Sthira Sukham Asanam (Seated posture should be steady and comfortable.)
You might think, after a 30-year meditation practice, that cross-legged sitting would be second nature for me. But like many meditators I've experienced plenty of uncomfortable sessions—times when my chest would collapse and my head lurch forward, as alert calmness succumbed to deep slumber and numbness in my legs obliterated any sense of energy flowing from the base of my spine to the crown of my head. Friends who hear my complaints occasionally ask why I bother to meditate at all, and I must confess that I've sometimes wondered about this myself. But over the years my meditation posture has actually improved quite a bit. I no longer have to sit against the wall, as I did when I was 18; my back muscles have gotten stronger; and my ability to stay with my breathing—on a good day—has increased substantially.
I credit my yoga asana practice with making my seated meditation a lot easier. If you also struggle to find comfort in your meditation practice, incorporating a few basic poses, such as the ones shown here, may make a world of difference in the quality of your experience.
Early yoga texts provide almost no advice on how to avoid the aches and pains of prolonged sitting that plague us modern practitioners. Chances are that is because people did not have problems sitting cross-legged two thousand years ago—as after all, chair sitting had not yet weakened their backs or tightened their hamstrings and groins. In the Bhagavad Gita, from perhaps 500 bce, practitioners were simply admonished to sit up straight, keep their neck and head erect, and not to move. Hundreds of years later, in his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali eschewed detailed instructions about meditative posture in favor of some basic, straightforward advice: Simply to maintain steadiness and ease (sthira and sukha) when sitting. In Patanjali's Classical Yoga, to perfect asana—literally, "seat"—meant to find stillness, to quiet the body enough to turn attention toward the mind and the senses. As Richard Rosen, yoga teacher and author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to pPranayama (Shambhala, 2002), explains it: "When you're able to sit comfortably, you feel as if you coincide with the infinite (samapatti). Your physical limitations . . . dissolve, and you feel as if you are expanding to fill the surrounding space. Finally, you transcend the so-called pairs of opposites and are no longer distracted by a physical and emotional tug-of-war."
By a few centuries after Patanjali, hatha yoga texts had a lot more to say about seated postures. These texts also expanded the meaning of "asana" to include other poses that strengthened and opened the body. The Goraksha Paddhati, a twelfth-century text, boasts 84 postures; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written around the middle of the fourteenth century, offers 16, mostly variations on Padmasana (Lotus Pose) or Siddhasana (Adept's Pose); and the Gheranda Samhita of the late seventeenth century weighs in with 32. One text, the Yoga-Shastra, even mentions 840,000 different poses but only describes Padmasana as suitable for attaining enlightenment.
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