The classic visual image that many of us have for meditation posture is of a person sitting cross legged on a cushion placed on the floor. And while taking such a posture has benefits, many modern people have also learned that they can meditate perfectly well while sitting in a chair.
One reason why people may find themselves meditating in a chair – even if able to sit cross legged – is for reasons of expediency, for example because they are at their desk at work, sitting in a waiting room, or traveling in a vehicle. Other people who meditate in chairs do so because they have tightness in their lower body muscles and joints that would create pain if they tried to sit cross legged on the floor – pain in the knee, ankle, and hip joints, as well as in the muscles of the legs (such as when the leg “falls asleep” from the pinching of a nerve). Tightness in the lower body may have its source in age, injury, exercise routine (for example, running without a warm down or stretching afterwards), or simple biological variation.
(When it comes to posture and meditation, I think it’s useful to talk about general rules that are helpful for most people, but also to remember that we all have unique, individual bodies and that different physical orientations work best for different people. It is generally often helpful to experiment and try different things out and find what works best for each of our bodies.)
Balancing the Head on the Neck
From what I’ve seen, the pain that most often undermines people’s comfort while meditating – even more often than in the lower body – occurs around the base of back of the neck and in the surrounding trapezius muscles. The cause of such pain is usually that the shoulders and head are slumping forward. An adult human head weighs about ten to fifteen pounds, so it is about the same weight of a bowling ball as well as the same size. And if we were to hold a bowling ball in an outstretched, extended arm, our arm would rapidly become cramped, exhausted, and in pain. Similarly, when our head slumps forward while meditating and the muscles in our neck and upper back have to contract to hold it up, we soon get the “icepick between the shoulders” pain that drives so many meditators to distraction.
The simple answer to such pain would seem to be to balance the head evenly on the neck, so no exhausting muscular effort is needed to keep it elevated. One mechanism for doing so is to is – as common meditator advice goes – to bring the ears back in line with the shoulders. In seeking such balance of the head, however, we usually find that we must first tuck our chin slightly and float the crown of our scalp up toward the ceiling. Teachers sometimes suggest straightening up as if we were “pushing the sky up with the top of our head”.
Extending the Spine
As we seek to lift up our head and to extend and balance our neck, however, we also usually find that to do so we must first extend and straighten our upper spine. And, as we try to do that, we usually find that we must also extend our lower spine. This link of causality is one of the reasons why many teaches assert that a straight, extended spine is most important part of a meditation position.
The most important thing in taking the meditation posture is to keep your spine straight … When your back gets straight, your mind will become quiet.
— Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”
Not only does an extended spine allow us to balance our head on our neck, it also enables extension of the front of the torso. This allows for full, relaxed, deep, and natural breathing after we uncompress and relax our belly, and allows our internal abdominal organs to settle comfortably too.
In the practice of meditation, an upright posture is extremely important. Having an upright back is not an artificial posture. It is natural to the human body. When you slouch, that is unusual. You can’t breathe properly when you slouch, and slouching also is a sign of giving in to neurosis. So when you sit erect, you are proclaiming to yourself and to the rest of the world that you are going to be a spiritual warrior, or a fully deeply human being. To have a straight back, you do not have to strain yourself by pulling up your shoulders – the uprightness comes naturally from sitting simply but proudly on the ground on your meditation cushion. Then, because your back is upright, you feel no trace of shame or embarrassment, so you do not hold your head down. You are not bending to anything. … By simply sitting still on the spot, your life can become workable and even wonderful. You realize that you are capable of sitting like a king or queen on a throne. The regalness of that situation shows you the dignity that comes from being still and simple.
— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior“
We are not seeking a toy-soldier ramrod “straight” back, because a healthy spine has a natural curve around the neck and in the lower back, a subtle “S” shape. When we seek a “straight spine”, what we actually want is an aligned, balanced, and naturally relaxed spine, one without any extra unhelpful distortions, pressures, or tensions. When we have all twenty six vertebrae stacked and gently elongated, this creates alert vitality throughout the whole body, with life-force energy flowing freely and with strength.
Some visualizations that I have heard yoga and meditation teachers suggest to help students to extend our spines are:
- imagining the front of spine moving up while the back of spine moving down
- moving the bottom of the shoulder blades down the back
- imagining that our spine is a strong oak tree and then leaning against it
- aligning the vertebrae as if they were a balanced stack of coins that we didn’t want to have topple over
- imagining that we are being uplifted as if being drawn up by a mysterious force analogous to the force of gravity yet opposite in its direction of pull and influence
- imagining a chord pulling upwards on the spine up through the crown of head
Don’t Lean Against the Chair’s Back
When sitting in a chair and seeking a healthy and extended posture for meditating, it is often helpful to sit up without leaning our backs against the back rest of the chair. Sitting back against a chair’s back rest has us lose our upright and balanced alignment, and usually creates a rounded, slouched back.
