Meditation retreats are becoming increasingly popular in the West. Five years ago, I made the spontaneous decision to go on my first extended Vipassana meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre, California. Prior to that, I had very little experience sitting for long periods of time. At most, I would sit once or twice a day for ten to thirty minutes at a time either at home, at my local meditation center, or with a meditation group. Little did I know how unprepared my poor body was for the amount of sitting that I would be doing.
On the first day, they gave us a retreat schedule. It started at 6:30 am with an early morning meditation session and then alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation throughout the day. Altogether, we sat for about 6 to 7 hours each day for seven days in a row.
It was a wonderful experience and I would never forget that first meditation retreat because it is where I learned these many invaluable lessons about the importance of posture, pose, and stretches before and after meditation practice.
Proper Meditation Posture and Types of Poses
Meditation poses are as unique as the practitioners who use them, but they share a common goal: to open up the practitioner to the world’s flowing energy and produce a feeling of oneness. To do this, a practitioner must be comfortable and choose the best pose for his or her mood and intentions, without wasting all the time devoted to meditating finding the perfect pose. While there are many poses to choose from, they fall into three basic categories: sitting, using a chair, standing and walking, and lying down. Paying attention to maintaining a proper posture and stretching before and after meditation can not only improve your practice, it can also make meditation more comfortable and less of a strain on your body.
For most practitioners, seated meditation poses work well for most applications. They are comfortable and allow you to focus on opening yourself to the energy around you, without encouraging sleep. All seated poses start with the same principle: a straight-backed meditation posture. Keeping your back straight, but not locked and rigid, encourages energy flow, opens you to the world around you, and fosters mental discipline, all without creating fatigue and back pain that can distract your focus. With your back straight, seated poses vary based on the position of your legs and feet. This will vary based on how flexible you are. The tailor’s posture, in which the practitioner is seated on the floor or a cushion with the soles of the feet touching each other, is the simplest and most common. The Burmese and lotus postures are more advanced, and involve pulling the heels in toward the pelvis, opening the hips, and resting the legs on top of one another. By keeping your body aligned in these meditation poses and keeping your joints soft and relaxed, you can protect yourself from injury.
Using a Chair
People who cannot sit on the ground or who lack flexibility can meditate while seated in a chair. Back is straight and flat against the seat, and feet are placed firmly on the ground. Sometimes it is useful to use cushions under the feet or behind the back for added comfort.
Standing or Walking
If you are standing or walking, consider going barefoot if it is safe and comfortable to do so, in order to encourage energy flow and enhance your connection with the earth. In all cases, maintain a straight-backed posture, and be mindful of the position of your head and buttocks.
Some people have physical reasons to lie down but it is not encouraged because it induces sleepiness. If you do lie down, then your spine should be straight, hands to the side either placed up or down, and knees are bent with feet planted on the floor. You should be comfortable and relaxed, but not sleepy.
Importance of Stretching
Many people who practice meditation complain of stiffness in the lower back, pain in the hips, or numbness in the feet and legs after being seated for long periods of time. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s time to think about improving your posture or pose or adding stretches before and after you meditate. Pain is not a normal part of meditation. It only distracts our focus and gets in the way of developing spiritual discipline.
Meditation stretches are focused on relaxing and opening the shoulders, chest, lower back, and hips. Many yoga poses are useful for stretching before and after meditation. Start by rolling your shoulders forward and back and gently rolling your neck from side to side. Sit down and do a few gentle seated twists on each side, then assume a kneeling position and move into child’s pose to open your lower back. Lunges help to open the hips. The warrior poses open and stretch the whole body, including the shoulders. Finally, if downward-facing dog is comfortable for you, this is a good stretch to open your back and hips, relax your neck, and bring blood flow toward your head to energize your practice.
Meditation stretches help prepare your body for your practice, and after you meditate, they can help you stretch your muscles and return to your day without soreness. By maintaining a proper posture and stretching, you can protect yourself from pain and injury while enhancing your practice and developing the openness and spiritual discipline you seek.