View Full Version : Meditation Posture Demystified


Kunga Dorji
01-24-14, 07:52 AM
The work I accomplished in my spare time today.

In teaching mindfulness, we have to respect the spiritual traditions of each individual, and present our information in a way that does not tread on anyone's toes or offend anyone.

In Tibetan Buddhism, about 1/2 -2/3 of the time meditating is spent on refining posture to improve the integration between mind and body.

For sitting, we use a posture described as the Seven Point Posture of Vairocana.
http://www.samye.org/posture.htm

The full posture- which involves the lotus position is virtually impossible for us hunched up Westerners, and is known to place many people at risk of serious knee damage. So there are alternatives_ Half Lotus, Burmese, the Zen kneeling posture, or even sitting in a chair.

The next post is my current best summary of why these postures should work from a neurophysiological point of view-- and how to use them wisely.
I am continually gaining access to new sources, and deepening my awareness will be doing more work on this- so I hope that you all can accept that this is the best I have been able to gather in the last two years.

Kunga Dorji
01-24-14, 08:02 AM
<style type="text/css">P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }A:link { }</style> Posture In Meditation – a Medical and Neurological Perspective.


Meditation has been practiced for many thousands of years, and through experience, it has been found that certain postures are more compatible with stable, focussed attention than others.


While we all have cause to be grateful for, and acknowledge, the work of the many people who have developed and preserved this knowledge, many individuals who would benefit from mindfulness therapies are anxious about accepting material from other spiritual traditions. With this in mind I have developed the following analysis of the anatomical and physiological reasons for adopting meditation posture. This list is incomplete, and I am always grateful for further sources of information to extend it.


Some of these explanations relate directly to the anatomy and some relate to the associations between certain postures and emotions. An area in our brain called the insula is partially dedicated to assembling information from our bodies and informing us of our emotional state. This information directs our attention very powerfully.


Studies done by some osteopaths of what are called “archetypal postures” (ie the postures that people used to use before chairs and soft beds were manufactured) clearly demonstrate the efficacy of traditional prayer and meditation postures in assisting a relaxed physiological state. References pending


A very powerful and evidence based presentation of the effect that posture can have on our emotional and neurohormonal state can be seen in this short video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmR2A9TnIso
( Game Changer:Amy Cuddy,Power Poser - You Tube.
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist and a professor at Harvard Business School. She has also recovered from a severe traumatic brain injury, which caused a temporary, but severe reduction in her IQ.


There are formal recommendations for postures for sitting, lying, standing and walking meditation.


I will deal mostly with sitting meditation, as we do most of our work, and most of our interacting in a sitting posture, so it makes sense to train our attention particularly for sitting.


Most people would be familiar with the formal meditation postures that are depicted in artwork from Eastern cultures, but when adapting posture for our uses we must realise that most Westerners suffer significant chronic postural problems related to chronic sitting in chairs.


It pays to work towards ideal posture- both in terms of efficacy of meditation and reduction of long term issues with osteoarthritis of the spine, and many other health conditions related to the abnormal load bearing patterns linked to our posture.


However, if we try too hard to reach perfect posture we will cause pain, and that will make meditation difficult and unpleasant. Correctly done, meditation can rapidly become relaxing and very productive- so a gentle patient attitude is essential. Force it- make it unpleasant, and you will put a barrier in your path.



The correct posture is defined according to seven main points or areas, and it is worthwhile starting each session with some time (even up to 2/3 the session) concentrating on optimising posture.


Some elements of the posture have symbolic importance that helps remember the purpose of the meditation. I will not dwell overly much on these here. If you choose not to use the one mnemonic device I mention– simply remember that having a set posture removes the problem of having to waste time deciding on the ideal posture!


Environment for Meditation
Always meditate in an environment where you feel safe, and free from distraction. It is not necessary for the environment to be silent, but turn your phone off, avoid TV, music, pets, and make it clear to those around you that you are unavailable until you have finished the meditation.


Be aware that movement in the periphery of your visual field will induce a minor stress response.
This is part of your body's natural means of keeping you safe, and cannot be completely over-ridden.


Intention
Effectiveness of meditation is always helped by setting an intention at the start of the meditation. This can be very simple, such as intending to develop clarity or stability of attention, or more complex. Best results are always achieved with altruistic intentions. Embarking upon meditation or mindfulness for purposes of selfish gain will at the best be self defeating, and at the worst, highly destructive.


Stillness
When meditating aim to keep still other than the movement induced by the breath. If a posture becomes painful- observe the pain or discomfort for a short while then mindfully and smoothly adjust to a new posture. Too much movement will distract others in the room if you are meditating in a group.


Breathing
Breathing should normally be in a natural rhythm, but if you are aware of raising the breastbone a little as you inhale this will help you straighten your spine gently and without strain.


Some techniques call for specific modification of breathing pattern- but they are beyond the scope of this article.


