Thursday, December 13, 2012

Do you really need a meditation cushion to meditate?

Do you really need a cushion to meditate? 
Well...that depends on your posture.

Take a look at these pictures:

good meditation posture
Swami Sivananda, good meditation posture,
Now take a look at these ones:

Notice the difference in posture between the two sets of pictures.

Which one do you look like when you sit?

If you look at stock photos of meditation, photographs of models, not meditators, and compare them to photographs of experienced meditators, you will notice a difference. One look at the pictures of the models will show you the tell-tale knees sticking up in the air. This is a position that just cannot be sustained for long, and you just know they are going to get out of the position as soon as the camera clicks!  If you look at pictures of yogis and other experienced meditators, or even just people from cultures where sitting crosslegged is the norm (such as India), you will notice their knees are down, their legs are flat along the ground and they look more relaxed and comfortable.

But so what? Why is posture so important in meditation? It’s very simple. For most people, especially beginning meditators, “emptying” your mind, or keeping it focused is hard enough, given our propensity for “mind-chatter”, without physical discomfort intruding onto your consciousness and disrupting your meditation.

Most people are not flexible enough to be able to sit comfortably in the cross-legged or half-lotus position (let alone the lotus position!).  A common phenomenon in people who are not used to sitting crosslegged, such as most people in Western cultures who are more used to sitting in chairs, is that we have tight hip rotator muscles. Because our hips are not open enough, when we try to sit flat on the floor without a cushion, we sit with our knees sticking up in the air with all of the pressure concentrated on our tailbones. Ouch!

So we end up with an aching back, a sore butt, painful knees, tired legs that shake, feet that fall asleep, and overall fatigue that makes us sit in a slump, cutting off the free flow off our breath. No wonder so many people are antsy and restless while meditating, constantly shifting around trying to find a comfortable position, too distracted by their bodies to be able to focus.

And this is where the Cosmic Cushion comes in. The Cosmic Cushion is designed to help compensate for the tight hip rotator muscles commonly found in people with less flexibility and those who are more used to chair sitting. It is designed to help us reproduce the posture that comes natural to yogis and experienced meditators, and to eliminate the most common discomforts associated with sitting meditation. These particular design elements are the sloping wedge-shaped profile of the cushion, the thigh supports and the heel cradle.
Cosmic Cushion, best meditation cushion, meditate in comfort, good meditation posture, zafu, Zen,

The built-in slope tilts your pelvis forward and helps you settle into the natural S-curve of your spine at rest, allowing you to relax effortlessly into an upright position rather than strain to maintain it. This upright position lengthens the front of your torso and allows you to take deeper breaths more easily, triggering the relaxation response.

The sloped design also bring your knees down to the floor and allows your lower legs to lie flat along the floor, forming a stable base of support, and the thigh supports support your legs instead of letting them get tired, as they would if you sit with your knees up in the air.

The heel cradle allows you to bring your foot in close to your body which helps your knees go down to the ground, which in turn helps you sit in a stable position without your back getting tired and achey.

In short, the Cosmic Cushion enables you to sit much more comfortably than sitting on a regular cushion such as the commonly used zafu, the traditional Zen meditation cushion – a flat cushion without thigh supports that keeps your heels far away from your body – and a great deal more comfortably than sitting on no cushion at all. It enables you to sit like someone who has years of meditation behind them! And sitting in comfort means you are less distracted by your body so you can sit longer and go deeper into your meditation.

So do you really need to have a meditation cushion in order to meditate? No, of course not. What you need most of all, is the will to create a practice and stick to it. But a good meditation cushion like the Cosmic Cushion can help your practice immeasurably. It can make the difference between a shallow, distracted experience – or even a meditation practice that is embarked upon enthusiastically and then abandoned on account of discomfort – and a deep, profound and regular meditation practice.

So if the tool is available, why not use it? 

Try it out and let us know what you think!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, just because these two stock photos are especially priceless... 

uncomfortable medittation pose
funny meditation picture


Saturday, December 8, 2012

That's Why They Call It Practice
Life has it's little routines, some of them built in by choice, like that morning cup of tea, and some not so much, like paying the electric bill or letting the cat out. By doing things, the same things, over and over again, we usually get better at them. The tea doesn't steep too long and become bitter or cool off before we drink it. Remembering to sign the check and put a stamp on the envelope before dropping the payment into the slot at the post office. Letting the cat out before it deposits a hair ball on the kitchen floor. We need to pay attention, of course.

With meditation it's much the same. The path to stillness becomes more familiar the more often we use it.  Carving out a regular time in the day is often the best strategy to begin to make sitting meditation a part of your daily routine. Most likely that's going to be at the beginning of your day before the hustle bustle of the world sets in or in the late afternoon or early evening after the hurly burly has settled down and you may really need a way to unwind if it's been stressful or hectic. You might even consider bookending your day by meditating.

