Meditation Posture


      Whether seated on the floor or in a chair, the most important thing is to sit upright, finding the middle way between two extremes.  One extreme is slumping forward, with the chest collapsed, the shoulders rounded, and the head thrust forward.  The other extreme is sitting rigidly erect, exaggerating the curvature in the lower back, thrusting the chest forward and the buttocks back.  Most of us have a tendency to adopt one of these positions due to the habits of poor posture encouraged by sitting for most of our lives (at school, at home, in the office, in the car).  These positions eventually lead to soreness, tension, stiffness, and pain in the neck, shoulders, and lower back. 
       Finding the correct posture can be difficult, due to these bad habits that we have internalized.  We shouldn't over-focus and obsess about posture, since our bodies do not have to be perfect in order for us to develop meditative concentration.  However, our meditation will be more effortless if we can gradually begin to reform our postural habits.


What to sit on?  Chairs, cushions, and lesser known alternatives.
    
    Here we will discuss the zafu, the crescent pilow, the gomden, the standard chair, the kneeling chair,  The Nada Chair,  and my favorite inexpensive seat -- the folded blanket.
    A local source for meditation cushions is Samadhi Cushions in Barnett, Vermont,  The place is run by meditation practicioners and they do mail order. Go to http://www.samadhicushions.com.  They do returns, but you have to pay the shipping.  So try to test drive cushions before you buy them.  They can be fairly expensive, and until you can't tell just by looking at one whether your butt will hurt after sitting on it for an extended period of time. Maybe you can go to a meditation center and try theirs, or maybe one of your crunchy granola friends has a cushion collection.  If not, you'll just have to gamble. I don't know of any stores around here with floor models.
    The traditional Japanese Zen cushion is the zafu, and the best ones are stuffed with Kapok or Buckwheat Hulls, not cotton.  The effect of Buckweat Hulls is sort of like the old-fashioned bean bag chairs.  It holds its shape and can be adjusted to the way you like it.  Both Kapok and Buckwheat Hulls can become compressed over time, so they often come somewhat overstuffed.  You may have to remove some of the stuffing in the beginning to make them more comfortable.  Personally I don't like the zafus.  I prefer the crescent shaped cushions.  Also, some people like  gomdens, designed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for his students.  These are square, with an extra-firm foam core.  They are fairly expensive however.
      Personally, I find you can improvise a decent seat with a folded blanket, a cushion from an old couch, or a rolled up rug, or some combination of these.  But, if you like to be stylish, you'll have to choose one of the types of cushions listed above.
      If you aren't limber enough to sit on the floor, it is perfectly acceptable to sit in a chair.  The only problem with chairs is that they do not allow your pelvis to tip forward, and therefore can put strain on your lower back if you try to sit up straight.  An improvised solution for this is to put a blanket or cushion on the chair seat, especially if you can get one that is somewhat wedge shaped, so that your pelvis can tilt forward slightly.  Also, there are "kneeling chairs" for sale, that allow you to sit with your pelvis shifted forward and your knees resting on padded supports.  See http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-kneeling-chair.htm for a discussion of the pros and cons.  Many office supply stores carry versions of these chair, as well as the Relax The Back stores.  However, you will want one that is portable (folds up). Generally these chairs are not cheap, however, I found one at amazon.com and I have posted the link on the right side of this page!
      The kneeling chairs have no back support. If you have chronic postural problems, another possibility is to sit on a couch, with a back support, and with your legs folded. I enjoy that position.  There is also a gadget invented by a chiropractor called The Nada Chair which somewhat resembles the ancient meditation belts that were developed in India.  This gadget is relatively cheap and allows you to sit on the floor with some lower back support.  See http://www.loveatfirstsit.com I RECOMMEND THE NADA CHAIR. I own one and they really do work! I've posted an amazon.com link to the Nada Chair on the right. They can be used  for sitting on the floor or on any flat surface, like a couch, or the front of a chair.  They're useful for other things too, like sitting in bleachers at a sporting event, if you don't mind looking a little eccentric to the muggles  (see illustration)

