The question of “How should I position for meditation?” or “What is the right/best posture for meditation?” is one of the most common for those beginning to learn and practice meditation. But, it is not only one of the most common, it is also one of the most important. Why? Because our body and mind are deeply and intrinsically interconnected, and each strongly influences the other. Therefore, if meditation is the training and transformation of the mind, then we want the body to influence the mind in a way that supports this transformation, and not one that hinders it.
So, what is the correct or the best posture for meditation? From what we previously said, the right posture for meditation is one in which the body is imbued with the same qualities that we want to cultivate in the mind. Settle your body in a position that mirrors the way you intend your mind to be and the qualities you want to cultivate, and your meditation will be greatly improved. Do the contrary, and it will be handicapped. This is the only and most fundamental rule regarding this question, and all that comes subsequently is circumstantial, adaptable, and secondary. But let us dive further in.
In most forms of meditation, and especially in mindfulness and shamatha meditation, we want to cultivate three main qualities in the mind: relaxation, stability, and vividness. Likewise, the pillar qualities that we want to instill in the body during meditation are: relaxation, stillness, and vigilance. Let us break each one of them down:
- Relaxation: it is essential that our minds be in a relaxed and at ease state, rather than a tense and constricted one. Likewise, we need to position our bodies in a way that allows them to be relaxed and at ease, without being contracted or tensed in any part and in general. We need a position that allows the body to be at relative comfort, without having to exert any significant and tiring effort nor having any detrimental pain or discomfort. However, it should not also be too relaxed, so that we do not fall asleep and are able to maintain stillness and vigilance. So, probably do not choose the plank position for meditation.
Note: some mindful movement practices such as Qigong and Yoga purposefully make use of strainful postures in their methods and development.
- Stillness: just like we want to cultivate stability and focus in the mind, so too we can settle the body in a way the supports and embodies stillness. Choose a position that allows you to remain still like a lake, motionless like a mountain, for as long as necessary. This is also why there should not be too much pain or discomfort, nor be a position which is difficult to maintain. Find a place where ideally you will not be disturbed, and if you ever need to move, do so mindfully.
Note: there are also forms of moving meditation, including walking meditation and the mindful movement practices referred above. You can even meditate while running to catch the bus!
- Vigilance: last but not least, we want to develop clarity, a mind and attention which are vivid and present, and not dull and faded. To support these qualities with the body, we must adopt a posture which is also vigilant, alert, and present. So, no floppy shoulders, no snoozy head, no hunched back, no crossy legs. Choose a posture which is clearly wakeful and disciplined: the body aligned, the back and head straight, the legs symmetric. I told you, relaxed, but not too relaxed (no need to go to the drill, though).
Note: there is no note here – vigilance is universal and important for all practices.
These are the three qualities that are essential for you to ensure in the posture you adopt, and as long as you do so, it should be correct and supportive of your practice. Note that we have not yet described any particular and defined posture, and this is because there are many postures which may allow for all these qualities and fit different people in different situations. However, there are some which are most commonly the best and most recommended, and some that are especially appropriate for certain people and situations, and so we will go over them next.
The most common posture for meditating is sitting. Sitting is a natural resting human position, being strongly supportive of relaxation and even stillness. It is also very adequate for vigilance, as long as we do it intentionally (otherwise, the sitting position can slip into some quite sloppy and disjointed postures). There are various variations on the sitting position (asanas), however they all share the same core aspects:
- Sitting vertically (not bending forward or backward)
- The pelvis, spine, neck, and head are aligned
- The back is straight and upright
- The shoulders are straightened back and the chest slightly open
- The head is on the horizontal (not pointing down or up)
- The hands are resting on their backs, either one on top of the other with touching thumbs, or on the legs, floor, or chair arms
- The fingers are completely relaxed in a cup shape
- The eyes are closed or slightly open, gazing gently downwards at the space in front
- The mouth and tongue are relaxed, with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth (this is natural, do not force it)
- The body is overall relaxed and at ease, with only the subtlest force being exerted to keep the back and head aligned and straight
These are the core aspects of the sitting posture, and then what can vary is where you are sitting and the position of the legs. Let us take a look at the most common variations:
In the Full Lotus position (padmasana) one is sitting on the floor or on a cushion, with the legs crossed symmetrically and each foot resting with their back on the opposite thigh. This is the posture you see monks and yogis in pictures and postures doing. It is really great, perfect for all the points and central qualities mentioned above, really the best – if you can do it. It requires very high flexibility, especially in the knees, and so is not a good fit for most people. Unless you have high flexibility, do not aim for it (yet), and if it hurts, certainly do not do it.
