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Zen Concentration Meditation Instruction by a
Meditator - Structural Bodyworker - Part 2
POSITION OF THE BODY - Part 1 of 2
Part 1 --- Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7
by Lou Gross
School Certified Master Postural Integrator
Founder & Director of The Institute for Enhanced Performance
20 years successful Bodywork experience - Meditator since 1969
For more information & free consultations, call 888-299-5973
Body-Mind Power: Paying attention requires concentration and awareness. Unfortunately, here in the West, many of our models of concentration include mental tension, and even tightening up physically. But that's the wrong idea. Concentration is a body-mind power, even an energy field, and not a mental thought strain or a body contraction. Having the power to concentrate gives us the power to be more aware and the ability to pay attention. In anything.
Interestingly enough, there are actual body positions that increase our ability to concentrate, and to build an accumulation of concentration power.
So, the first part of the actual breathing meditation instruction that we normally give, is to teach you what position to put your body in, for most effectiveness. You will find that Zen practice in general, as well as the specific meditation practice, is very well thought out. And very thorough.
The Fundamental Factors for Position: To begin with, we start from the bottom up, with the legs. There are various leg positions you can sit in. Some are more effective than others, and sometimes you need to vary positions, simply because that's what your own physical body needs to do. Remember, we simply do the best we physically can, and as we go on, we can get better.
There are two important aspects of any zazen position. The bottom of the body, the legs and pelvis, should be a firm and stable base. And the top half of the body, the spine, torso, head and neck should be vertically erect, supported by that base. Since all your bones and muscles are interconnected, how you put your legs and adjust your pelvis will determine the stability and verticality of that upper part. The better you are stabilized in a position, and the inherent structural concentration of the position you choose (and can physically manage), will both determine your body position's contribution to the power of Mind concentration you develop.
After you set up these two major factors of the position, all the other things to do with your body, arms, eyes, mouth, etc., will help you to strengthen the stability and erectness of the position and will add features that aid your breathing, balance your mind, and calm your nervous system.
The Position of Your "Base": The most stable leg position is to sit in full lotus, followed by the almost as stable half lotus. The other usual positions, listed in order of stability and strength of concentration, are: quarter lotus (with foot up on calf), Burmese style cross legged (with neither foot up), kneeling on a cushion between the legs, and sitting on a chair.
The idea is to make a stable base of your lower half, to sit as firm and stable as the base of a mountain. You want to make a triangular sitting support if you can, with your two knees and buttocks sitting bones as the three points of focused contact. (When sitting in a chair, it's your two feet and the pair of sitting bones.)
You should use a cushion under your buttocks, too. That will elevate your pelvis so that your knees (or feet) touch the floor or mat you're sitting on. And if you try a cushion and a knee still sticks up, add more height under your buttocks equal to the height your knee is off the floor. In full lotus you'll need a small cushion, in half lotus a little thicker one, in quarter lotus more, and in Burmese more still. If you're kneeling, use a big cushion on end; don't sit flat on your heels. You may need a support cushion under one knee anyway, so find something to fit that height. And adjust the position of legs and cushion so your pelvis is fairly horizontal.
Sitting in one of these positions will also form your spine and abdomen into a good vertical alignment, with the right taughtness, if you do the following adjustment.
How to Sit Cross Legged on a Cushion: To sit Burmese style, sit on your cushion and cross your legs in front of you, both knees and both lower legs flat on the floor, one leg in front of the other. Adjust the height of the cushion under your buttocks so your weight is evenly distributed between the leg-knee contact and the buttocks contact. In this position, neither foot is put on top of the other leg. And it doesn't matter which leg is in front, or which leg is closer to your torso. However, you will find that placing one leg farther away from you is easier than the other. This will become especially true in the quarter, half and full lotus positions.
In any of these positions, keep in mind that you don't want to be all tightened up. It's important that your muscles should be slightly "focused" so you're not slouching. But you shouldn't be tight. The idea is to be seated in a position that facilitates your body's energy flow, allows you to sit for a while without having to move around, and allows your breathing to be full and easy. You should be comfortable in a way that makes breath concentration meditating feel good.
To sit "quarter" lotus (as it's colloquially called), take the outside leg, the one farthest from your torso, and gently lift the foot onto the other leg's calf. Readjust your cushion height. Do NOT put ankle over ankle, as this can cause pain and is not the direction of leg position we want to go in.
To sit half lotus, bring the foot up onto your thigh. In doing this, BE CAREFUL! Many people make the mistake of trying to bend their leg sideways at the knee in order to get the foot up and around. This is wrong. You can damage the knee that way. The knee is designed to fold easily front to back, not twist sideways.
