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Giving up Good Posture

For many of us, good posture during meditation practice is elusive. We may start our session with the best of intentions but by the end, we can’t wait for the meditation bell to rescue us from back pain. This post is meant to look at and address the samsaric circle of "good posture.”

II we look at a meditator like this, from my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher, I can see a few imbalances which are likely making this posture uncomfortable. The mid-back is arched, the chest is lifted, the neck braced to keep the head from falling back, etc. But mostly what I want to tell this person is, "Don't try so hard to have good posture!"

 What most of us associate with good posture is that oft-uttered admonition from mom, "Sit up straight." For many of us, there is a "Snap out of it!" element to this impulse. There we were, daydreaming and slumping, and Whack! We are chastised to sit up straight. There might be a little shame or guilt lurking about in the moment between being reminded to sit up straight and our attempt to do so. As if it were immoral or embarrassing to be in the posture we were in.

 What's not clear from the sit-up-straight recommendation is: where do you sit up from? What part leads this movement and where do we get support from? Lacking this important information we tend to lift our chest and arch our back to get up more.

And yet, sitting up straight never feels that comfortable or satisfying. It feels like we are barely hanging on to this upright posture, and it's just a matter of time before we are deposited back into our familiar slump. I would argue that part of the reason we fail to find a comfortable, upright posture is due to the very intensity of our pursuit. When we strive hard to sit up straight, we neglect such essentials as our breathing, a free neck, and relaxed shoulders to name a few. [By the way, I found the photo in this article when I Googled "correct meditation posture.”]

 Not only does the concept of good posture often lead to tension and pain, it can be one more way we slip out of our meditation practice. Put simply: we stop working with what is and push ourselves towards what we think should be. In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Suzuki Roshi writes, "People ask what it means to practice zazen with no gaining idea, what kind of effort is necessary for that kind of practice. The answer is: effort to get rid of something extra from our practice. If some extra idea comes, you should try to stop it; you should remain in pure practice."

It's not that we give up our intention to have a healthy posture. Rather, we accept that good posture can be found within us naturally, just like bodhicitta. If we realize that our posture can be uncovered just like the natural qualities of our mind, it transforms the way we approach our bodies. Good posture emerges when there is a lack of interference. "We do not need to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are. When something is added, that is impure."

Dan Cayer is a nationally certified teacher of the Alexander Technique and a meditator in the Shambhala tradition. After a serious injury left Dan unable to work or carry out household tasks, he began studying the Alexander Technique.  His return to health, as well as his experience dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of pain, has inspired him to help others.  Dan now teaches the Alexander Technique as a method of recovering balance and well-being.  He recently taught a workshop at IDP titled, “Posture, Pain, and Meditation Practice: Getting a Boost from the Alexander Technique.”

Dan’s workshops and thoughts can be found at www.dancayerfluidmovement.com/, and he can be reached at dan@fluidmovementnyc.com.

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Comments

So glad to see this here

I have experimented with different ways of sitting in order to feel a natural, ease-ful, yet dignified, posture without flaring up an old hip injury. Lotus position is out of the question for me. Having had a lot of dance training, a bit of exposure to Alexander Technique (thanks to a piano teacher long ago) and tons of physical therapy I tend to be hyper-aware of the alignment and mechanics of sitting, standing, walking, working...etc. Although it makes me feel a little obsessive sometimes, I have found that awareness to be very helpful in finding a way to sit with upright posture that doesn't seem to invite injury and unnecessary strain.

I wonder if the default of meditating in a cross-legged position may be a big reason why many of us struggle with posture during sitting meditation. Everyone's body is different, and I imagine that any restriction in the hips and knees would make it really difficult to have a natural posture in a lotus position.

It's wonderful to see that you're bringing Alexander Technique into meditation practice. I hope I can make it to one of your workshops!

Sitting Cross-legged

Thanks for your comment! Yes, people who have grown up sitting in chairs for most of their lives often do find the cross-legged position particularly challenging. We've been trained to have some inflexibility in our hips and hamstrings, as well as getting quite used to slumping against the back of a chair. I'm reading a fascinating book right now called "The Chair" by Galen Cranz, who is an Alexander Technique teacher and professor at Stanford University in the Architecture department. In her book she lays out how thousands of years of chair design have gotten it wrong in terms of how the human body is meant to distribute weight and be aligned.

So this can make sitting difficult, though surely not possible. I generally recommend that the knees be lower than hips. Particularly, if you're like me, and have relatively tight hip flexors and hamstrings, I need my knees to be well below my hips. Otherwise, I find myself struggling not to slump the entire time. I would underscore that it's important to actually check in and see how your body is faring in a particular posture. Rather than just trying to meet some ideal meditation posture, it's good to ask what posture helps me be comfortable, supported, and stable for me to practice? It might mean something with back support, it might mean a rounded buckwheat cushion, or even laying down if you're suffering from back or neck pain.

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