Are you sitting comfortably?

A beginner’s guide to setting up your formal meditation position

Listen With Mother, which would become an integral part of the lives of millions of British children and their parents, was first broadcast on the BBC Light Programme (now Radio 2) on 16 January 1950. It ran until 1982. The 15-minute programme, comprising of a collection of stories, songs and rhymes aimed at under-fives, was originally aired every weekday afternoon at 1.45pm. It always began with the words “Are you sitting comfortably… then I will begin”. Who wouldn’t want to be comfortable to enjoy those 15 minutes of bliss?

And so it is with our formal meditation practice: Time we invest in ourselves, within a frantic world. The importance of making ourselves comfortable cannot be underestimated or rushed.

The aim is to be as relaxed as best we can, while remaining alert. It’s simple but not always easy. Every time we come to the chair or cushion, it is different and we are different. However, it is possible to gain some consistency if we follow a set up process that works for us. So with the assumption we have identified and set up our quiet place for meditation, here are some ideas for you to consider within your own practice.

The most important aspect to remember, at all times, is that the position you settle on has to be comfortable for you while maintaining that relaxed yet alert state.

Top tips for setting up your posture
1. The spine should be upright but not ridged, following its natural tendency to be slightly hollowed.

2. The spine should feel comfortable and relaxed. Be willing to make incremental adjustments to achieve this.

3. Relax the shoulders by gently rolling them back and down.

4. Relax the arms by supporting the hands, either by resting on a cushion or in your lap. Avoid arms pulling forward and down. Make adjustments as required.

5. The chin should be slightly tucked in. The head evenly balanced on the neck. The back of the neck should be long, yet relaxed.

6. Pay particular attention to the face, where a lot of our tension can settle. The face should be relaxed, with the brows smooth, eyes relaxed, jaw relaxed, and the tongue relaxed, just touching the back of the front teeth.

While we are learning it seems like a lot to remember and check, but the more we practise the better we get at achieving a great posture for meditation.

Most people start out meditating in a chair. There is no need to contort yourself into a full lotus. You probably won’t be comfortable even if you can achieve it and you would, no doubt, be in pain for most of the meditation.

A straight backed chair is the best type to go for. If you are able you should position your bottom away from the back of the chair so you are not relying on the back for support; you have a spine for that. Feet should be flat on the floor and ideally your thighs hip distance apart and parallel to the floor. If you feel you need to place some books under your feet to achieve a more comfortable position, do so.

If you do have a back condition and need a little support try this technique: Sitting on the chair, bend forwards from the waist so that the belly is along the thighs. Then wiggle backwards until your bottom is lightly touching the back of the chair. Then sit up, and you should find that the very base of your spine gets a slight support from the base of the chair-back, helping you to keep your back naturally upright.

Find your own relaxed but alert position for formal meditation

You may find that your hands need to be supported, so rest them on your thighs, palms down. If you have a long back then you may need to have a cushion on your lap on which to rest your hands, in which case have your palms face up.

Check in. How does this feel? Make adjustments. Close your eyes and really take in how your body feels in your meditation position. Don’t settle for any old thing will do. It won’t, as you will soon find out when you start to meditate.

Some beginners naturally gravitate to the floor for their meditation practise. For me being on the floor gives me a more “grounded” feeling that makes it easier to calm the mind. All the same, I’ve often had to sit on a chair for various reasons and you soon get to know which one is going to work best for you at different times.

Beginners floor positions
Finding good cushions is vital for getting comfortable on the floor. There is a cushion that is specific for the job: a zafu. You can see a zafu in use in the following pictures. For kneeling and sitting cross legged, the important thing is to get the right height. If you sit too low, you’ll end up slumping. Slumping interferes with your ability to stay aware, and can lead to discomfort.

Kneeling position using a zafu

If you sit too high, then you will have too much of a hollow in your back, which can lead to pinching. When your back is relatively upright, without you having to use any effort to keep it that way, then you’ve got the height about right.

Sitting cross-legged on a zafu
Although the illustrations show the hands free, consider having another cushion in front of you to rest your hands on, or you can tie something round your waist and rest your hands on that. This prevents the shoulders from pulling down and causing discomfort during your meditation.

Now there is just one last bit of kit to consider for a great set up to your meditation practice. The humble blanket. Find one you like. Really like. No itchy scratchy for you. During the winter it is perfect to put around your shoulders to keep your body temperature just right. Nobody wants to see a meditator shivering.