My first attempts to sit still as a child were completely unsuccessful. Perhaps
the sentence I remember most from my childhood is " Stop fidgeting!" I
heard this from all the significant adults in my life: at school, at church
and at family dinners. I seemed constitutionally unable to sit still. Now
that I attempt the daily formal practice of meditation or "sitting", my
fidgeting is usually more mental than physical. But I am still searching
for a way to sit in comfort and ease in meditation as well as in the everyday
world of chairs.
According to Galen Cranz writing in The Chair*, "biology, physiology,
have less to do with our chairs than do pharaohs, kings, and executives"
(p.23). A brief look at the chairs which are offered to us in schools,
cars and on airplanes reveals that there seems to be little understanding
of how our human anatomy functions in the sitting position. It is no wonder
that when we begin to learn to meditate by sitting on the floor or a cushion
that most of us have trouble. We had been taught poor sitting habits by
our years of sitting in chairs. But we can learn to sit well through education
The key to sitting well is the pelvis. The word 'pelvis' means 'basin';
the pelvis is the basin which not only holds and protects our abdominal
organs but also serves as the anchoring point of the spinal column. This
anchoring occurs through the connection with the curved sacrum bone which
joins the pelvis at the back of the body below the waist and is easily
felt there. I like to say that the pelvis is the pot out of which the spine
grows. Positioning the pelvis harmoniously is the foundation to sitting
well in large part because of this relationship to the spinal column.
Try this experiment. Whatever position you are sitting in now, move
the pelvis an inch in any direction. When you do, you will find that you
move your spine with it. Unless the pelvis is in a neutral position the
spine will be forced to move from its neutral position in order for one
to remain upright. This is how it works.
vertebral column consists of a series of long curves called by anatomists
'normal curves'. The lumbar curve at the back waist curves inward, the
thoracic curve at the mid-back cures outward and the cervical or neck curve
curves inward like the lower back. When these curves are in their resting
or neutral state there is the least amount of strain on them. In order
to sit well in a chair or to meditate with reasonable comfort, one needs
to create and maintain these normal curves. It is akin to stacking children's
blocks; if the second, third and other additional 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. This increased muscular activity is interpreted as tension
and interferes with our ability to meditate or work in comfort.
In order to maintain the curves in neutral, one must also place the pelvis
in a neutral position. This means that the top rim of the pelvis is neither
rocked back or forward. To discover this relationship, sit in a chair and
place your hands around the top edge of your pelvis as if you were putting
your hands out to show someone how big and round a melon was. Sitting as
I commonly do, when I place my hands around my pelvic rim my thumbs at
the back are much lower than the rest of my fingers at the front of my
pelvic bones. 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 discomfort. If, on the
other hand, I sit in such a way in which my pelvis is in a neutral position,
hands are even front to back, and my lower back has its normal concave
then there is a greater chance that I will be comfortable.
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 on the same level to
or higher than the hip sockets, inevitably the pelvis tilts backward and
the lower back rounds. Not only does this position of the lower back become
uncomfortable because is strains the muscles, but it also puts pressure
on the intervertebral discs, those plump sponge-like structures which help
keep the vertebrae apart thus giving more space for the spinal nerves to
pass out into the body. As we compress the front of the discs with constant
round-backed sitting, we flatten the discs and facilitate their movement
backward toward the nerves themselves. Pressure on the spinal nerves can
create pain in and dysfunction of the spinal muscles.
In order to enjoy meditation and sitting in chairs, we must position the
pelvis in a neutral position and pay attention to the position of the thighs.
I have found that when the thighs are dropped significantly lower than
the hip sockets, it is much easier to sit well. Traditional meditation
tools like the Zen 'zafuâ' cushion helps us to do this. So does the
Norwegian Balans chair, the one with a slanted seat and knee support which
was popular in the 1980's. However, for most Westerners, I have found
that we do not sit with the height necessary to truly lift the pelvis so
that the thighs are at a 125 to 135 degree angle to the trunk.
Sitting in a chair an be improved by carefully picking the chair used for
most sitting; it should encourage the normal lumbar curve and a neutral
position of the pelvis. When driving, I have found a bath towel, folded
first in half the long way, then rolled and secured with rubber bands can
be helpful when inserted at the back waist. 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. (You may also try this in the 'euro'position
which is sitting on the heels.) 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 aid to sitting I have found it helps tremendously
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 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 had in floor- sitting, but everything will just be raised higher.
After you have found the number of blankets which allows your knees to
drop considerably, (remember the 125 to 135 degree rule of thigh to trunk)
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
lbs. So try placing the hands on the top of the thighs near the belly;
turn the hands so that the little finger rests on the thigh and the palm
faces the abdomen; keep the fingers relaxed. Make sure that the elbows
are behind the side seam on the clothes, and allow enough space in the
armpit so you could hold an egg there. A final point on the arms: if the
forearms are close to a vertical position, place a folded blanket under
the hands. If the forearms are virtually horizontal, there will be less
weight pulling through the arms onto 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 eyes open, others eyes closed.
Whichever you choose, this position of the head will be comfortable.
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
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.
Cranz, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, W.W. Norton
New York, 1998.