Instead, try to bring your THIGH around, from the pelvis, hip joint and lower back. And rotate your whole leg, including the fixed knee position, from this pelvis-hip area. If you're loose enough, the low back, pelvis and hip joint tissue will give way, and your foot will come way up onto the top of the other thigh at its hip joint. The foot can actually tuck into the fold where your thigh joins the front of your pelvis. If you're not loose enough, your foot will only be able to rest on top of the middle of the other thigh. That's OK. Again, adjust your cushion, not only in height, but left and right under your seat, so that your pelvis sits horizontally, and not tilted, as well as you can get it.
To sit full lotus, go into half lotus and then bring the other leg up onto its opposite thigh. Try to bring both heels close into your lower abdomen. Again, do "the twist and pull around" from the pelvis, lower back, buttocks and hip joint, not from the knee.
How to Make Getting into these Positions Easier: People who eat a lot of junk food usually have tight bodies, whereas a cleaner vegetable and fruit diet, even with some fasting, can make your tissues more flexible. They will give way more so you can get into the positions easier, and you'll be able to stretch back out better. Some people find losing excess weight also helps the legs to swing into position without as much discomfort. In fact, the idea is NOT to sit in a position in which you have pain right from the beginning.
Pain after a while often happens because either your blood vessel flow in that position is not full enough yet, because your legs are getting pressed into the floor and the circulation is temporarily getting restricted, or because the soft connective tissue in your muscles is getting bunched up, from being in the same contracted leg position for a while. For all these conditions, stretching helps. After meditating for some hours or days in a row, it helps to do a lot of re-lengthening of the muscles' soft connective tissue. That can restore many people to a pain free and more erect position.
How to Sit Kneeling on a Cushion: Kneel on a rug or mat, raise your body up and put a large cushion, on end, directly under your pelvis and seat, and it will also create some space between your lower legs and feet. Sit back down on the cushion and adjust its height and your body position so your weight is evenly distributed between the knees and seat.
How to Sit on a Chair: Try putting a cushion under your seat and have your feet flat on the floor. Sit either on the forward part of the chair with nothing against your back, or further back into the chair with a cushion between your back and the chair's back. Just don't slump. And use a chair with a firm horizontal seat. Don't use one that's soft and cushiony or where you are tilted back into it.
Many times, sitting directly on the chair without a cushion under the buttocks is better. Those special "back chairs" are OK, and usually don't need an extra cushion. When you sit in a regular straight back chair, you're usually instructed to put both feet on the floor. But many times, you may find your concentration power is better when you cross your ankles a bit and your legs swing back underneath the chair into some natural position they want to be in.
Adjusting Your Base: We want to adjust the muscles and bones of our legs and pelvis to make us more solid down below, and freer and more erect above. And we want to test to see if our cushion and mats are of proper height. There are two parts.
First, sit on the front third or half of your cushion. Lean way forward with your head and torso and lift your buttocks off the cushion about 1/4" to 1/2" only. Then, put your mental attention into the back of your thighs. And as you lean and stretch forward with your body, use it to stretch the back of your thighs and buttocks. Then lean over even more with your head and upper back, and stretch that upper body part, all the way down to your buttocks. If you have room, you can stretch your arms forward to help. And be sure to focus on the front of your torso as well as the back when you do this stretch, and with your mind, loosen the front, so you can lengthen further.
After doing this directly forward, try doing it about 45 degrees to the left-front corner, and then 45 degrees to the right-front corner. Mindfully, do the same lean, stretches and release in each position. Then, carefully, sit upright.
You should feel more erect, easier, and perhaps somewhat stable. But if you find that your body wants to collapse you need a little more height of cushion under your buttocks, and/or a thin support mat under the back half of the cushion.
For the second part of our adjustment, put your hands, palms down, comfortably on your thighs just above your knees. Sway gently from side to side, from your pelvis and waist, so you feel your weight move, like a pendulum. Go a reasonable distance left and right, then shorten your arc and sway, then shorten some more, and so forth. Even let your tissues stretch from side to side. You can pull on them, even into the legs and buttocks when do the larger swinging movement.
You should remain aware and be able to feel your weight even in very slight arcs. Ideally, the bottom of the pendulum can be felt inside the pelvis and buttocks, energetically, even though almost all of your movement is from the waist up. The idea is to stretch, loosen and "feel" yourself into a vertical stability that brings your energy of attention down in your lower abdomen, pelvis and hip joints.
Then do the same thing front and back, if you like, in small arcs. Your first stretch should have done it for you, but you can do the sway, too, if it helps. You should now have a firm base for your sitting mountain. And your torso should be rising up vertically from it, with minimal back strain, and no initial leg pain.
