Is It “True” Meditation Only When You Sit with a Straight Back? A Yoga Teacher Investigates.

Via on May 8, 2010

Meditating

I’d rather be tackling urban myths related to yoga (for instance, a couple of poses that aren’t so good for you and others that you’re told to avoid that are ridiculously safe). But since my last post, The Top 5 Tricks to Meditating Regularly, had some unorthodox suggestions in my perennial quest to make meditation more user-friendly and accessible to the masses (or, hey, at least to myself), I thought I’d explore the widespread belief that you’re only meditating when you’re sitting up and with a straight back — a belief that came up in a couple of comments to my original post.

Everybody tells you to sit with a straight back, from your high school teachers to your spiritual gurus. And as specifically related to meditation, everyone says so, to the point you might infer there’s a mystical quality to a straight back that, if absent, prevents you from “true” meditation.

Now, I’ve slipped into a meditative state in the middle of a therapy session. I’ve become totally enraptured whenever I’ve come upon a beautiful natural sight or a wondrous feat of human architecture. I’ve literally felt thought slow down and come to a standstill while walking through a park or through a city street, and I’ve felt the same thing after making love. I felt instantly shifted into meditation after a good chiropractic adjustment, or when a massage therapist dug deep into my hamstrings. The most transcendental meditative experience I’ve ever had was the first time I listened to Tibetan bells — comfortably sitting in a recliner. And a close second was in the midst of dancing with abandon. Back when I had a hammock, just lying on it on a nice hot summer day brought about a level of relaxation and introspection that easily led me to a meditative state.

And, oh, yeah: I’ve also found a meditative state while sitting in lotus or kneeling in the Zen fashion. But except for those last two, I’m pretty sure my back wasn’t straight — and there’s no question all of those were “true” meditation.

As a yoga teacher, I often ask “Why?” about the rules that make up a position, an asana. It’s a way to unlock the position’s secrets and discern how to adapt it or create a new one. So, why sit with a straight back while meditating?

Well, if you’re a rural Indian yogi sitting in lotus position on a rock overlooking a beautiful vista, you don’t have the benefit of back support. Same thing if you’re kneeling. And if you slouch, after a while your back hurts and you’re breathing shallow — two things that tend to keep the mind doing its monkey routine.

If, on there other hand, you have back support that leaves your diaphragm reasonably open (sitting back on a chair or a recliner, lying in bed, lying down) then your back is relaxed, won’t hurt, and so long as you’re not completely hunched over or caved in, the position will promote slow, even, natural breath.

If you’re still not convinced, you might ponder the benefits of lying down. No question your back is straight… but is it “true” meditation? Or is lying-down meditation just another name for a quick snooze?

Well, if you actually fall asleep, then it is. Just like if you fall asleep at the tail end of a yoga class in shavasana. It may be relaxing but technically you lose some of the benefits of shavasana. (Though you could argue you gain some of the benefit of a quick snooze, but I digress.)

If you don’t fall asleep, if you manage to get your brain to separate the experience of lying down and closing your eyes from “nap time”, then something interesting happens: your body can relax very profoundly. And when it’s profoundly relaxed, something else happens: your mind becomes quiet. On its own.

Don’t take my word for it. Try it: in order to get the extreme end of deep relaxation you need to lie still, as fidgeting or fast shifting of your gaze tends to disturb the mind, much as dropping a pebble on a lake will disturb is pristine surface. You can’t will a state of meditation — you can only remove the blocks from it; so concern yourself not with whether you’re meditating but with “how much more relaxed can I become?” and release subtler and subtler tensions. In the extreme relaxation beyond losing awareness of body sensation (it may take 20 minutes to half an hour), see if your mind-chatter effortlessly shuts off and all the energy that thought consumed now becomes free and turns to the sense of abiding in pure peace and awareness.

