Friday, February 27, 2009

Preparing Your Body for Sitting

If you can sit in meditation for 10 or 15 minutes each day without discomfort, congratulations! You needn’t spend any additional time learning how to stretch and strengthen your body — unless, that is, you’re so inclined. But if you’re like most people, sooner or later your body will start clamoring for your attention. For example, you may find that regular sitting causes your back to stiffen occasionally. Or you may try to work your way into one of the more challenging cross-legged poses — only to discover that your legs just aren’t as flexible as you imagined.
A few well-placed hatha yoga poses can do wonders for your body — and make sitting a whole lot more comfortable, too! Whichever sitting position you choose, you’ll enjoy it more if your lower back is flexible and strong enough to support you without complaining. And if you prefer to cross your legs, you’ll find that stretching your hips allows you to sit with more stability and far less strain on your knees. With these needs in mind, the following sections highlight six yoga poses (also known as asanas) to help prepare you for sitting. The first three help to stretch and strengthen your lower back; the second three work on opening your hips and making them more flexible.
When you’ve chosen the poses that seem best for you, be sure to practice them gently and carefully, treating your body with the kindness you would reserve for a close friend. Enjoy the stretch, but back off gently if you feel any pain. (If you don’t have carpeting, use a yoga mat or a rug between your tender parts and the floor.)

Zafus, benches, and other exotic paraphernalia

Depending on which meditation tradition you explore, you’re likely to encounter a range of different sitting devices. Some yogis I know like to plop down a tiny rectangular bag filled with rice before they artfully settle onto it and cross their legs in full lotus. Many Zen folks and other Buddhists prefer the plump round cushions known as zafus (Japanese for “sitting cushions”), often combined with flat, square cushions filled with cotton batting for extra height, if needed Zafus have infiltrated the meditation halls of every spiritual lineage and denomination, from Sufis and Buddhists to Christian monastics. Zafus are generally stuffed with kapok, which are silky natural fibers that keep their shape despite repeated sittings. But I’ve seen hefty zafus filled with buckwheat husks or cotton batting and even thick rectangular ones filled with hard polyurethane foam.
Before buying a zafu, be sure to try out a number of different shapes and sizes, checking them for relative comfort, stability, and height. You want to be able to sit so both knees touch the floor, if possible, and your pelvis tilts slightly forward.
If you’re a kneeler, you can try sitting on a zafu or other convenient cushion placed on the floor between your legs, or you can use one of the meditation benches designed exclusively for the purpose. Again, experiment before buying. If you’re a chair sitter, choose one with a firm cushion and a straight back — not one of those plush armchairs into which you can comfortably disappear and drift off. Just be sure your buttocks are somewhat higher than your knees.

Meditating on your posture

As an alternative to following your breath, especially when you want to calm your mind before turning to the practice of mindfulness, you can experiment with the time honored Zen technique of concentrating on a particular part of your body. Try placing your mind in the palm of your hand, if your hands are folded in Zen mudra, or on your belly, at a point about 2 inches below your navel (known as the hara in Japanese). After you practice this approach for a period of time and your attention stabilizes, you can expand your focus to include your whole body, maintaining the same level of Zen-style concentration.