If you're able to sit with legs crossed and knees firmly on the floor, you'll also be connecting your leg acupuncture meridians in a closed loop of sorts, and into the lower center of your torso. This will also help your concentration power, especially as we'll be placing our hands in the same place, and then concentrating our breath and minds there, too. But if you physically can't, and have to sit kneeling on a cushion or in a chair, don't worry. You'll still be able to do zazen. And you'll still be developing energy through a number of acupuncture points.
Belly Tension: In this position, your very lower abdomen should be pushed forward a bit, and have a little tension in it that will help strengthen your power of concentration. Your sacrum, at the base of the spine in the lower back, will be sort of locked into position, too. This will support your spine rising vertically from the base.
So there's the leg and foot part, then the pelvic area and it's connections, and then up into the torso.
Beware the error of excessive Back Muscle Tightening: Please don't tighten up your lower back hard, nor pull your shoulder blades back so they pinch together, in order to get into this belly position, or to get your torso upright. I know this excessive tightening method is the instruction that's sometimes given. But as a Structural Integration Bodyworker I can tell you that this tightens your muscles too much, creates a bigger and bigger arch in your lower back, and can commonly lead to back pain and even pinched nerves, protruding disks and sciatica. Even my Zen Master told us that the torso position is dependent on our ability with the leg position, how well we can get a stable and comfortable base.
Where to Specifically Stretch in Your Legs: The proper structural position should enable this belly tension without back strain. And that is most easily accomplished with a lot of stretching or Connective Tissue Bodywork lengthening. Rather than making a tight back and neck to compensate for short and tight tissue in your legs, pelvis and abdomen, I encourage you to work at relengthening the part that's short to begin with.
Here are places to focus on.
The hamstring muscles on the backs of the thighs get tight on everybody, especially if you hike or run, ride a bicycle, do long jumping in track, work out with weight machines, or do a lot of walking on your job. They also get tight when kids are spanked. (The kid quite naturally tightens up, and that shortens the soft connective tissue of the deep muscles in the buttocks and through the back of the thighs. This kind of shortness often remains for years.)
Tight hamstrings are "the" major cause of not being able to sit up straight, so that your legs, buttocks and back can form an "L" with a 90 degree angle. This is why they make car seats and airplane seats that make you slouch. Most people have tightened up hamstrings and the length of their bunched-up tissue just can't make that 90 degrees.
For sitting meditation, the most significant place to get really loosened up is at the very top of the back of the thighs, right where the hamstrings join into the sitting bones on the bottom of the buttocks. (That's why I recommend the stretching forward procedure I explained earlier.)
An inability to get this 90 degree "L" shape often causes cross legged meditators to end up sitting on their spine's tailbone instead of the sitting bones at the bottom of the pelvis. This often causes pain in the upper back muscles. It's common for the hamstrings to get shorter and shorter as you keep your body in a cross legged position when you meditate a lot. So if you start to get back pains then, check what bones you're sitting on.
A second key place to stretch is in the adductor muscles on the inner thighs. These are what touch when you close your legs together. They get short, too, and that pulls the front of your pelvis down and toward your feet. Short adductors and hamstrings are a "team" that keep you from getting that proper "L" shape.
To fold joints we have to contract muscles around those joints. So in general, when you are in any kind of sitting meditation position, look and feel how you have folded your joints to get there. Take a little time to notice which way your knees and hip joints are bent, and then see if you can wiggle a bit to get in touch with which muscles have naturally had to contract in order to do the position. You can even go from bent legs to standing with straight legs a few times, to get more in touch.
Once you see how you've contracted muscles and held them that way during many hours of meditation, simply stretch out all those muscles by pulling them in the opposite direction. You just want to reverse the contractions you made.
Cross legged positions require us to shorten the hamstring, adductor, buttocks and front pelvic muscles. So along with stretching the adductors and hamstrings, stretch the muscles in the front of the thighs going way up into the abdomen, across the groin. And stretch the muscles on the sides of your pelvis along with those in the buttocks and lower back.
When you see long time meditators with big arches in their lower backs, take it from a professional body therapist that their leg, pelvis and even abdominal muscles have gotten excessively "bunched up" over time, in the soft connective tissue part of those muscles. You can indeed straighten out some of this swayback with a lot of stretching in all the right areas. Note that a hot bath will make your soft connective tissue easier to stretch.
My Zen Master said he received the whole Structural Integration series, twice, and then I did a number of re-lengthening sessions for him, too. He also used to get shiatsu and massage. So, it helps to get the whole body improved initially, and then we can do regular stretching or yoga, and maybe tune-up bodywork sessions for the stiffer parts as well.
In one place I lived, our 3-day "sesshin" meditation intensives included 30-40 minutes of strong stretching yoga every afternoon in a group. I felt much looser from it. And my meditation actually improved in power as well. "Key" was getting those hip joints to really open up.