This position differs from the Full Lotus in that it is only one foot that is resting on the opposite thigh, while the other is resting on the floor. It still requires some flexibility, but less and is easier on the knees. Make sure that your body and spine are still aligned.
This is the “normal” cross-legged sitting position, where both feet are resting on the floor. It is much more tolerable for beginners and those with lower flexibility or knee-problems, and so one of the most recommended for these groups (however, those with higher flexibility will find the half and full lotus postures easier). It is important to try not to have one leg above the other.
All the previous positions may be adjusted by slightly raising the pelvis in relation to the legs (for example by sitting on a cushion). This helps prevent back pain and cramps for those who tend to have them in these positions.
Against a wall
The previous positions may also be done sitting against a wall, especially good for those who have difficulty maintaining a straight back or have back pain.
Another option is the Seiza position, where one kneels on the floor, folding the thighs above the legs, and rests the buttocks on the heels, with the feet lying chest-down. This can be a very comfortable position, but can also be quite harsh on the knees, if you don’t have the flexibility. There are also some special benches that allow you to do this position without sitting on the heels and without forcing the knees so much. Seiza is the traditional formal way of sitting in Japan, and literally means “proper sitting”.
On a chair
Finally, meditation can also be done sitting on a chair. This position is especially useful for people with knee problems, back problems, or, again, lower flexibility. The back may be resting on the back of the chair or not, as long as they are straight and upright. The legs are pending down, straight, aligned, and symmetrical, and not crossed. If possible, the feet are gently resting on the floor. Choose a chair that is comfortable and ergonomic, but allows you to remain straight and vertical (do not choose the chaise longue).
If you have back problems and pain, or when you are too tired for sitting meditation, the supine position can be ideal for you. It is the most relaxed of all positions and the easiest on the body, the back, and joints. However, make sure that you posture your body in a way that still ensures stillness and, here especially, vigilance. Here are the recommendations for the supine position:
- Lie down on your back on a mat or the floor
- Align your head, spine, pelvis, and legs
- Rest your hands on their back on the floor/mat, on the sides of your body
- The fingers are completely relaxed in a cup shape
- Position your head in its natural rest position, vertically to the floor
- Relax the mouth and the face
- The eyes may be closed or open, gazing gently at the space in front
- Fully relax your body, while maintaining it straight, aligned, and still
The disadvantage of this position is that it is more prone to dullness, drowsiness, and falling asleep. If you find that easily happening with you, you may try some tricks that allow you to remain alert, such as bending up the knees with the sole of the feet resting on the floor, and bending up the elbows with the hands pointing vertically upwards, as illustrated below. Leaving the eyes open may also be helpful.
On the other hand, however, this position can be perfect for if you are trying to fall asleep and have a deep, restoring sleep. It is also the best one for meditating before and even while falling asleep, ideal for lucid dreaming and dream yoga.
These are the most useful and recommended positions for meditation. There are certainly others, but whichever you choose, your priority should be that it imbues the body with the same qualities that you want to cultivate in the mind. Do that, and you will be well on your way. Remember that the body is also part of the meditation, in that it not only influences the mind but is also part of it, and can serve as a grounding to further exploring, investigating, and working with the mind.
At last, as was already mentioned, keep in mind that there are also forms of moving meditation (such as walking meditation and mindful movement practices like Qigong and Yoga), including ones that involve highly strenuous positions and exercises. Finally, you can also meditate even when you cannot meditate – eating, driving, working, and doing mostly anything – in that which is called informal meditation.
A special thank you to dear friend and amazing yoga teacher Núria who so kindly helped demonstrate some of the meditation positions (especially those that are harder for yogis with less flexibility).