This question is frequently asked in meditation classes. Even people just starting to learn meditation are wondering why some systems are so strict in how you sit (Himalayan Tradition) and others fairly casual (Transcendental Meditation).
We usually associate sitting with paying more attention. If most of us were in a class (let’s say an online video class at home)–don’t we start off sitting. Sometimes we decide-“Hey let’s just relax a bit lying down and we can listen more comfortably.” Well you know what the rest of the story is–we wake up suddenly and the find the screen is blank–having slept comfortably but missed the class.
Some of us can sleep sitting and even standing. Lying down seems to be a big trigger to relax and often we move into sleep very easily. This habit of falling asleep when lying down serves us well at night. It doesn’t work for many of us at other times. Many of the advanced subtle body relaxation techniques in Hatha Yoga are taught in this supine or Shavasana position (as pictured above). For a practicing spiritual seeker, they cultivate the capacity to delay/control sleep in this shavasana position in order to complete these deeper relaxation practices consciously.
Still meditation is not recommended for us in this supine position. Why?
One of the prime reasons to use proper alignment and balance in upright sitting for meditation is the proper establishment and flow of the diaphragmatic breath. A posture that doesn’t have the spine erect in neutral and balanced dimension and tensions will utilize upper chest breathing frequently.
A neutral spine here means that the spine is straight from the head, neck and trunk while maintaining ones three normal curves of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.
A balance of the head neck and trunk means there an evenness to several parameters. The orientation, dimensions and tensions on the front/back/sides top and bottom of the trunk container are in proper equilibrium to support this neutral erect posture.
Many are familiar with this building block example of stacking the body parts like blocks into proper alignment. The bodywork systems and others utilize this incomplete paradigm of alignment. Here is a picture from the Rolfe Institute.
Here is an important rationale for sitting vs lying for meditation as well as any event requiring greater focus and attention. When we sit we elicit a variety of neurological/pranic reflex activity. We have certain postural reflexes that keep us more or less upright. These include other righting and equilibrium reactions. If our eyes are open we often also try to keep the visual field oriented properly to the horizon–so there are ocular reflexes too. There are many more reflex activities throughout the flows of movement in the body, breath and mind. Here are some simple ideas first.
Sitting well for meditation means besides alignment of the body, that there is this balance of tension and dimension of the body. Creating this balance of activity of the movement of the information/prana of the body is what enhances centering in this position.
This level of upright centering creates (just in looking in the sagittal plane, i.e. front to back) an interiorization of these flows that maintain this upright aligned/balanced nature. If we sit mis-using the alignment concept and therefore popularly overuse the back (vs the front), we are in too much extension often where we have these common complaints of discomfort/pain. When balancing the muscular tension of BOTH the front and back (and all the others) along with the dimensions and weight/forces, etc.–we arrive at a focus that takes us inward. (Not enough of us activate this front of the lower trunk (ie belly) nor the back of the upper back nor the front of the neck. These points are barely accepted intellectually and mostly absent in ones “sensory” practice.)
No longer are we facilitating too much extension energy/forces or starting to slump forward in flexion energy/forces–but we create a equilibrium. This equilibrium will automatically elicit these bandhas that everyone is trying to do and make happen. These bandhas and mudras will spontaneously occur.
The mind subtly that let’s say had 2 foci of attention on the front and back now can collapse those two into one. This subtlety is not popularly appreciated nor trained for properly.
Also as mentioned in previous posts the style of diaphragmatic breathing that uses the belly mainly places the diaphragm to face more anteriorly. This belly aspect of the diaphragm lacks the postural stability of the trunk that the diaphragm can provide (when used this way). Belly breathing over activates the extensors of the spine/back, etc.
When you place the lower ribs which the diaphragm attaches (in part) to face the pelvis you have an opportunity to use more three dimensional breathing. When you breathe diaphragmatically more from the lower rib cage rather than using the diaphragm of the belly–you have centrated this huge/forceful, very repetitive motion of life. You now sit with greater stability and ease. This aspect of the diaphragm of the lower ribs is also poorly understood and not properly trained. This type of centrated breathing more easily facilitates the centering of the mind also.
Can we lie for meditation or should we sit?
- Lying implies resting and sleeping of both the body and mind for the average person
- Sitting erect is both an advantage for proper breathing and alignment of the spine
- Proper sitting includes centrating both the diaphragm and tensions/dimension of the body to create an automatic/spontaneous interior response
- One must properly practice the steps in preparation
- These steps must include specific drills of linking ones attention at these different foci
- Developing concentration that is stabilized then increase these deeper flows and movements towards absorption and silence
Doing a complex asana and trying to maintain proper alignment/balance and breathing can be too challenging for some. We should evaluate in a progressive (easier to harder) sequence of postures that allow both the teacher and student to see/feel where they need to work first.
My concern here is that in doing asanas, sometimes we do not have the pre-requisites need at that level of that asana. If one finds that the student is not repeatedly able to accomplish the instruction, maybe this level of the task is too difficult. In this case, we should evaluate some of the preliminary skills and attributes needed. Often this means regressing or making the posture easier. The position needs to change so the posture itself is not so difficult.
Look at some of the examples below for preliminary positions to evaluate and work on training of basic alignment/balance and the breath.
Briefly let me touch on these terms of alignment, balance and breathing. These three terms have an implication of “proper” and “optimal”. Proper use of these basic concepts and principles are primary guides for working properly in asana. Remember the goal here in asana is move deeper into ones own consciousness from a spiritual perspective. This point will not be expanded here. It should be remembered for context, as most of this article is about preparation in asana that normally is missed or distorted.
