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If you’re having difficulty meditating because of back pain, you could be sitting incorrectly.
“Stop fidgeting,” is a phrase I heard repeatedly throughout my childhood from all the significant adults in my life—at school, in church, and during family dinners. I seemed constitutionally unable to sit still.
Now that I have a formal daily meditation or “sitting” practice, my fidgeting is usually more mental than physical, but I am still searching for a way to sit comfortably.
It’s no wonder that when we begin to learn to meditate, most of us have trouble with back pain. We have developed poor sitting habits from years of sitting in improperly designed chairs. A quick look at the chairs which are offered to us in schools, cars, and airplanes reveals little understanding on the part of chair manufacturers as to how human anatomy functions in the seated position. But through education and vigilance, we can learn to sit with ease.
The key to sitting well is a harmoniously positioned pelvis. The pelvis, which literally means “basin” in Latin, not only holds and protects our abdominal organs but also serves as the anchor for the spinal column. I like to say that the pelvis is the pot out of which the spine grows. Because of this relationship to the spinal column, the position of the pelvis is crucial to sitting properly.
Try this experiment. Whatever position you are sitting in right now, move the pelvis an inch in any direction. When you do you will find that your spine moves with it. Unless the pelvis is in a neutral position, the spine is forced to move from its neutral position in order to remain upright. This is how it works: The vertebral column consists of a series of long curves anatomists call “normal curves.” The lumbar curve at the back waist curves inward; the thoracic curve at the midback curves outward; and the cervical curve in the neck curves inward like the lower back. There is the least amount of strain on these curves when they are in their resting or neutral state.
In order to sit well in a chair or to meditate with reasonable comfort, you need to create and maintain these normal curves. If any one of these curves is out of alignment, it affects the entire spinal column. It’s akin to stacking children’s blocks; if the second, third, and subsequent blocks are not lined up with the blocks below them, the column soon tumbles.
While we do not tumble when sitting, increased muscular activity is needed in order to keep us upright. We experience this increased muscular activity as tension, which interferes with our ability to meditate or work in comfort.
In order to maintain the spinal curves in neutral, you must place the pelvis in a neutral position. This means that the top rim of the pelvis is neither rocked backward nor forward. To discover this relationship, sit in a chair and place your hands around the top edge of your pelvis with your fingers facing forward and your thumbs in back. Sitting as I commonly do, when I place my hands around my pelvic rim, my thumbs are much lower than the rest of my fingers. This means I am tilting backward, taking my spine out of the neutral position into flexion. This causes shifts all the way up my spinal column, which eventually can lead to pain and discomfort. On the other hand, if I sit in such a way that my fingers and thumbs are level and my pelvis is in a neutral position, then my lower back has its normal concave curve, and there is a greater chance that I will be comfortable.
In order to enjoy meditation and sit satisfactorily in chairs, we must also pay attention to the position of the thighs. One of the problems with most chairs is that they force us to sit with our thighs in a horizontal position, or worse yet, with our knees higher than our hip sockets. As soon as we raise the knees to the same level or higher than the hip sockets, the pelvis tilts backward, and the lower back rounds. Not only does this position of the lower back become uncomfortable because it strains the muscles, but it also puts pressure on the intervertebral discs, those plump spongelike structures which help keep the vertebrae apart, thus allowing enough space for the spinal nerves to pass through into the body. When we sit with a rounded back, we compress and flatten the fronts of the discs, putting pressure on the spinal nerves, which in turn can cause pain and dysfunction of the spinal muscles.
According to Galen Cranz in The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design when we sit with our thighs at a 125 to 135 degree angle to the hip sockets, it is much easier to sit comfortably. A traditional meditation cushion like the Zen zafu helps us to do this. So does a Norwegian Balans chair—the one with a slanted seat and knee support.
Sitting in a chair can be improved by carefully picking the chair used for most sitting; it should encourage the normal lumbar curve and a neutral pelvis position. When driving, I have found that a bath towel, folded in half the long way, then rolled and secured with rubber bands and placed at the back waist can be helpful. Meditation, or just sitting on the floor, however, needs some more attention.
To improve your meditation position, first take stock. Sit in an easy cross-legged position on the floor without the use of any props and spend a few moments observing your posture. If you are like most of us, your knees will lift up higher than your pelvic rim, and your lower back will round. The first and most important step in correcting your sitting position is to elevate the pelvis. Start with three blankets which have been folded into a rectangular shape. Then sit cross-legged on the corner of the stacked blankets so that your buttocks are on the blankets and your thighs are off. (If you just sit on the edge of the blankets and not the corner, you may have many of the same difficulties you have sitting on the floor; everything is just raised higher.) Adjust the number of blankets in your stack until you find the appropriate height that allows your knees to drop lower than your hip sockets. (Remember the 125 to 135 degree rule!) Spend a moment noticing how your lower back feels. It should be arched slightly inward at the waist.
The next point of concentration is the arm position. If you place your hands on your knees, as is often recommended, the tendency may be for the weight of the arms to pull you forward. The arms can weigh as much as 15 pounds. So try placing the hands on the tops of the thighs near the belly; turn the hands so that the little fingers rest on the thighs and the palms face the abdomen; keep the fingers relaxed. Make sure that the elbows fall behind the side seam on your clothes, and allow enough space under your armpits to hold an egg.
If your forearms are close to a vertical position, place a folded blanket under the hands to elevate them. When the forearms are more horizontal, there will be less weight pulling through the arms and straining the shoulders and neck.
Position the head so that you are looking straight ahead, then slightly drop the skull so that the eyes fall about three feet in front of you on the floor. Some meditation systems teach you to keep your eyes open, others keep the eyes closed. Whichever you choose, this position of the head will be comfortable.
Once you have established this position for floor sitting, you will find that you already feel meditative. I sometimes wonder whether the mind-state of meditation creates this bodily position or the bodily position creates the mind-state.
If possible, try to translate this floor position to your everyday chair-sitting posture. When you learn to sit with the spine long and curved and the pelvis in a neutral position, sitting will become not only pleasant, but also a source of comfort and ease.