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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Suvarnagarbha, Cambridge, UK
Coleen, FBA Team
Vidyamala, Manchester, UK
Eric, FBA Team
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Suriyavamsa, Glasgow, UK
Mary, FBA Team
Kalyanavaca, London, UK
Meditation Posture Workshop
It's not only important to be able to sit comfortably for meditation; the way we hold the body
has a profound effect on the emotions and mental states that we experience. Something as
subtle as the angle that you hold your chin at affects how much thinking you do.
In this article I explain how to use your body effectively in meditation. I'd like to acknowledge
the kindness of Windhorse Publications, who allowed us to use illustrations from "Meditation:
The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight", by Kamalashila in this section of the site.
The Importance of Meditation Posture
The first thing to learn in meditation is how to sit effectively.
There are two important principles that you need to bear in mind in setting up a suitable posture
your posture has to allow you to relax and to be comfortable.
your posture has to allow you to remain alert and aware.
Both of these are vitally important. If you're uncomfortable you'll not be able to meditate
because of discomfort. If you can't relax then you won't be able to enjoy the meditation practice
and, just as importantly, you won't be able to let go of the underlying emotional conflicts that
cause your physical tension.
From reading that, you might well think that it would be best to meditate lying down. Bad idea!
If you're lying down your mind will be foggy at best, and you may well even fall asleep. If
you've ever been to a yoga class that ends with shavasana (the corpse pose), where people lie
on the floor and relax, you'll have noticed that about a third of the class is snoring within five
Forget about meditating lying down. The best way to effectively combine relaxation AND
awareness is a sitting posture. You don't have to sit cross-legged, or even sit on the floor.
We'll show you how to set up an effective posture in three positions: sitting in a chair, sitting
astride a cushion or on a stool, and sitting cross-legged. All of these work: the important thing
is to find one in which you will be comfortable.
Remember: you may think it looks really cool to sit cross-legged, but if you don't have the
flexibility it takes to do that then you'll simply suffer! Make it easy on yourself. Choose a
posture that is right for you.
Meditation Posture: Elements of Good Posture
There are many different ways to sit for meditation, including using chairs, sitting astride
cushions, using a bench, and various ways of sitting cross-legged from the simple tailor
position to the full lotus. I'm going to stress again that you need to find a position that is
comfortable for you. Listen to your body. Discomfort will distract you from your meditation
and is also your body's way of telling you that something is wrong (although you need to learn
to distinguish – perhaps you can already – the discomfort of stretching from the discomfort of
damaging pain; but we'll come to that later).
We'll look at common postural faults later, but for now, these are the things you have to bear in
mind when setting up a posture that will allow you to be comfortable and to be aware:
1. Your spine should be upright, following its natural tendency to be slightly hollowed. You
should neither be slumped nor have an exaggerated hollow in your lower spine.
2. Your spine should be relaxed.
3. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and slightly rolled back and down.
4. Your hands should be supported, either resting on a cushion or on your lap, so that your
arms are relaxed.
5. Your head should be balanced evenly, with your chin slightly tucked in. The back of your
neck should be relaxed, long, and open.
6. Your face should be relaxed, with your brow smooth, your eyes relaxed, your jaw relaxed,
and your tongue relaxed and just touching the back of your teeth.
Next we'll look at the most common ways you can sit, beginning with the easiest, and then we'll
look at some common faults in posture and how to correct them.
Meditation Posture: Sitting in a Chair
We're going to start with the easier postures first. One thing I often see in beginning meditators
is a desire to contort themselves into a posture that is too hard on them. This results in
discomfort, distracted meditations, and even physical damage. Be kind to yourself.
You can meditate perfectly well in an ordinary dining-room or office chair. The only thing you
have to do to modify the chair is to raise its back legs by maybe an inch or so (2.0 to 2.5cm).
This allows you to sit upright without having to either hold your back rigidly, or leaning against
the back of the chair. Blocks of wood, or even telephone directories, can be used for this.
The meditator in this photograph probably needs to raise the back legs of his chair another half-
inch or so, so that he can sit more upright.
When I use a chair to meditate I like to have only the very base of my spine touching the back
of the chair. It's best not to lean back in the chair – I think it encourages underachievement! Rest
your hands on your thighs, palms down. Have your feet flat on the floor if you can. If your
legs are very long or very short compared to the chair, then this might not be possible. If your
feet don't reach the floor, then you can use another phone book to rest your feet on. If your legs
are too long, then ideally you should find another chair.
Some office chairs are perfect for meditating! Set the seat so that it is slightly tilted forward, and
make sure that the backrest is only making very slight contact with your lower back. Adjust the
height so that your feet are flat on the floor.
There are also specialist meditation chairs available to help you sit comfortably in an appropriate
Meditation Posture: Kneeling, Using a Cushion or on a Stool
Although you can use a chair to meditate on, for some people it's not as satisfying as sitting on
the floor. Somehow, being on the floor gives a more "grounded" feeling.
Finding good cushions is important. They need to be really firm, and most pillows just
compress too much and can't give you enough support. The same goes for most ordinary,
household cushions. However, I have a lovely buckwheat pillow that is perfect when I turn it
This meditator is using cushions (called zafus), that are specially designed for meditation. He's
kneeling with them between his legs. Most people who sit astride cushions need two or three,
depending on the height required.
The important thing is to get the right height. If you sit too low, you'll end up slumping.
Slumping interferes with your ability to stay aware, and can lead to discomfort.
If you sit too high, then you will have too much of a hollow in your back, which can lead to
pinching. When your back is relatively upright, without you having to use any effort to keep it
that way, then you've got the height about right.
Although the meditator above has his hands resting on his thighs, I recommend having your
hands supported in front of you (see hands section below). You can either have another
cushion in front of you to rest your hands on, or you can tie something round your waist and
rest your hands on that. I've used a sweater with the arms tied behind my back. If you arrange
the sweater carefully, you can make a little "nest" for your hands to rest on. A blanket can also
be used to provide support for your hands. Tie the blanket fairly tightly round your waist so
that it covers your legs. Then arrange the blanket so that it provides a little "ledge" that you can
rest your hands on.
Meditation Posture: Sitting Cross-Legged
Not everyone can sit cross-legged – I'm one of them! There's no need to be in a cross-legged
posture to meditate. In fact if you force yourself into an uncomfortable cross-legged posture
then you may do long-term damage to your joints, and you certainly won't be comfortable
enough to meditate effectively.
However, if you have the flexibility then sitting cross-legged is a very stable and grounded
posture. There are a number of ways of sitting with crossed legs.
Meditation Posture: Tailor Position
The picture above shows the tailor position, which is the simplest cross-legged position. It's
also probably the most common cross-legged posture.
It's very important for you to have both knees on the ground, to give you adequate support.
Having three points of contact (your butt, and both knees) gives you a lot of stability. When
was the last time you saw a photographer trying to keep a camera stable on a dipod?
If you can't quite get both knees on the floor, then you can use some padding (a thin cushion or
folded scarf) under your knee to keep you stable. If one, or both of your knees is more than an
inch (2-3cm) off the ground, then use a chair or try sitting astride cushions or a meditation
bench or stool. You can always do some yoga to loosen up your hips, and then come back and
try a cross-legged posture later.
Again, if your hands don't rest naturally on your lap, keep them supported, perhaps on a
cushion or on a blanket. You might want to alternate which foot is in front from time to time.
This is a good thing to do because any cross-legged posture is slightly asymmetrical. If you
alternate the position of your feet, then you'll even out ...