Sitting for meditation
One of the basic goals of all the asana practice is finding and maintaining a comfortable padmasana (lotus pose) for meditation. There are a few key anatomical components and principles to finding this comfort. The foundation of the pose is the crossing of the legs and “sit bones” comfortably on the floor. With a firm foundation, we find an upward energy and lift in the spine, which eventually becomes effortless.
Sitting in padmasana
Finding your padmasana, much less a comfortable one is a difficulty for many people who practice yoga and meditation. It is difficult to quiet the mind when the knee, hips, back, or neck are uncomfortable. Why is it so difficult? What is it that we’re actually doing to our hips, knees, and back anyway? What can I do to prepare my body for practices that require this yoga posture?
All are questions we’ve asked our teachers or ourselves from time to time. You must understand that yoga (coming from India) practically assumes that one can do lotus. On my trips to India, I’ve observed young and old regularly sitting on the floor in lotus, half lotus, or squatting. This lends itself to knees and hips that are ready and available for being crossed fully. Yoga is from a different place. On the contrary, our chairs, desks, cars, and our “modern” culture discourage something as simple as sitting on the floor.
So, what to do? By understanding the basic function of a couple of joints you may be able to save yourself some pain in the leg as well as the back. We’ll hopefully get to do a more focused hip and knee article later on, but for the moment let’s look at some basics around these joints.
Working with the hip, knee, and ankle chain
There are three main joints in the leg, the ankle, knee, and hip. They function together and movement at one often requires movement at another. The knee is at the center of this interconnected chain and therefore regulates the function of the leg as a whole. If the hips or ankles are tight, the force that is created in the leg often finds its way to the knee, possibly leading to meniscus tears, or general pain and achiness. We can also use the functioning of the knee to help us focus and isolate the other joints, particularly the hip in lotus.
From dandasana bring your hands together in front of you with palms open and facing upward. Let your leg lift leg and place your foot/ankle into the palm of your hands. Lower your hands and move them forward if needed. Now, relax your hip joint and allow your knee to slowly lower. A very important action happens as you do this. That action is an outward or external rotation of your lower leg (shin/calf), which means your upper leg (thigh) has rotated outward as well. You may even need to exaggerate this action, if you feel a pinching on the inside or outside of your knee, by lifting your calf muscles out of the way as you flex (bend) your knee. Draw your heel towards your navel and take half lotus.
Modifying for pinching, pain, or pressure
In any lotus-type position, if you feel an excessive amount of pinching or pain simply lift your knee up toward the ceiling and you’ll often find the pain disappears. This is indicative of the force created by a tight hip joint being relieved.
- Developmental poses
- Baddha konasana
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Upward and onward
It may take some time to create a stable base for the spine to sit on in a lotus position. All seated poses rely on the “sit-bones” for foundation. These large bony areas are actually called the ischial tuberosities and are the inferior (lower) and posterior (back) parts of the pelvis. The pelvic bowl has a major influence on the spine above it as it is connected to the sacrum (via the sacroiliac joint), which is the base of the spine.
The pelvis is doing an anterior tilt when the pubic bone in the front heads down toward the floor. The pelvis is doing a posterior tilt when the pubic bone comes upward toward the ribs. If the hip joint and associated hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh are tight, when we sit on the floor our pelvis is pulled into a posterior tilt. If the hamstrings are looser then we find an anterior tilt or a neutral position coming more easily.
Finding a neutral pelvis
The tilts of the pelvis are also associated with the curve in our lower back (lumbar spine). An anterior tilt increases this curve in the lumbar spine and a posterior tilt reduces the curve in the lumbar spine. Over a long period of time, the removal of this curve can be detrimental to the integrity of the entire spine and particularly to those very important discs in the lumbar vertebrae which are the most common discs to dysfunction. Sitting in a car, office seat, or regular chair almost always removes the lumbar curve from our spine and is associated with a posterior tilt. Check yours now and see for yourself.
The effect of the loss of curve in the lumbar reduces the integrity and stamina of the muscles of the back and affects the spine above. If, in a seated position, your pelvis is free to tilt forward in an anterior tilt and the lumbar curve is present, then you’ll find a natural and comfortable energy that helps the rest of the spine above be comfortable for a longer sitting period. This is the reason for a small blanket or bolster under our sit-bones for meditation.
With the right preparation and some regularity of practice of the aforementioned “homework” poses you’ll find more openness in the joints of the leg, a comfortable lotus, and the ability to sit for much longer with more comfort for the ultimate yoga practice, meditation!