Yoga Sitting Postures
There are two types of yoga postures - or asanas. The cultural poses and the sitting postures. The former are well known and constitute the most popular aspect of modern yoga as it has disseminated around the world. The latter are actually more important from the standpoint of spiritual growth. They are primarily used for pranayama and meditation, as well as other practices such as japa (mantra repetition).
Since kriya yoga pranayama and deep meditation constitute the core practices of pragmatic yoga it is important that we find a posture we are very comfortable with.
The Traditional Approach
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Maharishi
The asana (posture) should be steady and comfortable.Yoga Sutras - 2.46
There should be an effortless stillness. Think of a candle flame in a windless environment. It will convey the idea of lightness and poise which are both found in our meditation posture. The other fitting association is that of a rock. Let your sitting posture borrow its steadiness quality from it.
Comfortable & Easy
In the sitting asana the yogi starts transcending the body within a few minutes. That is to say the body awareness vanishes much like when we are falling asleep. Did you ever try to feel your legs or arms just before falling asleep? It's as if they were gone. Well, the same thing takes place within a few minutes of sitting in the right posture as our awareness shifts from the physical body to the astral body..
As you get established in the astral body awareness many experiences connected with it manifest on their own volition.
You have found your posture when, during the whole duration of your practice, you feel that you could sit there forever. Naturally it is not the case, there comes a point where the posture becomes a strain but let that point come after your session is done with.
To the previous attributes the Bhagavad Gita adds the concept of an erect back, properly aligned with the neck and head. The whole spine should be in its natural position which is to say that of an elongated 'S'.
Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose, without looking around.Bhagavad Gita - 6.13
The theory behind this is that when the spine is in its natural position the spinal cord and sushumna nadi will be freed and the prana/shakti flow between the root chakra, muladhara, and the third eye center, ajna, will take place with maximum efficiency.
The Gita gives us also much advice about the optimum environment for serious meditation practice: location, room, and the seat. The advice about location and room is full of common sense especially as it pertains to ancient India.
Proper Meditation Seat
The teaching about the seat is of particular interest and little understood by many yogis. It involves using a thin cloth, some kusha grass, and an animal skin. Some yogis used a deer skin, others that of a tiger.
In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin and kusha grass, one over the other, ...Bhagavad Gita - 6.11
To get this out of the way, no, the munis of yore were not hunting animals just to get a nice meditation pillow. They would usually use the skin of an animal already dead by natural causes or killed by the kshatriyas, soldiers/police, in order to protect the population.
This concept of killing tigers is obviously politically incorrect at the beginning of this 21st century but in order to understand this you need to project yourself in India a few centuries back living in a tiny village surrounded by a thick jungle and the occasional attack of a tiger killing villagers, adults or children alike, for an easy breakfast. Humans make for easy prey so that was the tiger equivalent of fast food. Once you'd have a few relatives and friends disappear in such fashion you'd feel okay about keeping the tiger population under control. Times are different now and, just to make sure, I'm NOT advocating hunting of any kind nowadays, much less of near extinct species.
Anyhow the above advice aims at creating an electric insulation with the ground. Psychically, as the kundalini power awakens, we want it to travel up the spine. Ancient yogis were usually practicing outdoors or in little huts with dirt on the floor.
For ordinary activities it's very healthy to walk barefoot on the ground, grass, or wet sand at the beach. Doing so makes an energetic connection with the ground and it's great for vitality and inner balance. Much recommendeded if you have the opportunity.
The advice is however different for pranayama and meditation.
Most modern electric devices have a grounding, the third one, wire which connects to the grounding prong on your electric outlet. That ground wire goes through your house all the way down to the ground. The purpose is, in case of power surge, to get rid of the extra power for sake of safety as that extra surge would most likely fry the delicate components of your beloved computer or other gadget/appliance.
The purpose of pranayama and meditation is to awaken and direct upwards as much prana/shakti as is presently safe and the last thing we want is for that formidable power, which is very much of the nature of electricity, to go into the ground and be lost.
The Four Classical Asanas
There are four classical sitting postures.
- Sukhasana - the easy posture
- Siddhasana - the Perfect pose
- Svastikasana - where cross in the form of the ancient Hindu svastika symbol
- Padhmasana - the lotus pose. You also have the half lotus which is a variant of this one.
These four have been described at length on many web sites. We'll revisit them further down this post.