Nada-Chair supporting back on bleachers












Before totally leaving the subject of chairs, I have to mention the so-called "backjack" fad.  As you can see in the photo below, the backjack seat leans back at an angle, so that your head is not in line with your spine, but leaning forward (also known as "slouching."  Most people in our society already have an unfortunate tendency for their heads to protrude forward, and the backjack just reinforces that.  In the long run it creates muscular imbalances that eventually lead to chronic musculoskeletal tension, stiffness, and pain.  In other words, I DO NOT recommend the backjack.  You'd be better off to sit against a wall.






Avoid the backjack slump
Notice how the torso leans back, with the head thrust forward





Incense
 
   It is not necessary to have incense when meditating, but many people find it uplifting.  Over time you can develop a conditioned response to the smell of the incense, so that even smelling it makes it easier to enter into meditative concentration.  If you believe in past lives, you might even be responding to olfactory memories of meditating in another lifetime, particularly if the incense you are using is based on an age-old traditional recipe.  Smell is one of our primal senses.  It is now believed that smell plays an important role in whom we are attracted to.  Also aromatherapy suggests that certain scents may trigger certain types of responses in us.  Traditionally incense was a kind of offering, and was believed to attract beneficial energies to the meditation space. 
   The best incense is made with sandalwood, herbs, and other natural scents, often according to traditional recipes that are believed to have a beneficial medicinal effect on mind and body.  Buyer beware, because many types of incense are "perfumed" with artificial chemicals which some people find irritating.  Even all-natural incense may trigger sensitivities in some individuals.  And, of course, incense gives off smoke.  Nippon Kodo, the premiere Japanese incense maker, has a line of Kah-Fu incense that burns hotter, so that it is almost smokeless.  Personally, I like the aroma of the high grade Nippon Kodo incenses.  There is also some traditional Tibetan incense that I like called Khangdru (or Khang Dru) but it is hard to find.  It is sold locally by Tsegyalgar East, in Conway, Massachusetts, and can be mail-ordered from them. Their internet adddress is http://www.tsegyalgar.org/bookstore/bookstore.html
   An simple incense holder, that also provides a measure of fire safety, is a large glass bowl, filed with fine pebbles.  You can get the pebbles at the pet store, where they are used for aquariums.  You could also use fine sand, instead of pebbles, but you will have to throw the sand out periodically because ash will accumulate.  The pebbles, on the other hand, can be washed in a collander.  The weight of the sand or pebbles keeps the bowl from being accidentally knocked over, and the surface is large enough that any hot ash will fall into the bowl, rather than onto the table cloth or carpet.        
    Places to buy  Japanese incense: www.thefifthsense.com for the high priced stuff, www.amazon.com for the less expensive kind.  (When you buy from Amazon through the link on this page, this site gets a small percentage)


Candles
 
  Almost every spiritual tradition in the world uses candles.  Perhaps this is because candles and fires have been part of human history for so long, providing life supporting warmth.  What is more romantic than a candlelight dinner, or candles in the bedroom?  In Hollywood movies, frequently the heroine has ten or fifteen candles burning in her room during the love scene. That must get expensive!
   Fire is one of the traditional four elements and, like water, is associated with purification.  Fire gives off light, which symbolizes awareness--hence we speak of someone being "illuminated" about something.  Fire also gives off warmth, and inner warmth (tapas) has traditionally been associated with mediation practice--"fire in the belly."  Also, like incense, candles can be seen as a kind of offering to the higher energies.  So, the symbolism of candles resonates with us almost unconsciously.
   However, we now know there are certain precautions to be followed around candles.  First of all, they are a definite fire hazard.  And, besides that, some candles can pollute indoor air quality.



Training the Posture:  Yoga and Pilates


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