Aim for a posture that is "relaxed but vigilant". When you get it right- everything opens up and your body feels very light- but if you chase this feeling you will just end up with a headache and generalised muscular tension.



Biological Significance of The Seven Point Buddhist Meditation Posture


Lower Body

If unable to sit in a cross legged meditation posture instead sit in a chair. Keep the legs well apart and sit with the knees lower than the hips. This will aid in achieving a correct spinal curvature.

If you are able, sit cross legged on the floor inone of the postures the postures known as lotus, ˝ lotus or Burmese, or kneel in a low kneeling position on a stool or bigger cushion.
Again knees should be lower than the hips.
Neurologically, any cross legged posture where the legs touch each other increases cross exchange of information between the left and right sides of the brain. This helps integrate brain function.
Aim for a stable and comfortable posture.
Do not persist until your joints hurt or your feet or legs go numb. There are no real benefits in enduring this, and it will only reduce your enthusiasm for the practice.
2. Hands
Place your hands on your lap, with the back of the right hand flat on the left open palm, and the inside of the tips of the thumbs upraised and gently touching each other, about two inches below the navel. This posture pushes the shoulders back into a straighter position, opening the back and straightening the thoracic spine. This reduces an overactive stress response and induces a feeling of calm and equanimity.
The tips of the thumbs should be barely touching. When this is the case one can practice breath awareness by becoming aware of the extremely subtle variations in thumb pressure with respiration. This is an advanced technique for developing highly acute attention.
The right hand rests in the palm of the left hand. This is usually taken as symbolising the idea that wisdom and action must be balanced by compassion. That is a useful idea to hold, given the goals of meditation in achieving a more peaceful and positive life.

3. Back
Keep the backbone straight, with the vertebrae upright so as to extend the entire body, while maintaining a feeling of inner relaxation.
From the side on we aim for a posture in which the ear canals, the centre of the shoulders and the centre of the hip joint are in the one vertical plane, while drawing up to the maximum height possible.
From front on the shoulders should be square and the head held vertical and not to one side.
Beginner meditators may need to use a back rest, but with practice one should draw away from this and sit without support.
A well balanced posture should require minimal muscle tension to hold upright, and feel light and relaxed. It does activate the core spinal muscles, and with practice will greatly improve posture in day to day life.
Excess curvature in the thoracic or lumbar spine directly activate the autonomic nervous system and induce a stress state. REFS
Equally, alertness is regulated through an area in the brainstem called the reticular activating system.
One of the inputs that activates alertness is a vertically inclined neck.
Twisted postures- overly curved, or with a sideways twist also put unnatural strains on the spinal cord and generate distorted proprioceptive (body position awareness) sensations, which are fed into the brain. This is not helpful to those aiming to develop the capacity to attend clearly to reality.
With practice this posture becomes natural, and one becomes able to carry it into day to day life, with great improvement in one's energy levels.
4. Elbows and Shoulders
Straighten your elbows and shoulders evenly. Model yourself on a vulture who is flexing his wings before taking off. This brings the shoulders back a little and sustains energy by promoting full expansion of the lungs during meditation. This position synchronises and harmonises all the elements of the bodily posture.



In contrast to this, the flexed postures associated with chronic sitting compress the lungs, and alter the breathing pattern in such a way that blood carbon dioxide is reduced below healthy levels, and the body loses significant amounts of magnesium as the kidneys correct the blood's acidity.


Neck and Chin

The neck should be retracted and the chin allowed to nod downwards slightly. This nodding posture is generated entirely at the joint between the skull and the first cervical vertebra- NOT lower in the neck.
Do not bend your neck to either side, or backwards.
Many of us sit in chronically crooked head and neck postures and are quite unaware of this. Straightening up can feel uncomfortable. I recommend practicing with a mirror if needs be, until the posture becomes natural and comfortable.
Sideways tilt on the head will place traction on one side of the brainstem and the spinal cord. It will also create a large difference in the tension on the muscles at the base of the skull. The stretch information from these muscles and the position information from these joints generates a very substantial part of the input that drives neural activity in the brain- and crooked postures will skew brain activity strongly to one side or the other.
Brain function is highly differentiated between left side (more directed to focal analytical attention) and right brain (more directed to global attention and emotional intuitive awareness- but essentially non verbal/subconscious). Imbalance in hemispheric activity can lead to information processing difficulties: In broad and very approximate terms either becoming too cold, analytical and rigid (left) or too prone to be overwhelmed by emotional states and unable to process them.
See This You Tube Clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPjhfUVgvOQ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPjhfUVgvOQ)
(Dr. Dan Siegel (http://www.youtube.com/artist/dan-siegel?feature=watch_video_title)- On Integrating the Two Hemispheres of Our Brains )






6. Mouth
The tip of the tongue should touch the upper palate, with the teeth barely meeting and lips kept natural. This position helps to avoid extreme dryness and wetness occurring within the mouth.
This position also helps induce a more relaxed state. It is known as an acupuncture point that does this-- and I suspect that the reason for this may well be related to the state of relaxation experienced by infants when breastfeeding.
Otherwise the face should be relaxed, even with the suggestion of a slight smile if you wish. Sometimes it helps to deliberately raise then relax the eyebrows,or to gently tense and relax the jaw.