The Modern Pragmatic Approach
We want to learn from the tradition and adapt it to our modern situation. Main differences that come to mind are our modern dwellings which are already very much insulated from the ground and the rest of nature as well as the lack of hip flexibility found in most modern yogis due to the fact that most of us have used chairs and armchairs for most of our life whereas ancient yogis spent their whole life sitting on the floor and/or squatting.
Unless meditating outside we can safely ignore the conductivity/insulation issue and focus intently on finding the sitting posture that will bring us the most benefits.
Steady & Comfortable, Yes! Straight, May Be!
While steadiness and easiness are essential it turns out that although it's nice to have a perfectly straight back, it does not matter that much practically speaking.
On how theory and practice differ. In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, theory and practice are different.
The yogic literature is pretty much unequivocal in advocating a perfectly straight position and yet photos of meditation masters, ancient and modern, tell us a very different story.
I have been meditating for so many years with a straight back that this is definitely my preference and although I like to sometimes use the softer variations listed below, either out of necessity (in trains or planes for example) or for the sake of change and experimenting, it personally never feels completely right.
Nevertheless let us go through a number of possibilities to help the readers find their own preferred posture. We'll start with the gentler variations culminating with the ultimate sitting posture. At this juncture you might want to guess what is the best asana for meditation.
There are definite energetic benefits in sitting with the legs crossed and therefore I strongly suggest you try your very best to adopt a posture of this kind. Besides the strong energetic benefits that will come with sitting with legs crossed from the beginning it will help one develop the flexibility necessary to eventually practice the most efficient of all postures in terms of kundalini awakening.
This being said the yogis with injured knees or hips will go far in the practice even with the legs extended and feet flat on the floor. I do use such variations while practicing in public transportation vehicles and guess what, both the energetic benefits of kundalini rising and the mental quietness of meditation are being experienced to some degree.
With Back Support
So our first variation, the easiest of all, will be to sit on a sofa or armchair leaning back with the feet flat on the floor.
Similar would be to sit in a regular chair while leaning back or in one of those modern 'yogic chairs' with straight legs.
Without Back Support
If possible it's preferable to keep a straight back using one's back muscles as opposed to external props.
One can use a regular chair paying attention to not lean back against the support. It helps sitting on the edge of the chair to help tilt the pelvis forward. Even easier is to use some modern ergonomic chairs with forward tilted seat. The back will be straight naturally.
With Back Support
Again starting with the easiest variation, one might want to sit in one's bed leaning against the head board or the wall. Sounds too good to be true but it works so don't feel self-conscious. Try it out at least. Upon waking, you might want to answer nature's calls and going back to bed, sit up and start your practice right away.
A bit less decadent looking, and as efficient, is to sit and lean back on a sofa or large armchair.
Sitting on the floor you can use a "yogic chair" to lean against.
In the first two variations the legs will fit comfortably on their soft base while the latter one is bit more spartan.
On those rare, or not so rare, days when you don't feel like doing your sitting practice, go ahead and sit on the sofa and relax with your eyes closed. It takes zero effort. Everybody can do that for 1 or 2 minutes. Start breathing deeper if you feel so inclined. Then the spinal breathing will come by itself and before you know it you will transition into a meditation which might turn out much deeper than you thought it would be.
Without Back Support
Necessity of a Pillow
Since the first priority is to sit steadily and comfortably most meditators will need to sit on a pillow or blanket. In my many years frequenting ashrams of all kinds I have met VERY few yogis, Indian or Westerners, who could sit straight, naturally without elevating their pelvis.
Here the Westerners seem to have an advantage as our Indian friends are culturally repulsed to using a wimpy pillow and most of them end up sitting with terrible postures.
So, to achieve your optimum posture, feel free to experiment with the variety of seats such as pillows or folded blankets. There are so many choices nowadays in terms of shape, materials, etc. that we are truly blessed to live in such a world of abundance and choice. Some pillows are very soft, some very hard. You can also find a variety of 'filling' materials, many of those will espouse the shape of your behind as if you were sitting on the sand.
Some meditators will need to sit on a very high pillow so that the posture feels right. That's fine. After weeks, months, or years of practice one might feel the natural tendency to use a thinner pillow, decreasing the height gradually as it feels right. Going down to zero height is not the goal though. Many of us will never get there.
Be open minded about the selection of your 'ishta' asana.
Following are some suggested sitting postures.