Now, we’re all different. I’m speaking both from knowing that classically, there are standing, sitting and reclining positions for meditation and, more importantly, from my own experience. If you try the above and something else works better for you, by all means, go for it. An upright back is physiological common sense when you’re meditating sitting up; “you can only meditate sitting up with a straight back,” on the other hand, is an urban myth. Actually, it’s a rural Indian myth, but the title of this article was already too long to stick that in there. :-)

About Ricardo das Neves

Ricardo das Neves is the author of Unenlightened: Confessions of an Irreverent Yoga Teacher, and is occasionally known to tweet (@spirithumor). See MORE VISUAL YOGA BLOGS HERE. When he’s not trying to be funny, he acts very serious teaching yoga classes in and around Seattle. Subscribe to future VISUAL YOGA BLOGS here. Connect with him on Google+

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22 Responses to “Is It “True” Meditation Only When You Sit with a Straight Back? A Yoga Teacher Investigates.”

  1. A most entertaining and thoughtful post, Richard. I love what you bring to Elephant Journal.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. This is by far the best non-sectarian book on meditation I've every read:

    "Effortless Wellbeing"

    The title says it all.

    Bob Weisenberg

  3. freesoul says:

    In re replying to Lola, when I injured my back and was in PT, all I could do for a few weeks, was little in the way of yoga, let alone sit up for long periods of time. So everyday I would be out on my patio in the sun shine laying on my back, in meditation. One to relax, one to heal and of course, to connect.

    I have been in meditation classes with teachers who are rigid and it just doesn't work for me, in fact, it stresses me out and well let's face it getting stressed out before you go to meditate, something is wrong with that. I usually walk away from others who have such set rules and goals for others practices. Until they walk a mile in my shoes….

  4. The Deacon says:

    Rules are meant to be broken.

  5. ceci miller says:

    Thanks for this post! Makes sense to me that each person must experiment to find what works best. I meditated for quite a few years in a classic, upright yoga meditation posture, but then a back injury kept me mostly standing up for a year. During that year of no-sitting, reclining was also very painful. After awhile I naturally evolved an open-eyed standing meditation — often while looking out the window at the movements of trees, which was calming. This method stilled the mind and helped me to relax even while in physical pain. Not my favorite year, but very transforming.

  6. It is true that meditation is relaxing, but meditation is a lot more than relaxation. It is also true that one can mediate in all kinds of positions, standing, walking, lying down. But it is not true that sitting with your back straight in meditation is "a rural Indian myth." That's an urban yogic myth.
    Meditation, buddhist, yogic and tantric, involve relaxation and bodily awareness, a synchronization of breath and mind, but soon moves into states of concentrated awareness, from the gross body to sensorimotor awareness and deep mind to subtle Spirit. In order to access these higher or deeper levels of consciousness, which is quite different from looking out the window and having peak moments of relaxing insight, the yogis advanced various sitting positions effecting inner transformation in rather radical ways. I know this from over 30 years of experience, there are states of meditation I can easily achieve in siddhasana with my back staright that is impossible to achieve lying down. I have tried. Or while walking. I have tried. So please, do not dismiss these subtle technologies so quickly.
    I have seen people rolling on the floor uncontrollably due to not being able to contain the energies achieved in meditation.. energies that when sitting properly and having the right training would be harnessed beautifully and internally into streams of higher consciousness. So sitting straight is not just a myth, and not just for Indian peasants. Sitting straight is for real yogis, even urban American yogis. The pranayama that I perform simply cannot effectively be done lying down or standing…it's a fact, not a myth….it must be done with a straight back, sitting up.

  7. HI, Ramesh. I object to you making light of my favorite Yoga activity!

    Through the Window

    In my living room
    While lying on my back
    On the couch,
    I can gaze through the window
    Past the roof of the house,
    Past the bright green leaves
    Of the lofty trees
    Gently swaying in the breeze,
    Past the endlessly changing forms
    Of the brilliant white clouds
    Slowly drifting by,
    I can gaze through the window
    Into the unfathomable infinity
    Of the wondrous deep blue sky.

    This is my favorite place
    To read ancient Yoga sages.

    (from http://YogaDemystified.com

    • integralhack says:

      Bob,

      I don't read Ramesh making light of your meditation activity–or anyone else's meditation practices, for that matter. He is talking about a specific practice aimed at achieving specific goals. Ramesh is pointing out that an erect back is necessary for this kind of meditation.