Slumping against the back of a chair and having it hold our weight can also create a feeling of not taking full responsibility for our body, which encourages an attitude of not making an effort with our mind. This contrasts with sitting with a relaxed and open but upright body, without depending on a wall or chair, which cultivates a mind state of being emotionally open and relaxed without being emotionally dependent. And that, of course, is a mind state that is psychologically healthy and desirable for all of us.
If our back does touch the chair, it can be helpful to make sure that we are sitting in a straight back chair, or to have only the very base of the spine making contact with the back of the chair. And some times, if we want to sit against something because our back muscles aren’t very strong, we are injured, or could just use a rest, it can be helpful to put a cushion, a pillow, or a rolled up blanket as a wedge between the back of the chair and our lower back, so that we can both sit upright and have support.
Sitting without back support can be physically difficult at first, especially as we try to sit as upright as possible and to lift up the crown of our head as much as we can. This is often because years of sitting either slumped over or overarched into a swaybackwe have created back muscles that have grown contracted, numb, atrophied, and/or hyperextended from disuse or misuse.
So, it is common for new meditators to have their back muscles fatigue, spasm, or clench when they first sit fully upright for long periods of time in a more healthy posture that is without back support. But, this pain is not a sign of “doing something wrong”, as it may at first seem, but instead actually a sign of progress being made. If the meditator keeps sitting in an upright sitting posture with spine extended, without reverting to depending on a wall or chair back for support, eventually the muscles of their back will stretch, open, strengthen, and generally rejuvenate. At that point, an upright self-supporting posture becomes more comfortable and easy.
Angling the Pelvis Downward, with Hips Higher than Knees
Just as when we try to balance our head on our neck we often find that we must first elongate our spine, when we try to elongate our spine, we may find that we must first create a healthy positioning of our pelvis. This is what I personally have found to actually be the most important, vital, and foundational element of a healthy seated meditation posture.
One of my meditation teachers has said that when we have a healthy orientation to our pelvis, the spine usually take care of itself. She pointed out that as pelvis tilts down and forward, the connecting point of the lumbar (low back) spine does too, which has us tuck our tailbone, which creates a nice extension in the lower back (which, again, enables an extended upper back and balance of the head on the neck). She suggested visualizing our pelvis to be like a bowl of water which we do not want to tip it over, but where we want a slight stream flowing over the front of the bowl.
To achieve this proper slight downward tilt of the pelvis, we must have our hips elevated higher than knees. One general rule for seated meditation is: if you are having a difficult time extending the spine, then raise up your hips relative to your knees. To achieve this, it is crucial to not sit in chairs where the seat angles up, and, if able, to instead use a chair where the seat angles slightly down. If the seat is level and our knees are still higher than our hips, then it can help to find a taller chair, or to give ourselves a bit more height and to lift our hips up by stacking cushions and blankets on top of the chair.
I have seen some people recommend putting blocks or books under the back two legs of a chair to raise them by about an inch or so, which also will serve to create the desired downward pelvic angle. I personally have never experimented with this.
Another recommended technique is to sit near the front of the seat of the chair. This helps us both to not lean against the back of the chair and also, if the chair is tall enough, to ensure that our pelvis angles down as it hangs off the front of the chair. If you do this, though, make sure that the seat’s edge is not digging into the underside of your thighs and cutting off circulation or pinching a nerve.
The Butt as Chocks
Another thing that over the decades I have found crucial for a comfortable sitting posture when either sitting on a cushion or in a chair is to have the flesh of the butt pulled back behind the pelvic bones. This enable the butt to act like chocks – the triangular wedges that people place under the wheels of trucks when parking them on hills – except that here what is being held in place is the pelvis and the lower back.
Pulling the butt back also provides a stable base of support for upper body, allowing its weight to rest directly above the sitting bones of the pelvis rather than on the flesh of the butt, creating a relatively more stable condition of balance.
To use your butt like chocks, first come to sit on your chair relatively far back, bending forwards from the waist and bringing your chest as low as possible, while extending your spine to bring your head up and widen your chest. Then sit up and drag forward without lifting off the seat, and you should find that the flesh of your butt is behind rather than under you. You may then find that the floor of your torso is more locked in place, helping to keep your back naturally extended.
