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Rediscovering Ease: Learning to Sit

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, and 
anatomy 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 and vigilance. 

    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. 

The 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, 
my hands are even front to back, and my lower back has its normal concave 
curve, 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. 
 
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 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. 
 

*Galen Cranz, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, W.W. Norton & 
Company, New York, 1998. 

 

 

 

 

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