Regardless of your meditation path or technique, it all starts with sitting. Various contemplative and devotional meditation traditions require complete stillness during at least a portion of practice, and some require complete stillness for hours at a time.
Yet, stillness is not enough—there must be complete attention as well, otherwise you can be perfectly still and perfectly asleep!
STEADY AND PLEASANT
Sitting is so crucial that Rishi Patanjali identified it as one of the eight limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) defined as asana, or ‘seated posture’. His simple sutra is:
"The seated posture must be steady and pleasant.” 2:46
Sounds easy! But over the years I have seen many people sit to meditate and it’s obvious they are neither steady nor pleasant! We need all the help we can get. So let’s look at what we can do to help us achieve the ideal meditation seat and posture.
WHAT TO SIT ON?
In the Bhagavad Gita, the great yoga shastra (scripture of yoga), Bhagavan Krishna gives instructions on what to sit on:
शुचौ देशे प्रतिष्ठाप्य स्थिरमासनमात्मन: |
नात्युच्छ्रितं नातिनीचं चैलाजिनकुशोत्तरम् ||
śhuchau deśhe pratiṣhṭhāpya sthiram āsanam ātmanaḥ
nātyuchchhritaṁ nāti-nīchaṁ chailājina-kuśhottaram 6:11
"The yogi’s seat, in a clean place, should be steady, neither too high nor too low, and covered, first, with kusha grass, then with a deer or tiger skin, then with a cloth." (trans. by Paramahansa Yogananda)
Obviously you cannot get these items very easily, even in India. (By the way, the deer or tiger skin cannot involve killing; it must come from a natural death).
But Sri Yogananda gives us a modern version: "A very satisfactory substitute is a seat made of a folded woolen blanket, with a silk cloth placed over it. Silk repels certain earth currents better than does cotton.”
So, whether you sit on the floor, on a raised platform, a firm daybed, or a chair, you will still need an energetic “insulation” to repel these earth currents that disrupt meditation.
For chairs, Supreme Swan has designed a perfect Silk and Wool Meditation Chair Blanket which I have not found anywhere else. It's handmade with 100% raw silk and wool, made locally by an excellent seamstress, which ensures the positive vibrations of ethical business. They have created a new blanket, Dhyanam, with a stunningly beautiful silk from India, which I highly recommend.
For sitting on the floor, I still have not found a mat made of silk and wool. For years I just folded a thick wool blanket. But what I prefer to use now is hand made, thick wool mats from Oaxaca, Mexico. I am excited about Supreme Swan's new design, Padma, based on requests from devotees for a floor mat made of silk and wool, filled with cotton batting for cushion. Whatever you decide to use, make sure it's made only with natural fibers and colored with natural vegetable dye.
MAKE IT YOUR OWN
It is recommended to have your own chair, asana mats, cushions, blankets and shawls dedicated solely for your own personal meditation. Just as the place where you meditate (your shrine or altar) absorbs and retains positive spiritual vibrations, so do the objects you use.
Sri Yoganandaji explains, “The yogi should meditate on a firm seat, one that is clean—untainted by dirt or unspiritual vibrations of others. The thought or life force emanating from an individual saturates the objects he uses and his dwelling.”
So make an investment in items that are effective, high quality and made especially for your meditation and worship. Avoid synthetic materials. Try to get ethically sourced items too—remember, you're dealing with vibrations. Unlike ‘retail therapy’, these purchases will feel good in the moment and give you lasting therapeutic value for years.
FLOOR SITTING - WHAT YOU NEED
Sitting on the floor is traditional in the East. Some of you may have innate flexibility from childhood, or you’ve achieved it with Hatha Yoga, or perhaps you’re a dancer! In any case, make sure you can still meet Patanjali’s instructions: steady and pleasant.
Very few can sit directly on the asana mat without using a cushion. If your knees are not comfortably touching the floor in a cross-legged posture, it means that your hips are not flexible enough to open up. So, a good cushion will help roll your pelvis forward and lift your seat to relieve pressure from the knees. Most everyone I know needs this extra support, especially in the beginning.
I got together with my friend Francis who is an expert in posture. We helped Supreme Swan design the Chandra Meditation Eco-Cushion to support the cross-legged position. It spreads longer than other crescent cushions I've used, which means this one supports the thighs all the way to the floor, reducing strain on the knees.
Another reason why this is my favorite cushion is its versatile and natural fill. It's filled with organic buckwheat hulls that conform to the body somewhat like a beanbag. The innermost cotton cover has a zipper so that you can remove or add more hulls depending on how much height or support you need.
Similar to a wedge chair cushion, this crescent has a wedge effect that lifts up your pelvis to help support your natural curve of the lumbar, which results in an open chest and deep, relaxed breathing.
The inner part of the crescent makes room for your ankles.
The curved shape supports each of your legs and tapers down to the floor so that there’s not pressure on your knees.
