One of the most common questions I get revolves around meditation posture. In turn, this guide is my attempt to share the essential info on how to go about the sitting posture. It’s sort of like several articles in one — use the index as a guide and feel free to bounce around!
What Is the Best Meditation Posture?
There is no such thing as the “best posture.” Traditionally, we’re instructed to practice meditation while sitting, standing, walking and lying down — basically, any position we can put ourselves in.
However, the stereotypical image of a meditator is of course doing “sitting meditation.” This is because it tends to offer the best balance of relaxation and alertness. For example, there are fewer distractions than when walking, less likelihood of falling asleep than when lying down, and a little more relaxing than standing.
In turn, for sitting meditation, we simply want to choose a posture that helps us feel relaxed and alert. Trust yourself. Whatever seems like it works is probably best!
There are a few styles of cross-legged meditation (shown in the photo below), and it’s also perfectly okay to sit in a chair. Different postures work best for different people, so it can be good to experiment!
All Postures are Uncomfortable!!
Some people have chronic pain or discomfort, and the experience of being in their body is not particularly pleasant. Other people can get comfortable in a meditation posture for a few minutes, or maybe even an hour or two, but in either case, that position too eventually becomes uncomfortable.
Even the most flexible and in-shape person in the world will experience discomfort after walking for 7 hours continuously, or lying down for 14 hours without moving.
What I’m trying to say is that meditation is not about avoiding discomfort, but rather learning to be with both comfort and discomfort with equanimity, perspective, and patience. However, it’s certainly a good idea to be kind to ourselves and choose optimal postures.
So set yourself up for success.
If cross-legged meditation isn’t comfortable for more than a few minutes, then sit in a chair — really! If that doesn’t work, give more time to walking meditation or lying down meditation.
You could also take a longer-term approach and do what I did — develop a regular Yoga practice. Over the course of years, your body will become noticeably more open, flexible and comfortable.
To Share a Personal Anecdote…
When I started meditating I couldn’t still without discomfort for more than five minutes. During my first meditation retreat, the teacher literally called me in for a private interview to ask if I was doing alright because he noticed how much I was fidgeting, moving, and adjusting my body. It was rough!
Fast-forward many years and I can now sit cross-legged for about 60-90 minutes pretty comfortably. When it inevitably starts to get uncomfortable (some days when I’m downsy it happens very quickly!), I don’t move right away and use the discomfort as practice.
And, while I sit cross-legged on a cushion about 75% of the time, I also sometimes use a bench, do standing meditation (especially when I’m sleepy), occasionally do chair or lying down meditation, and turn most of my walks into “informal meditation.” In other words, it can be helpful to switch it up!
This is say physical discomfort in meditation is something most people experience, but armed with info like this, our posture will
See this article on the difference between formal & informal meditation.
A Few Key Tips for Sitting Meditation
Here are some helpful tips for any of the postures shown above.
- Maintain an upright/straight spine with about 5-10% slack, like a guitar string that’s neither too loose or too tight.One tactic to experience this is to imagine there is a string that runs from your pelvic floor, through your midsection and up to the crown of your head. Take a big inhale and imagine you are lifting that string up to the ceiling as much as you can. Your spine will be 100% upright. Notice this is rigid and tight. Then on the exhale relax the string, and find a resting place where your spine is upright, but there’s about 5 to 10% relaxation/slack in the string.
- Keep your knees either at the same level as your hips or lower. This helps keep the natural curve of the spine and will help prevent back pain. Often times, this means sitting up higher.
- No “floating” knees! If you’re cross-legged on the floor and your knees don’t touch the ground, put a cushion or blanket under them so they aren’t floating a few inches above the ground. This will help prevent knee-pain, and will also help keep your feet/legs from falling asleep. This is shown in the photo below.
- Relax your muscles! It’s very possible to keep an upright spine even with a relaxed pelvis, abdomen, jaw, shoulders, and forehead. One powerful practice is simply noticing our unconscious tendency to tense our muscles (which also tenses our mind!).
- For sitting cross-legged, “Burmese style,” also shown in the below picture, is the most popular. Unless you have an extreme amount of hip flexibility, I do not recommend half or full lotus, as it tends to put subtle levels of stress on your knees that will reveal themselves in the long-run.
- In the below photo, note that his feet are going to start to hurt a lot, as he has no cushioning under them. Always put a rug, blanket, “zabuton,” etc. under your feet.
Is it Okay to Adjust my Posture During Sitting Meditation?
