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May 8, 2010

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

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.

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