[(1) sitting straight down onto the butt, which bulges the lower back outwards, in contrast with (2) initially sitting further back but then dragging forward so as to sit more on the sits bones and have the butt pulled behind to act as a chock, which locks the floor of the torso and lower back into a more healthy, stable, and extended orientation]
It is also helpful to drag forward when first sitting so as to also ensure that most of our weight is resting on our sits bones, and not on fleshier stuff of the legs. This can take pressure off the joint where the femur meets the hip sockets, and can avoid creating a pressure on the back of the legs where nerves can get pinched.
When meditating in a chair, we want to feel the ground supporting our feet, the chair seat supporting our pelvis, our pelvis supporting our torso, our torso supporting our neck, and our neck supporting our head.
As with a skyscraper, tall tree, or stack of children’s blocks, placing one part directly over another enables the higher parts to completely surrender their weight to the solid base of the lower parts, and to stay standing. Their weight pushing down also helps to hold the lower parts solidly in place, as anyone who has played jenga knows. It is similar with an upright human posture, where the building blocks are the major segments of our body. When in a healthy meditation posture, we stay upright because of balance and alignment, with no need to brace itself against anything. We are in harmony with, stabilized, and supported by the force of gravity.
When we arrive into a balanced alignment with the vertical flow of gravitational energy, when our body parts are stacked on top of each other, gravity becomes less something trying to pull us over and a force against which we must constantly struggle and exhaustingly brace ourselves against, and more something that can provide both support and stabilization and something we can float in and feel buoyed up by. Then our posture becomes, at its best, light and easy, like a firm young tree growing in soft ground.
When our weight is balanced and evenly distributed, there is nothing physically needs to be held on to or resisted. We can then sit with more stillness, stability, centeredness, balance, calm, and dignity.
[This “Support” section is paraphrased from Will Johnson’s excellent book “The Posture of Meditation“]
I have been in therapy groups where we were instructed to always sit with our feel flat on the floor, with the paradigm being that doing so is more grounding, opening, and has us feel ourselves more deeply, while crossing legs or having them up on a chair enables a person to avoid emotions. Similarly, when meditating while sitting in a chair, we want, ideally, the entirety of the bottom of our soles making contact with the floor. If your feet don’t reach the floor, then it may be helpful to either sit in a shorter chair or to use blankets or books as a pedestal to bring the floor up to your feet.
We also want our feet hip width apart and parallel to each other. It helps to have our shins/calves coming down from the knees at a right angle (with our shins perpendicular to the floor) or else with the feet landing no more than a little out in front of the knees. We do not want our feet tucked behind our knees, and we do not want our ankles crossed.
When we meditate seated in a chair or on the floor, we want our arms relaxed and hanging off the spine on their own weight. The ideal is to have our arms slightly away from our body and to create some space under armpits. The classic instruction is to imagine that we are holding an egg in each armpit, held in place without either dropping or crushing it. Such positioning facilitates deeper breathing and allows air to circulate.
If we then gather our hands in on our lap, as Buddhist meditators typically do, then our arms will then form something of a circle. When humans are at their most relaxed – for example, astronauts in zero G, babies on their back in a crib, or people getting massages in a pool – this is the posture that our arms often take.
With this sort of relaxed, open circular posture of the arms as a goal, it is ideal to pick a chair to sit in that does not have arm rests.
[People with relaxed bodies and a healthy circular positioning to their arms]
Choosing The Right Chair
As I’ve said, it is helpful, when able, to pick a chair that:
- has its seat slightly angled down, or where the seat at least flat
- is tall enough for your knees to be lower than your hips but short enough to also have your feet reach the ground
- has no arms
It is also of course helpful to pick a chair that is sturdy and stable. It’s best to avoid chairs with wheels (unless there is enough friction with the carpet or a mat under them to keep them in place).
There are apparently now specialized “meditation chairs” available that aim to help people to sit comfortably in an appropriate posture. I do not know anything about them however, except that they exist.
If you can’t get a hold of a perfect chair, I recommend going with what you’ve got. People can, and do, have deep and liberating meditation experiences sitting in all sorts of plain, ordinary everyday dining-room or office chairs.
Making A Habit Of It
Just as what is recommended to people who sit cross legged on the floor, it is helpful for people who meditate in chairs to try to take a healthy, upright posture in the rest of your life, when not meditating. When working at a computer or socializing, you are invited to at times try sitting with a balanced head, an extended spine, being upright independent of the chair back, knees lower than hips, and with your feet flat on the ground.