Yes! It can’t be stressed enough that there is nothing special about staying perfectly still (or even the sitting posture itself) — it’s all just an aid to help us be more aware.
However, we are training our ability to be responsive instead of reactive.
In turn, if any mild discomfort starts to come up, the idea of insight meditation is to notice your worries and other reactions, and see if you can allow them to be there without grasping onto them or trying to push them away! See if you can find patience, ease and choicefulness even amidst discomfort.
Often times, shifting our attitude a little bit and giving discomfort permission to be present leads to it fading away.
Although, if it doesn’t fade away, and the discomfort becomes stronger or just too painful, then it’s actually really wise to shift your posture. Just consciously notice that you’re doing it!
What to Do if my Legs or Feet Go Numb?
Similar to what I said in the previous section, the first step is simply to notice it and give it permission to be present! Physical numbness can also be a beautiful opportunity to develop wisdom: to notice our reactions, emotional responses, the sense of it being “bad” or the idea that “my meditation will be better if it goes away.” Simply to notice all that and allow the numbness as well as the mind space to just be.
However, people do get particularly nervous about their legs or feet going numb, and fear it might be causing harm. I’m not a doctor so don’t take this as sound medical advice (and defer to your doctor’s judgment if you’re really concerned), but my opinion is that unless you’re maintaining numb legs for a few hours at a time, you’re not going to hurt yourself.
I’ve done many meditations with over an hour of numb legs and the feeling always returns. In many years of teaching, going on retreats, and talking with hundreds if not thousands of other meditators, I’ve never heard one story of someone doing irreparable harm because their legs went numb during meditation.
In other words, if it’s at a distraction level that’s gentle enough you can still have a patient, curious, accepting and/or equanimous attitude, don’t worry about it!
However, if it becomes too distracting, there are two good options:
- Adjust your posture! See the previous paragraph — no brownie points for sitting like a statue, but if you do move your posture, see if you can do it intentionally and consciously instead of just reactively swinging your leg out 😉
- Use this gentle “method” to return the feeling to your legs. Basically, leg/foot numbness happens because your sciatic nerve, which runs from your lumbar spine through your leg, gets pinched around your hips. The remedy, random as it may sound, is to lean forward for about 30-40 seconds, put your hands on the ground in front of you, and put your weight into your hands. Feeling will return!
What Meditation Cushion to Use?
Of course, you can just use a chair or any pillows/cushions lying around your house. However, getting the optimal supplies can make a big difference in the enjoyability and easefulness of meditation. I personally like to have a bench, a home cushion, a zabuton, and a travel cushion. However, for most people, one cushion or bench and a zabuton (if you’re not on a carpet/rug) will do the trick. I regularly use all of the below, and they each make excellent choices:
- Best affordable cushion. This one is made out of organic cotton and is sufficiently wide and tall. I really like it. Note that if a cushion is too narrow for your behind to sufficiently rest on it, it tends to lead to numb legs.
- Best overall cushion. This is my “every day” cushion and favorite overall. It’s made by a guy at the Portland Saturday Market, so can be purchased there live, but he may also ship. Note it’s made out of a millet blend, which I find quieter and more comfortable than the more common buckwheat grain.
- Best travel cushion. This inflatable cushion has three chambers, which gives you a little more control to get the ideal support. I use this a lot for travel (even just going to the park!). Enter the code “pathofsincerity” at purchase, and both of us get a small discount!
- Best meditation bench. If you get a bench, I would recommend one with upholstery, as it will be softer on your bottom than solid wood. The linked bench also has hinged legs, which make for easy transport. However, if portability doesn’t matter to you, the company in the “best affordable cushion” link has a fixed-position bench at about half the price of this one.
- I also really like kapok cushions as they feel like cotton but are more durable (fabric doesn’t compress), although I’ve mostly stuffed my own, so have none from personal experience to recommend. If you go this route, just make sure to get one wide enough and not too overstuffed.
- Zabuton. A zabuton is a roughly 3′ x 3′ plush floor mat you put under your cushion, and what your feet rest on. If you have carpet, a thick rug, or don’t find it inconvenient to just place a couple of blankets under you, then a zabuton isn’t necessary. However, especially if you have hardwood floors, getting a “zabuton” makes a big difference. Getting the right zabuton is way lower stakes than getting the right cushion, though I have a cotton one and while it works just fine, if I were to get a new one, I’d choose a Kapok one, like in the link.
Another article you might enjoy is should the eyes be open or closed during meditation?