Eyes

Meditation can be done with eyes open or eyes closed. Some kinds of meditation, attending to the sensations that arise in association with thoughts are best done eyes closed. Certain traditions of meditation emphasise working with one or the other, but for the moment it is worth simply being aware that different techniques will develop different aspects of brain function.
If meditating with the eyes open eyes should gaze serenely into the space a little beyond the tip of the nose, without the eyeballs moving or the eyelids blinking too often. Ideally a gaze about 10 degrees below horizontal is thought to be ideal, with the eyes still and not focussing on anything specific. If the eyes wander, this activates discursive thought. Our central (macular)vision is the organ of highly focussed attention.
If sleepy, or feeling unsteady, it is much better to work with eyes open.

Lunacie
01-24-14, 11:51 AM
I have a long torso, short arms and short legs.

Even when I was young and thin and flexible I could not achieve that posture.

However I sat with legs crossed on the floor as a child much of the time,

sat that way as a young mom with my child playing on the floor,

and sat that way as an adult on the floor to ease back pain

or on the bed to do meditation and healing energy work.

Perhaps I didn't devote enough time and attention because it didn't help with my ADHD.

Kunga Dorji
01-24-14, 05:27 PM
I have a long torso, short arms and short legs.

Even when I was young and thin and flexible I could not achieve that posture.

However I sat with legs crossed on the floor as a child much of the time,

sat that way as a young mom with my child playing on the floor,

and sat that way as an adult on the floor to ease back pain

or on the bed to do meditation and healing energy work.

Perhaps I didn't devote enough time and attention because it didn't help with my ADHD.

The instructions above contain directions for meditation sitting in a chair.
That will do, so long as you sit up high with your knees lower than your hips.

That will avoid excessive low back curvature.

I have had back pain of one sort or another since April 1984 when I ruptured my L5-S1 disc. That happened due to the scoliosis secondary to the atlas subluxation of which I was then unaware. The abnormal spinal rotation caused by the atlas problem is a major contributor to low back pain and disc prolapses.

(A funny story there-- when we did anatomy in 1980 and were covering the surface anatomy of the neck I found that I was tender over the transverse processes of the atlas. So the whole of our tutorial group examined our necks and we all found we were tender. Our tutor-- a man about to qualify as a General Surgeon, checked his neck and he was tender too- so we all concluded it must be normal! How dumb was that?:umm1:

Certainly when I started meditating I was unable to sit in anything remotely like Buddhist posture- however, the back has been freeing up as I have done more work on it. Te scoliosis I had is almost gone. I do yoga exercises virtually every day, and will shortly be off to a qi gong class.

Kunga Dorji
01-24-14, 08:58 PM
I have a long torso, short arms and short legs.

Even when I was young and thin and flexible I could not achieve that posture.

However I sat with legs crossed on the floor as a child much of the time,

sat that way as a young mom with my child playing on the floor,

and sat that way as an adult on the floor to ease back pain

or on the bed to do meditation and healing energy work.

Perhaps I didn't devote enough time and attention because it didn't help with my ADHD.

You know it is an interesting question- we did not co-evolve as a species with the chair!
Equally - we all started off as children being able to sit without chairs.

Western Seated posture causes to gradually develop worse and worse contractures- until we degenerate into what is described as "upper crossed posture" by many physical therapists.

Quite apart from the impact on attention via deranged autonomic balance and altered proprioceptive input from the suboccipital muscles the broader health implications of this posture are catastrophic.

I spent nearly 20 years in the one general practice and watched many people age and die over that time.
In every case the ones with the worst posture and the most limited mobility were at the greatest risk of deterioration. Many of them "held" until they got ill with another illness and lost muscle tone.
The cascade was quite predictable
late middle age-- a mild upper crossed posture would worsen into a persisting more marked thoracic kyphosis. Then they would develop osteoporosis and wedge fractures in the thoracic vertebrae.
Then they would develop gait and bladder control issues, and soon after that cognitive decline would accelerate.

There is a reason the Chinese government have been so proactive in promoting tai chi/qi gong: it has enormous health benefits and is the cheapest way to keep their population fit and functional into old age.

This is now being researched, and my qi gong instructor has promised to direct me to the papers that are now emerging in this area.

As per the Amy Cuddy video - the metabolic alterations produced by postural alterations are enormous.

A couple of years ago, I was pretty well resigned to lifelong pain and to the fact that I was ageing in a very nasty way and could expect to come to a bad decline and death.

I decided that that was a dysfunctional belief.

That choice made all the difference.