where we sit in chairs. So if you find sitting cross-legged uncomfortable, sitting in a chair can be just as beneficial when you get the details right.
It’s also important to note that the Buddha emphasized four different meditation positions without saying any one is better than the others – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down – this dismisses the notion that there is any single best position.
Meditation practice is accessible to all, no matter your health or flexibility. The idea is to not physically push ourselves to fit some yogi ideal, but to develop our meditation practice in a way that suits each of us as individuals. And, like all things in Buddhist meditation, treat finding your optimal meditation position as an experiment in which you discover what is true for yourself.
Keys to meditation posture
Regardless of your meditation pose, there are a few universal points to focus on. The goal is to find a comfortable position where you can find a balance of calm and alertness. If you don’t begin meditation with a stable, comfortable position physically, this mental balance will be harder to find.
Pay attention that your lower back isn’t slouching or rounded. While you want your spine to be upright, you also want to maintain a slight curve in the lower back, which is a natural part of the back’s healthy posture called the lordotic curve. You maintain this balance in the spine that’s neither slouching nor rigidity in order to avoid back pain. Here, it can be helpful to imagine a string from the top of your head gently lifting you up.
Allow your shoulders to drop down and back so that the chest is open. This helps relax your body and enables the flow of breath.
Tuck your chin very slightly in – you should feel an elongating of the spine through the neck. Then invite your jaw to relax.
What you do with your hands is up to you. Certain traditions suggest symbolic hand positioning, called mudras, but any hand position that allows you to maintain a balance where you don’t feel your weight pulled forward or backward is fine. Simply resting the hands on the knees or resting the left hand in the right hand, palms-up on the lap works for most yogis.
1. Quarter Lotus
Quarter lotus is how you would sit if a primary school teacher asked you to sit “criss cross applesauce.” In this pose, each foot rests below the opposite knee. It is the stereotypical cross legged position.
A meditation cushion is helpful in this meditation position to lift the hips up and rotate the pelvis forward enough so that the lower back isn’t rounded. Sit toward the front of the cushion to ensure this tilt. You do not want your knees to be above your hips, no matter how you sit. Ideally, your knees will gently rest against your feet, but you can adjust this to feel comfortable.
If you have ever been to a meditation retreat, you’ve likely seen other yogis with elaborate combinations of zafus (round meditation cushions) and zabutons (larger square cushions that go below the zafus) to create seating arrangements where the hips are lifted much higher and cushions below the legs and knees alleviate pressure placed on the knees and ankles. The downside with these types of meditation thrones is a lack of stability.
Experiment and see what works for you. You can order meditation cushions online or find suitable objects around the home (pillows, blankets, towels etc.).
Bonus tip: You can always use a wall for back support. If you do this, try putting a rolled up sweatshirt between the base of your lower back and the wall to support proper spine positioning.
2. Half Lotus
Half lotus pose is the same as quarter lotus except that your left foot rests on top of the right thigh, or vice versa. This half lotus posture demands a lot of hip flexibility to avoid placing pressure on the knee joints.
Bonus tip: This pose can be a challenge if you haven’t spent a lot of time on a yoga mat. To prep your body, or if you have knee pain, try a yoga pigeon pose or reverse pigeon as a warmup.
3. Full Lotus
Full lotus position is the most difficult posture for beginners, where each foot is placed upon the opposite thigh. It is very stable and symmetrical, which is beneficial when considering the interconnectedness of mind and body, but this meditation pose requires significant lower body flexibility.
Bonus tip: Don’t try full lotus if you have knee or hip conditions that make it dangerous or if it feels like a strain on your body. Yoga poses that open the hips help facilitate this pose. But trying to force your body into full lotus before it’s ready is more likely to send you to physical therapy than meditative bliss.
4. Burmese Position
Burmese pose has both feet resting on the ground in front of the pelvis. It’s a simple pose that is comfortable if you are flexible enough for your knees to naturally rest on the ground.
Bonus tip: When you sit (towards the front of your cushion), experiment leaning forward and back, left and right and even wiggling on the cushion until you find a sense of equilibrium and feel securely centered on your sitting bones. Leaning too far forward will put too much pressure on the legs and feet.
5. Chair Meditation
Meditating in a chair offers all the benefits of meditation that sitting cross legged does.
Place your feet on the floor shoulder-width apart, shins perpendicular to the ground. It’s helpful to sit closer to the edge of the chair to get an upright spine. You may rest against the back of the chair if necessary, but try not to compromise on good posture even in the chair. Use a pillow or cushion to make the chair straight-backed.
If slouching is how you normally sit, consider putting a rolled up sweatshirt between the base of your lower back and the back of the chair for support. You can also place a blanket or cushion on the the chair to help tilt your hips and pelvis forward.
Bonus tip: If you’re able, dedicate a chair just for meditating in. This serves as an environmental cue. It’s a way for the mind to habitually understand that this is my place to meditate. Mental preparation for meditation will be more difficult if you meditate in the same chair that you work in or relax in.
6. Seiza Pose
Another option is to kneel, as is customary in the Japanese tradition. Referred to as seiza, which translates to “proper sitting,” this technique can be done with a meditation bench, though a strategically placed cushion or yoga block between your legs can be just as effective. You can also kneel without any support at all, simply resting the legs on themselves. The tops of the feet should be flat against the ground.
Seiza’s kneeling position takes pressure off of the joints of the lower body and helps the back fall naturally straight. Some sort of cushioning under the knees and feet will go a long way for a beginner.
Bonus tip: Another variation of seiza pose is if you sit on your heels and place the balls of the feet on the ground with your toes facing forward: this is called kiza position. It’s a great stretch for the bottom of the feet but may be hard to maintain for the uninitiated.
7. Standing Meditation Pose
Standing meditation is particularly useful if your meditations frequently end with falling asleep or if sitting causes you pain. All of the meditation techniques that you do while sitting, you can also do standing. Be sure not to lock your knees while standing.
Bonus tip: Some teachers recommend standing and doing a body scan meditation if you are tired or struggling to generate focus in your sitting practice. Walking meditation is another alternative to sitting positions if they are uncomfortable or difficult for you.
8. Lying Down Meditation
Any lengthy meditation session might lead to some minor discomfort, but if even sitting in a chair causes you pain, lying down meditation is a viable option. To meditate this way, lie down on your back in what yoga calls corpse pose or savasana with your arms by your side and palms up. Try to keep your body still but awake and aware, and then proceed with your meditation.
Fair warning, lying down meditation can very easily turn into a nap if you are just learning how to meditate.
Bonus tip: Bending the knees and placing the feet flat on the floor hip-width apart can help reduce pressure on the lower back and has the added benefit of helping you stay awake.
Begin Where You Are
The main goal is to find a stable and comfortable position, not to sit like you believe a meditator is supposed to sit. Don’t compromise your physical well-being for the sake of training your mental well-being. That logic won’t get you very far.
Explore the meditative positions for yourself and decide what works best for you. None will be perfect, but at least take the time to find one that gives you a chance to discover what meditation can do. Accepting the way our body is never completely comfortable, and how it changes from moment to moment is part of the meditation process, so we can even use supposed imperfection in our meditation posture as part of our meditation practice.
If you’re interested in trying various meditation techniques and meditation teachers, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced practitioner, you can find our selection of guided meditations here.
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