Question: I’ve been performing meditation twice a day for about six months now. Lately I haven’t been able to hold my posture straight and this physical pain is preventing me from deepening my meditation. I have two questions: would the use of a cushion hinder any progress that I might make without one in developing the muscles needed for a good meditation posture? Also, are there other ways to alleviate my pain (mostly in the upper thigh and lower back) that I could use that don’t involve material support? Any reply is deeply appreciated.
One of the challenges we have to overcome in the beginning stages of meditation is the discomfort of sitting cross-legged on the floor. This is a very common phenomenon, especially in the West where we are accustomed to sitting mostly in chairs. But chairs (as well as beds, etc.) are too relaxing for meditation, more often than not leading to sleep soon after closing our eyes. If the body feels too “loose” in its posture, the mind will also feel the same, causing lack of concentration as well as drowsiness. So we really have to get used to sitting cross-legged on the floor. How do we do that?
First of all, find a place where you feel comfortable and where you won’t be disturbed – a quiet room, a corner of your bedroom, a peaceful spot in the garden. Sit on a blanket or mat, and keep it only for your meditation – don’t use it for anything else. You can use a shawl or another blanket to cover yourself if you feel cold.
The main areas of discomfort in the beginning are the back and the legs. Keep the back straight. This is important, not only to avoid back pain but also to concentrate the mind. We should be in a position where we feel alert and relaxed at the same time, like a cat stalking its prey. Not too relaxed, not too tense – poised. This will come with time and practice, but meanwhile here are some hints to allay the initial discomfort.
Make a “seat” by placing some folded blankets or cushions under your mat so your backside is higher than the ground. Make it as high as you like to get reasonably comfortable. That will help keep your back straight, while at the same time taking the pressure off your legs. Avoid resting your back against the wall – you will get too relaxed to concentrate. The back should be as close to a straight line as possible, right from the base of the spine all the way up to the crown of the head. Put your finger on the highest point of your head and adjust your posture while mentally picturing a straight line down the spine. Keeping your back straight will not only prevent your muscles from straining and getting sore – it will also enhance your spiritual experience by keeping the energy channels in the spinal column open.
Now, the legs. Start off cross-legged. Lotus posture – or half-lotus – is better for concentration, but you can progress to it later when you get more flexible. The flexibility you need is in the hips, but you will feel the pressure mostly in the knees, and to some extent the ankles. The range of movement in the hip joints will come with time – each time you sit down to meditate will increase the flexibility a bit more. So that’s automatic. What we have to do in the meantime is deal with the discomfort in the knees and ankles.
Firstly, you can warm the joints up with exercises like the Butterfly. Hold your feet together with your hands and gently rock your knees up and down. Asanas (yoga postures) such as Yogamudra are also helpful. Contact your local Ananda Marga center to learn those.
Next, sitting on a raised platform of blankets or cushions as explained before will lessen the discomfort in your ankles and knees by taking the weight off them. Reduce the height of the blankets as you get more accustomed and the pain in your joints decreases.
Next, to really help your flexibility and comfort, as well as your ability to concentrate: become vegetarian. Uric acid and other toxins from meat are deposited in the joints, making them stiff and ultimately causing diseases such as gout and arthritis. Contact your local Ananda Marga center to learn our system of vegetarianism. You will soon find that your flexibility will improve dramatically after becoming vegetarian.
Last but not least, be determined to succeed. Take the firm resolve that you will continue practicing and that nothing will stand in your way. That determination combined with your continued practice will ensure that these initial obstacles are quickly overcome.