FLOOR SITTING POSTURES
Cross-Legged: A basic position that is easy on the knees but requires more back-muscle engagement to compensate for the lack of support that you feel when the knees are flat on the floor.
Half-Lotus: Flexible knees allow for the legs to interlock and come closer to the floor giving more support and leverage, which relieves the back muscles from holding the position. A cushion like the Chandra Eco-Cushion makes this possible for most people.
Padmasana or Siddhasana: The most comfortable positions for the back, but only if the legs touch the ground without hurting your ankles and knees. These should only be done by individuals who are extremely flexible and who have some guidance on how to sit this way without injuring the knees or ankles. Again, a cushion like the Chandra Eco-Cushion will help.
Unless your knees and back are comfortable sitting on the floor, chair sitting will be most comfortable for you, especially for long periods of time. Although many like to sit on the floor, and it seems more ‘yogic’, it can cause pain in the knees and ankles and will cause you to strain the back too much. In meditation, it’s the straight spine and stability that counts. So don’t force it on the floor.
Paramahansa Yogananda wrote, “A Westerner, used to sitting on chairs with his thighs at a right angle to his torso, will find it more comfortable to meditate on a chair with a woolen blanket and silk cloth under him, extending under his feet which rest on the floor.”
Wedge Cushion—Problem Solved!
There's a big problem with chairs— they are not designed for meditation. It’s very difficult to have good posture on a chair. And chairs cannot be adjusted. But problems bring solutions! And the solution is a wedge cushion.
The wedge cushion fixes the backwards slope of chairs. This allows your pelvis to roll forward and create the natural curve of the lumbar, which results in an open chest, allowing for full and relaxed breathing and an ‘open heart’. Your back muscles can relax when the posture is correct.
Which Wedge Cushion to Buy?
You can try out many wedge cushions, there’s quite a range to choose from. I would avoid the cheap ones used for sporting events. Other cushions from back-support stores are not designed to keep your spine straight and off the back of the chair. Again, Supreme Swan has dialed this in over the years with their custom design which is one of the best. Here’s what to look for in a wedge cushion:
- Sturdy and dense foam to give you stability and support.
- A soft top layer such as memory foam for comfort.
- Removable coccyx (tailbone) piece.
- Natural fiber cushion cover—no vinyl, leather or synthetics.
- Cool breathability.
- Handle for carrying.
Supreme Swan's Silk & Wool Meditation Chair Cushion has a firm base foam to hold your position and not wear out over time. The memory foam gives a top layer of comfort. Part of the cushion can be removed so that there is less pressure on the coccyx or tailbone.
The cover fulfills Paramahansa Yogananda’s instructions for the silk and wool layers that provide an energetic insulation to the various vibrations and currents that obstruct meditation.
Avoid synthetic covers. Cotton is cheaper, but not as effective according to Sri Yogananda. But if you choose cotton, look for raw handspun cotton such as Khadi cotton.
Bench sitting is prominent in Buddhist traditions and is preferred by many meditators of East and West. It requires some flexibility in the knees and ankles, but the legs stay straight in a kneeling position which is much easier because it doesn’t involve twisting and tweaking the knees and ankles.
There are many types of benches —some have cushions, some are ergonomic—all with a two-leg design. But when I found a one-legged bench, I was so excited by what it can do for the meditator. Supreme Swan is the only place that offers this style.
The Ekam™ bench is ingenious. It engages your core muscles to keep balance. This actually gives you a stronger posture. It also prevents you from dozing off to sleep!
A lot of engineering went into the Ekam bench. Solid oak has been hand carved in an ergonomic way that fits most body types. Holes have been carved to reduce weight and allow for airflow and breathability.
I also love that this is portable, only weighs a pound, and has a beautiful carry bag made with Khadi cotton from India.
A meditation mat should still be used underneath, or if you want more softness for your knees and ankles, you can fold up a blanket and sit on top of that.
MAKE IT PORTABLE - OR GET TWO
You may have the perfect set up at home, but what about those times you go to your local meditation center, temple or a kirtan gathering? Or a meditation conference (such as Convocation) with those terrible hotel chairs that are so bad for meditation? Or what about when you are traveling for work or on vacation?
So make sure the items are portable. If you aren't bringing it with you, find something better. Or you might also want a separate set-up just for travel or the outdoors. Some people keep a wedge cushion in their car. Others use an Ekam bench only when they travel. Some have two asana meditation mats—for indoor and outdoor use. Think of these options as well so that you are always prepared.
IT'S WORTH IT
You have to invest time in researching what’s best for you, and I encourage you get the best quality even if you have to save up for it. Meditation is so important in life—the more you put into it, so much more comes back to you. So why deal with unnecessary back pain or makeshift seats? Take care of the seat so that you can put your energy into meditating!
If you have any questions about this article or finding the right meditation set up for you, feel free to email—we at Supreme Swan are happy to help!
Read the next article in this series: Your Meditation Posture Is Crucial.