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Meditation Question of the Day: My body isn’t flexible, so I can’t sit in lotus pose – is that necessary to meditate properly?
Meditation has hit the mainstream, with images of peaceful, flexible meditators splashed across TV, the Internet, and glossy mags. While it’s fantastic that this ancient practice has gained street cred, one drawback to the visual saturation may a distorted expectation of what meditation “looks” like.
Here’s the deal: with a few exceptions, meditation is less about physical flexibility and bodily contortions and more about settling in to a relatively comfortable pose while working with your chosen technique.
Lotus pose is just one of many positions you can choose when you meditate; experiment and find a pose which is comfortable and conducive to your own practice.
There are innumerable schools and techniques of meditation to choose from, each instructing students in what they consider optimal positions for the body. Some methods give informal suggestions while others are extremely rigid and exact, with many teachings falling somewhere in between; lotus is just one of many options and suggestions you may encounter along the way.
While suggested poses vary from school to school, there are important reasons for paying attention to how we sit, says veteran Yoga teacher Cyndi Lee. “Meditation, and specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice of ‘placing the mind.’ In fact, this is something we do all day long, but mostly we place our mind on future plans and past regrets,” said Lee. “The difference is that meditation is a conscious placing on the mind. Since the body and mind are conjoined, it is useful to consciously place the body, as well, as a preparation and support for consciously placing the mind. A schlumpy body doesn’t offer much support toward gaining a clear, strong or stable mind.”
During my own first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, I was intent on using a small wooden bench as my meditation tool of choice– my body doesn’t bend into lotus pose, so that was never in the running. I found the benches so visually beautiful, and had a clear image of myself kneeling on the floor with a handcrafted wood bench supporting my behind. Turns out my knees had a different opinion, and after a few days of agony I finally learned that I was, in fact, not a bench-meditator, but a cushion-meditator.
In terms of physical postures, Zen meditation falls in the “precise and exact” category, instructing students in fixed ways of sitting. Most of the other major techniques advocate a more informal approach, encouraging students to choose a relatively comfortable position and stick with it.
In general, it’s advisable to avoid lying down while meditating, as this is often a superhighway to falling asleep. While there may be a time and a place for it—during illness or injury, for example—it’s one position to skip, no matter how sleepy you are.
Then, of course – there’s walking meditation (including our own Mutt Meditation technique), in which you’re not sitting at all! Walking meditation is taught in different ways by different schools, and all teach ways to concentrate your mind on a specific point of focus (sometimes the sensation of walking itself, or on breath) while walking with great mindfulness on a path.
Of course, if your body happens to be bendy in the particular ways which make full- or half-lotus pose comfortable, then lotus to your heart’s content. But as we practice “placing the mind,” we also practice placing the body: consciously and deliberately, and with kindness and compassion towards our heart, soul, and joints.