2022-09-01

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Pleasant and stable: which pose is the best for meditation?

According to Patanjali (Yoga Sutra 2.46), meditation pose should be pleasant and stable. This statement may sound obvious, however there is far more wisdom hidden behind it than just being able to stay in the pose for a longer period of time. Meditative pose is also a way to anchor attention to the body, and although unpleasant body sensations can attract a lot of attention, stressful feelings may also ruin the calming effect of meditation.

In Mahasattipathana Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 22), Buddha mentions four meditative poses: walking, standing, sitting, lying down, but these poses are mentioned as the objects of contemplation of the body (kayanupassana). Breath awareness is mentioned first as the object of meditation, while mindfulness of these three poses just after it.

And further, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it.
In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself.

The pose recommended for sitting in this sutta is cross-legged, on a cushion made of a grass at the tree foot or in an empty house. Hatha Pradipika written in the 15th century CE, Swami Swatamarama points out that four most important poses for yoga practitioner are Siddhasana, Padmasana (Lotus Pose), Simha Asana (Lion Pose) and Bhadraasana (Baddhakonasana) which destroys all diseases. Similarly Shiva Samhita mentions Padmasana, Siddhasana, Paścimotasana and Svastikasana. As we see with an exception for paścimotanasana (forward fold), Badhakonasana, also in yoga cross-legged poses are favoured. Iyengar in his Light of Yoga - probably thinking of his western disciples - recommended virasana as a very stable meditative pose. Also many Western Zen practitioners tend to use this kneeling position.

Image on the right: Sri Krishnamachariya in svastikasana, modified from photo, notice his right toe shown with red circle.

Cross legged positions require far more flexibility around hips and also taking into account a few aspects of the pose in order to take advantage of it such as greater stability and the general energetic harmony. These include (1) the height of cushion and its firmness, (2) well supported knees, (3) symmetry of the body with equal tension on both sides, (4) healthy alignment of the spine, (5) allowing good blood circulation while positioning legs.

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1. When the sitting bones are supported too high, the pose lacks stability. Most of the weight is then carried by the sitting bones and legs cannot stabilise the body. On the contrary, cushion which is too low will create lack sufficient flexibility around hips. Pelvis will be tilted slightly backwards placing too much tension in the lower back. There may also be too much rotational pressure placed on the knees making the pose not sustainable when sitting over extended period of time.

Similar situation will happen when the cushion is too soft. It will also be difficult to maintain stability because the sitting bones will not be stabilised laterally. In other words, pelvis is an elastic part of the body and the distance between sitting bones can change. When we sit on a soft cushion sitting bones can move closer together, which not only compromises stability ut also creates tension in the lower back.

When both pelvis and knees are supported by a soft mattress, the relation between the height of pelvis and the knees may be even less favourable, knees may be supported higher than the sitting bones. Not only the pose will not be stable, The healthy curvature of the spine cannot be controlled and the alignment may lead to back injuries in longer term.

Appropriately chosen height of support will allow rotating pelvis slightly forward maintain natural curve in the lumbar spine. Through appropriate tension around hips, some weight will be transferred to thighs and knees. In poses like siddhasana knees can be help far appart. Such pose is not only stable, there will be also a feeling of healthy stretching in the inner thighs, pelvis and calves.

2. Knees should ideally be supported on the hard floor, or if this is not possible small cushion can be placed under one of them. This will ensure not only strong and stable position but also will protect knees from potential injuries.

3. With cross-legged positions one foot is usually placed above another. This may lead to lack of symmetry. Sukkhasana (also known as Burmese pose, when both feet are on the ground) or Svastikasana (sometimes known as quarter lotus) where lower foot is leaning on the opposite thigh) are easiest in terms of maintaining symmetry.

4. As was already mentioned pelvis should be slightly rotated forward in order to avoid tension in the lumbar spine. Nevertheless leaning torso to much forward may create tension in the upper back. Thus ideally spine should be leaning slightly backwards with chest bone slightly lifted, which also helps to maintain energy in the body and prevents falling asleep during meditation. This may also help to relax shoulders by moving them slightly backwards. Head should also be rotated lightly forward in order to extend the cervical section of the spine which also helps to relax.

5. In some poses one leg may press another, particularly when the pose is too demanding causing blockage in blood circulation, numbing and even pain. Although generally it is advisable to only watch these sensations and not to change the pose, in some cases this may lead to injuries.

As we can see based on the above points, maintaining a meditative pose is an art in itself. Developing a healthy level of flexibility, particularly around hips, may be a very rewarding effort, particularly is someone is planning taking longer sessions and retreats. It is also worth experiment which pose suits us the best. There is no better or worse position, and sitting cross-legged may not be a good choice at all.

Image on the left: BKS Iyengar in Virasana, modified from photo from Light of Yoga

Literature

Iyengar, B.K.S. (1993, 2002). Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Hammersmith, London, UK: Thorsons. ISBN 978-0-00-714516-4
Thanisari Bikkhu The Great Establishing of Mindfulness Discourse Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22) dhammatalks.org