      While I'm not a skilled meditator (I'm working on that), I've read enough to realize that there all sorts of different kinds of meditation, but key to many is keeping oneself erect (back straight). Ramesh outlined some reasons for this, but it also has the practical application of helping you keep yourself awake during meditation. After all, being aware–not snoozing–is key to most successful meditation practice.

      In the Buddhist tradition alone, this way of meditation has a long history practiced through Dhyana, Chan, and Zen (note the phonetic similarity through Indian, Chinese and Japanese language) traditions as well as others. It would be dismissive of this proven technology to write off this practice as a "rural Indian myth"–especially since this "myth" extends well beyond Indian culture. There is a reason you don't see slumping Buddha statues!

      So while it is fine for Ricardo to say "it's all good!" in regard to meditation in general, I think it is also fair to say, as Ramesh is, that only some types of meditation will get you specific results.

      -Matt

      • I was not at all offended, Matt. That was meant tongue in cheek. (That's what I usually mean when I put an exclamation point at the end of a sentence.) It was meant in good humor.

        I completely understand, accept, and applaud this specific, highly refined meditation art that Ramesh and others practice. I have no doubt that a straight back is required for this specialized art.

        My point, and Richard's too, I think, is that there are many other paths to transcendent consciousness.

        Beyond that it's a pure matter of definition–do we define the term "meditation" broadly or narrowly? It really doesn't matter to me. So I can support Richard and Ramesh both. They are just defining meditation differently.

        Thanks for your comment.

        Bob Weisenberg
        ElephantJournal.com

        • Also, to be fair to Ricardo, I think he was misquoted.

          Ricardo didn't say "sitting with your back straight in meditation" is a myth.

          He said it's a myth that “you can ONLY meditate sitting up with a straight back."

          • Bob, the tongue in cheek goes both ways… :-) That said, there is an underlying message in Ricardo's article that "true" meditation can be done in many different positions, such as lying down, walking, etc. He claims this without defining what true meditation is while offering some examples that, from my experience, resemble relaxation more than "true" meditation. The way most yogis, tantrics, buddhists etc. define meditation involves more than relaxed awareness… that was my point, and that point needed to be made given the underlying message I read in Ricardo's article. Again Bob, Wilber is a great source to delve into the many complex aspects of "true" meditation. Also Patanjali: Pratyahara involves sense withdrawal and visualizations, pranayama involves breathing exercises with our without mantra and visualization, dhyan involves meditation and visualization and absorption and deep, uninterrupted mental/spiritual flow. All practices which are impossible to perform satisfactorily while laying on your back reading a book or looking at the vast blue sky… relaxed concentration are key words for true meditation… But I am becoming redundant. Great discussion!

    • Ramesh says:

      Bob, I am not making light of your wonderful habits at all. Read my second sentence above once more. You can do it lying down, even, then meditate on it. :-)
      What I am doing is very well expressed by Matt. Meditation, as taught by the masters in Buddhism, Tantra, Vedanta, Zen, Chan, etc. is a lot more than gazing at the wondrous blue sky. It is that and more. Yoga is not either/or, yoga is yes/and…so much more.

  8. Kaoverii Weber Kaoverii says:

    The tongue really should go to the roof of the mouth if you want to get technical ;-)

    Just a few cents here – Joseph Campbell says that the yogis say when you meditate, you become the axis of the earth. I love that because it is speaking to the macro/microcosmic connection that happens when you meditate. The chakras need to line up to meditate properly (don't know if that was mentioned) because then you are aligning with the cosmic forces/elements of the universe.

    And as for the comment "It's all good." I prefer "It's all God." However you choose to meditate is valid. Meditation is a great thing in general. Whatever you want to do to that end – great. And as one of my meditation teachers explained to me many years ago, some things will get you there quicker than others.

    The technology of yoga, including sitting with your legs crossed and your back straight, repeating a mantra, concentrating on chakras, etc. was developed by people who had lots of time to figure out what gets you there quicker. So why try to figure it out for yourself? I use electricity, but I have no interest in figuring out how to make it myself. If you wanted to be a master cellist, you'd probably take lessons from someone who was good at it. I don't think Yo Yo Ma figured it out for himself. He probably did what his teacher told him to. Then when he got really good at it, he could get incredibly creative – he became a master.

