By Gil Fronsdal
When walking, one knows one is walking
When standing one knows one is standing
When sitting one knows one is sitting
When lying down, one knows one is lying down.
– The Buddha
Mindfulness of posture is a particularly useful part of the Buddhist path to liberation. We can learn how to move out of postures that undermine us and into postures that help us feel more empowered and free. At first this may be done intentionally. As awareness and inner freedom become stronger, skillful postures become less something we assume and more something that arises naturally from the strength of our freedom.
“Mindful postures” are an important foundation for meditation. Our capacities for stability, confidence and resiliency can be more readily available when we assume postures that give these qualities a chance to appear. Mindful postures enhance awareness of our body by bringing a greater sense of embodiment or ‘bodyfulness’ to our mindfulness. In addition, they help prevent unnecessary discomfort in meditation.
Attention to posture is particularly useful during meditation retreats where we may stay with a particular posture continuously for longer times than we usually do in daily life.
When meditating we can bring attention to our posture in three general ways. First, we can use attention to posture as a window to an intimate knowledge of our inner life — our emotions, attitudes and intentions. Second, we can assume postures that bring physical and psychological benefits that support meditation practice. Third, we can find postures that avoid unnecessary physical discomfort. This can allow us to meditate for longer periods of time without having to work with pain.
Self-understanding Through Posture
Twenty-four hours a day throughout our lives we assume particular postures, sometimes consciously, most often unconsciously. Because posture often expresses attitudes and emotions we are experiencing, attention to it can bring a greater awareness of our underlying attitudes, moods, and feelings. For example, such emotions as fear, anger, and resistance are expressed in our posture quite differently than happiness, confidence, and determination. With some attitudes the body pulls in, collapses, or tightens up. With others, it opens up, expands, and relaxes.
During meditation, subtle shifts in posture can arise out of aspects of our psychological state. Tense approaches to meditating translate into the body being held in tense ways. Resistance may be felt as a pulling back. Expectation and anticipation may come with a slight leaning forward. Complacency with meditation can manifest in a sinking posture. Calm enthusiasm for practice can show itself in a relaxed, alert posture. Contentment and happiness may come with a sense of lightening and uplift.
With regular meditation practice we can become increasingly familiar with the subtle variations in our meditation posture and the way these variations express how we feel. This is particularly so when we first sit down to meditate. We may be leaning, twisting or slouching more than usual. Our moods, attitudes and sense of vitality may be reflected in how upright we sit, how open the chest is, how and where the body is tense, which muscles don’t relax, and what parts of the body feel energized.
Posture as a Support for Practice
A mindful meditation posture can provide many more benefits than simply allowing us to be physically comfortable during a meditation session. It is possible to assume postures that support mindfulness, concentration, and other useful psychological states. Through attention to posture, our bodies can participate in the practice of meditation, making meditation much more than a mental activity.
Both mindfulness and concentration are supported by the attention required to take an intentional posture, i.e., an upright posture that takes some ongoing attention to maintain. Ideally such a posture would also provide a strong, stable base against the floor, cushion or chair. Over time, the intention to assume this posture becomes second nature and seemingly effortless.
A reciprocal relationship exists between our bodies and our mental states. We are influenced by whatever mood or attitude our posture expresses. If we slump when sad, the slumping can reinforce the sadness. If instead we assume an upright, strong, stable posture, not only are we less likely to get lost in the sadness, we may be able to hold the sadness with a strong, stable awareness. When anxiety manifests in a tight chest, by sitting up straight with the chest wide and shoulders rolled back we are less likely to be under the influence of the anxiety. We may, in fact, call forth courage to face it directly.
A traditional instruction is to meditate with a posture that expresses dignity. Even if we don’t feel it, we may benefit from sitting in a posture that expresses dignity through our whole body, with an upright balanced torso and relaxed face, belly and hands. Forgotten or buried senses of dignity may have a chance to surface. The statues of the Buddha meditating serve as an example of a posture that expresses a quiet dignity, perhaps even a soft regality. It can be a model for a posture of relaxed confidence, gentle strength, and non-entangled awareness.
On meditation retreats, it can be very supportive to assume an easy dignified posture throughout the day. By doing this while sitting, standing, walking and lying down we counter the influence of debilitating attitudes. We are more likely to call on our reservoirs of confidence.
To avoid unnecessary discomfort when meditating it is important to find a posture that is personally suitable. No particular posture will be right for everyone. And no posture will always remain the right posture over time. For this reason it is useful to know a range of postural options and learn to adjust as needed. Becoming skilled in meditating in a variety of postures gives us greater flexibility and adaptability with our meditation. It facilitates alternating between postures during meditation retreats.
It is a good idea to receive instruction in meditation posture from a variety of different people, each who may know different aspects of meditation posture. Because there are so many physical details that go into meditation posture, even longtime meditators who have a comfortable posture can often benefit from hearing posture instruction.
Sometimes it is useful to have another person look at your meditation posture. This person may see aspects of your posture you can’t see or feel yourself. They may be able to point out where your posture is out of balance. Some people will feel themselves sitting completely straight while meditating even though their torso is leaning or their head tilted. Any lean or tilt will build a strain over time.
While being comfortable in meditation is useful, it is important to avoid using physical comfort as the only guide for meditation posture. This is because what may be comfortable, at least in the short term, may perpetuate unhelpful postural habits. It may also prevent the strengthening of muscles that support good posture. Also, at times, discomfort may signal the release of muscular tension, so avoiding such discomfort can interfere with further release and relaxation. This means that sometimes it is useful to continue to sit and practice with discomfort rather than avoiding it. Other times it is appropriate to shift the posture only enough that the discomfort becomes manageable as a good subject for mindfulness.
It is important to give careful attention to physical discomfort that arises in meditation. This may provide clues to how a particular posture can be improved in subtle ways. It also may help us understand whether the discomfort might cause an injury. While it is rare to get injured from meditation, it does happen, especially when meditators force themselves to sit through pain without careful attention. Generally, pain that is potentially injurious will feel different that pain that is non-injurious. There will be a subtle “danger” signal connected with the pain. If pain comes with any sense of possible injury, it is important to move. And if it is not clear whether or not some physical pain may be harmful to endure, it is best to change one’s posture to alleviate the pain. One clear sign that a meditation posture is injurious is if physical pain connected to meditation continues for more than 5 minutes after getting up from a meditation session. ]
In conclusion, regular meditation practice is a way to develop a meditation posture that brings ongoing benefits. Slowly, imperceptibly, the body will settle in, develop muscles, and release tension. Equally slowly we can develop a greater body awareness that supports a good posture. Sometimes a body that has settled into an upright, dignified meditation posture is called a “yogic body”, a form of posture that can bring such benefits as an integration where the entire body feels harmonized into a peaceful, energized whole.