Alignment, Balance and Breathing
Alignment is the gross relationship of one body part to another. Most of us have had lots of coaching with this aspect. Some people confuse choreography with proper alignment. Here the difference is explained in a simple standing asana. You may align the trunk in extension in Trikonasana (triangle pose) because you choreographed it that way. The alignment though is in extension. It is not a balanced alignment.
Balance is not a term here about the capacity to balance say on one leg. It is not balance related to inner ear and righting reflexes that sometimes is impaired. Let’s look at the above example of Trikonasana when you are in trunk extension. The balance between the front and back musculature is affected. There is an over activity of the back muscles, driving the body into some extension. There is an under activity to the front belly muscles that no longer create a balance of neuro-muscular activity. The front of the body is a bit longer and the lower 1/2 of the back of the trunk is shorter. Balance can be examined from side to side as well as top to bottom, etc. It is mainly about one area of the body being neuro-muscularly turned up while another area of the body is neuro-muscularly turned down. One area is more relaxed and the other area is more contracted or activated.
Does the proper amount of turning up and turning down of neuromuscular activity allow for better alignment and breathing?
Breathing here referring to proper diaphragmatic breathing rather than upper chest breathing. Ideally a beginner starting out would have maybe more of a belly style of breath vs the upper chest. Often with training it moves into a more three dimensional breath. This latter style has less belly excursion and more lateral/posterior lower rib movement. All these different styles use the diaphragm. The orchestration of what is moved and how much is the main differentiation. Full diaphragmatic breathing is optimal not just because of efficient neuromuscular coordination but for proper nervous system and blood gas regulation.
If one is doing a simple triangle pose as outlined above, how can we help them find a better way of doing it. Realize that this critique is not agreed by all. The overall consideration here is a lack of balance between the front and back of the body. So that we are not stabilized but actually backward bending when we want to side bend as in Trikonasana. Also the resultant posture facilitates belly breathing as it is mainly emphasizing the diaphragmatic movement of the central tendon (versus the diaphragm of the lower six ribs). Now we want them to be in a better posture so that they can breathe better too. The beneficial detail is not described here.
So we often start with verbal and tactile cues to have someone try to correct the above. This cueing should only be a temporary first choice. It is “corrected” but it is not felt by the student. They just “do” it better, not really deeply understanding it from a proprioceptive standpoint. It is an image in ones mind, not a felt sense in the body often (not always though).
If one is having a problem in a standing asana, does that same problem exist when they in other positions? We often see that it does. The standing problem is preceded by the same impairments that were never learned in earlier positions.
This is where some knowledge or appreciation of how children progressively learn movement from the ground upwards is helpful. We can use some of these progressions in a simple way.
Check the persons movement and breathing patterns when they lie on their back. For someone who is always posturing in trunk extension, do they lie with a big space under the lower back to lower thoracic spine. Do they also then have the front lower rib borders lifted up? Is their pelvis anteriorly tilted which also increase the arch of the lower back and increase the flexion at their hips?
Do they breath with their upper chest, belly or more three dimensionally? If they breathe with their upper chest they need to do a whole other series of lying on the belly in Makarasana (crocodile pose)—and then working towards sandbag breathing, etc.
Let’s say they are lying in this extended posture. Their front lower ribs are elevated and the belly is long. The lower back is short and arched off the floor—the pelvis could even be tilted a bit anteriorly.
Also we often see that the shoulders are anterior and up off the floor, the neck in back is short so that their collar/cervico-thoracic area is off the floor significantly. (Not apparent in this picture) Their breathing pattern is often to the belly primarily.
Now find out if they can shorten the front of the belly by bringing the front lower ribs towards their pelvis (and their pelvis rotating a bit also. Both movements should shorten the front of the belly and lengthen the back of the lower trunk.
How do they breathe now? Did they stop breathing temporarily? Can they move the lateral and posterior lower ribs vs the belly now that the belly has greater tension?
Evaluation of Trunk Alignment
What happens in this example of reaching overhead in standing? In the first picture there is this overarching of the T/L (thoraco-lumbar) area—and you see the front lower ribs lift away from the front of the pelvis—a lack of proper bracing of the lower trunk.
Now you can correct it in standing, but you need to see if they repeat it in a very basic position in supine (lying on the back).
Lying on the back with knees bent you allow the arms to be raised over the head. Note what happens in the head, neck and trunk. Here we will focus just on the lower trunk area. You can see the mal-alignment between the rib cage and the pelvis. Again this under-activity of the belly and over activity of the back is the imbalance that allows this mis-alignment.
Again note how the breath will be affected when the belly is more likely to expand as in belly breathing. Well at least you might consider belly breathing once again to be more optimal than upper chest breathing. It is fine for a beginner. It is not the three-dimensional breathing we want to have available in many of our asanas.
So we are looking to assess whether one can control these relationships.
If they can, then we teach them to practice it during the activity. If they cannot in this position, we do not keep using the standing position to correct them. We regress the activity to the floor. The floor is provides more stability and really works on this anterior lower trunk relationship. It is a great position to use to evaluate and train someone to start to feel what happens when they raise their arms over their heads. There are lots of cues one can use to include the sense of pressure their lower to mid back has on the floor, as well as the change of breathing pattern, etc.
Then you can make it harder by raising the feet/legs up