    I think Neem Karoli Baba or Ramakrishna probably didn't have to sit with their legs crossed and spine straight to reach the infinite in their later years. But most of the rest of us mere mortals can benefit from what the masters have taught. Doesn’t mean you’re somehow inferior or submissive – it just means that you are a student. And what’s wrong with that?

  9. Very simple, elegant, Upanishadic answer to that, Kaoverii.

    We are all already Master Cellists. We just have to pay attention.

    Bob

    • Ramesh says:

      Just paying attention and you'll play like Yo Yo Ma? Just paying attention and you'll BE like Ramana Maharshi? If you read between the lines of the great texts and the masters' sayings and practice what they preach, you'll learn it takes a bit more than just paying attention. But paying attention is certainly a good start…

  10. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who has read the Upanishads! I guess we'll have to wait until "Upanishads Talk" (hmmm, not as catchy as "Gita Talk"). I'll come and debate you with my own divine Self and my dog-eared copy of the Upanishads.

    (Although I have to say, it's all right there in the Gita, too, and even in the Yoga Sutra, although only mentioned briefly in passing as an alternative path to meditation there, since the ubiquitous and admittedly wonderful Yoga Sutra is primarily a meditation manual and far narrower that the Upanishads or Gita.)

    Enjoying this.

    Bob

  11. snowandstars says:

    haven't even read the article yet – but i LOVE the picture ! :)
    will get to reading now…

  12. As I said earlier, it's all about how you want to define the word "meditation".

    I don't care, for example, whether you allow me to call my flamenco guitar playing "meditation" or not. But it is most certainly "meditative" and covers the same spiritual ground, even though it has no specific connection to Yoga or Tantra whatsoever. See this blog and my two comments to see what I mean:

    "Raga Unveiled Video Comes to Montreal"

  13. Bodhgaya Buddha (dhyan)

    Bodhgaya is a small town where Lord Buddha planted the seed of Buddhism over two thousand five hundred years ago. This town is situated in the state of Bihar in eastern India and is well connected with other parts of India. It is the scared place for all Buddhists since it is where Lord Buddha attained Divine Enlightenment. The place is now a temple of Mahabodhi Temple. Apart from this pilgrimage destination there is also a colossal statute called the Great Buddha Statue, Bodhgaya.

    This Great Buddha Statue, Bodhgaya is possibly the largest built in India and was consecrated on November 18th 1989 by His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. There are numerous monasteries built around the vicinity supported by faithful folk countries like Thailand, Burma, Japan and other Buddhist countries.

    read more…
    http://www.tanuscraft.com/homecraft/index.php?mai

  14. ARCreated says:

    I prefer the laying down method 'cause then my knees don't hurt…I guess it could be said I swing both ways and depends on my meditation goal…ultimately my best meditation is done on my motorcycle…my back is more or less straight :)

  15. Amit says:

    Hi. Thanks for the post, I find it very informative :) And just as a comment (not being touchy here), I don't know how accurate it is to call it an "Indian Rural Myth," whatever that means. Because I know from several sources, including my yoga and philosophy teacher, that many poses can be used for meditating, and lying down is the *preferred* way if you can keep from falling asleep. In fact he taught us to meditate while lying down. I know of sadhus of old too who mediated while lying down (I'm from India).

  16. Tidesson says:

    It depends on where a person's major energy blockages are. For me, it was in my pelvic region (I've had lower back issues for years, mainly die to bad sitting and standing posture). My partner helped me adjust once standing up and vwoom! once I corrected my spine, I felt an overwhelming force rush up my spine and into my head – I almost passed out. I cleared the blood flow and also was able to clear the chi flow trapped in my pelvic region/lower tan tien. Having a straight posture also enabled my body to automatically shift my stomach muscles out so i could breathe more deeply, simultaneously contracting my chest a bit. With my bad posture it was the other way around. My stomach was constricted while my chest was expanded, forcing me to breathe in my chest area instead of from my stomach. The correct posture also automatically enabled my neck to straighten, instead of lumped forward. Correct posture makes such a difference! Whether it's a myth or not is irrelevant. It depends, again, on where your personal energy blockages are located.

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