Sukhasana - The Easy Pose
This is the 'natural' sitting posture for many yoga novices. Its name comes from the fact that it puts the least strain on the legs. It's recommended for practitioners who have knee conditions, stiff hips, and/or thick legs. The feet are more or less situated below the opposite knees.
Unfortunately, due to the position of the pelvis, this asana puts more strain on the back and it's therefore difficult for most to sit straight comfortably. This posture typically requires a higher pillow to sit on.
Based on observation the great majority of meditators and pranayama practitioners will adopt the following posture.
This is an easy variation of siddhasana. To adopt it:
- sit with legs outstretched in a 'V' form
- fold one leg in front of you in order to bring the heel in the central axis of your body. The foot is resting right in front of your pubis. Don't worry if your heel does not rest in the central axis.
- fold the second leg so that the foot will end up in front of the first food. If the heel is also on the central axis of the body it's good but it's okay if it's not.
- Rest your hands on your knees or thighs
Traditionally the left leg should be bent first but some yogis have a better body alignment with the right leg crossed first in which case they should adopt the latter variation.
In this posture the back is naturally straight.
Again this is the most popular posture and is highly recommended.
The Real Siddhasana
I have named the previous posture 'modified' siddhasana as it lacks an important feature which makes siddhasana the most desirable sitting posture of all. Most casual yogis will think of the lotus pose as the the supreme posture but the majority of yoga and meditation masters hold siddhasana in higher regard.
When perfection is attained through siddhasana, what is the use of practicing many other asanas? When the flow of prana is stabilized, the breath stops spontaneously and a mindless state arises by itself.Hatha Yoga Pradipika - 1.41
The reason is that this posture is directly stimulating the muladhara chakra, thus awakening the kundalini shakti and thus turbo charging one's meditation and other practices.
This is achieved by sitting on the heel of the first crossed leg. The more weight, or pressure, you put on the heel the stronger the kundalini stimulation.
The point of the body resting on the heel should be the one just below the muladhara chakra. It's approximately half way between the genitals and the anus, at about the central point of the pelvic floor.WARNING - ACHTUNG
Because of the raw potency of this posture you might want to wait until you are established in your daily meditation practice for at least a few months before you experiment with siddhasana.
Super Duper Siddhasana
Well, guess what, the previous one was still not the true siddhasana. In its purest form, in addition to sitting on the first heel, the second heel comes on top of the first foot and applies pressure on the pubic bone. This stimulates the svasdhitana chakra and provides even more of an energetic stimulation.
This one is harder for men than women for reasons which will become obvious upon the first attempt.
What about the other postures you ask. You can also adopt them if they are the right fit for you.
It takes extreme hip, knee, and ankle flexibility and I have only met a couple people able to do it even for a short time.
Padmasana - The Lotus Pose
Most yogis who can do this posture cannot hold it comfortably for a long time. The biggest problem with it is that so many meditators I know have worked on doing the lotus pose and ended up damaging their knees irreversibly. It's just not worth it.
The main danger is the unnatural strain on knee ligaments. Please be wise, patient, and gentle if you adopt this posture or work on it.
The main advantages of padmasana are a thorough upward redirect of the blood flow as well as extreme steadiness.
This posture is most recommended for practices such as bhastrika pranayama.
Again keep in mind that real siddhasana is arguably more beneficial spiritually speaking.
The Half lotus
Much easier to do and hold than the full lotus this posture brings you lots of steadiness and is easy on the back as well. It does not seem to have the destructive effect on the knee joints that the full lotus has.
Popular in zen circles this posture is not much used in the yoga tradition as it lacks the energetic benefits associated with the cross-legged positions.
Also it does not contribute to preparing the legs to eventually do siddhasana on the heel. Not recommended for pranayama or meditation but it can be incorporated to one's routine of cultural asanas for the sake of flexibility.
The great thing about this posture is that the spine will be naturally in its optimum form so you can use this posture to bring about the awareness of the your spinal column ideal position which your can later duplicate in whichever cross-legged postures you adopt.
To adopt this posture you either sit on your heels with the knees in front of you. You can also place a pillow between your feet or use a 'meditation bench' to sit on while your feet are tucked under the bench.
I'd like to think this little presentation is comprehensive enough to empower you to find your own posture which will propel your sitting practices to unimaginable heights.
Om Adi Shaktyai Namah!
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