Any way you decide to do it, a conscious decision is best in order to seek out a time that's lends itself to the time apart needed to anchor your sitting practice. We all know the expression that says humans are creatures of habit. It's really very true. By letting this tendency work in our favor, we can encourage things like brushing our teeth, doing the dishes, writing to-do lists or going for a walk, to become habits. Almost anything can become a habit and become part of our routine, even if we don't do it daily.

Getting started is the hardest part. Now there's a piece of folk wisdom we should pay attention to. Can this really be true? Is simply sitting on a cushion with the intent to be mindfully present for a few minutes actually the most difficult task involved in establishing your meditation practice? There's only one way to know.

That's why they call it a practice. Ironically, is it not practice for the real thing, it is the real thing. And so is every other minute of every day. When you find yourself on your cushion once again, just smile and enjoy the ride.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Finding stability for sitting meditation Part 2: The evolution of a comfortable position: my personal journey

When I first started meditating I used a low bench I built. It was simple, portable and just high and wide enough that I could sneak my feet back under it and settle on its sloping top board. The angle of slope helped me hold my head and torso upright easily. I folded my hands in front of my waist. I don't think this bench was even padded, but it felt pretty good, at least for short periods. By spreading my knees some I formed a sort of triangle between my butt and knees. I was stable to a point, but not really. I needed to actively engage a few muscles to keep myself from falling to either side, forward and backward. It worked passably well given that I didn't have much to compare it with except sitting cross legged directly on the floor (which didn't really work well at all) or sitting in a chair which seemed too ordinary to serve the pursuit of a state of deep meditation and wasn't stable except when I slouched. So either I was fighting to stay erect seated directly on the floor or fighting to stay alert when slumped in a chair.

After several years and after the bench got left behind during a nomadic move, In my next home I decided I wanted to begin to sit cross legged, but on a cushion. I was ready to explore all the variations of seated postures I had read about in yoga and meditation articles.  Always fairly flexible and recently even more so due to regular yoga practice, I could experiment with half lotus, full lotus, Burmese posture with one foot tucked behind and one in front or both tucked behind sort of like sitting on your haunches while supported from below. 

In the end I adopted a simple posture with my left foot pulled in close to my torso and my right placed on the blanket out in front of the first. The knee of my left leg cooperated nicely by folding inward completely and coming to rest on the blanket I put under my cushion. My right knee, the one farther out, didn't have enough flexibility to settle do this and after a few minutes got sore from the subtle twist put on it.  I also noticed the unsupported knee gave rise to tension in my thigh as the muscles automatically became engaged holding it aloft. I began placing a rolled up towel under my knee to lift it just a hair above where it was when unsupported. The pain and distraction disappeared immediately. Supporting this knee at its level of comfort was truly necessary if finding stability and lasting comfort was ever going to be an option.

Things evolve no matter what. So in another few years down the road I am now sitting on a lower cushion I made for myself.  I now draw my left foot in snug to my torso and then lift my right foot up and gently place it on top of my left.  The heel of the top foot nestles nicely into the upturned arch of the lower one. So simple.... and so stable!  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Finding stability for sitting meditation: Part 1

We all want to find a way to be stable and comfortable while we sit in meditation, just like we do when we sit at our desk or when we watch an athletic event or sit on the grass at an open-air concert. In sitting meditation it is especially important to find that place of dynamic stillness when we meditate. In stillness, movement… in movement, stillness.

What does it feel like to be very relaxed and very stable? How do we bring it about on a repeatable basis so we can go there almost at will and not take forever in the process? 

First attend to the external factors.  Are we warm enough? Are the clothes we're wearing loose, comfortable and not restricting us in any way? Have we opened up this small block of time free of interruption (did I put the cat out?). Are we hungry or thirsty? What other things might get in the way for you? Take a moment to notice what they are. Make a note to come back to them after meditating. Often really important tasks and deadlines I have forgotten about will pop into my head as soon as I quiet down. After all of these external factors have been taken care of, you can turn your focus to your posture and balance.

The saints and sages sought to effectively exit their bodies and go into the realm of consciousness so completely that the physical self was left behind to care for itself in many ways. The postures they adopted rely heavily on triangles for the stability they needed. Sitting cross-legged creates several triangles that connect to form a tetrahedron.

This is easy to see if you sit with your hands resting on your knees. Lateral triangles magically appear from the shoulders down the arms to the knees and back along the thighs to the upright torso, when you do this. Any tendency to collapse to the side is arrested, as is falling forward.  If you sit towards the front edge of a cushion with one foot drawn in close to your body and the other placed on top of it or in front, then your knees and calves are touching the floor and forming a stable base.  

Your head and torso are in now an effortless neutral. Leaning very slightly forward before lengthening upward is one way to find this.  Let your breathing take you there. When your breath is free to flow fully in and out as your chest and torso rise and fall with each cycle. You have taken your seat... so simple.

In the end all this is about supporting the breath. Finding dynamic stillness where we inhabit our physical body so it that it seems to disappear and become a minimal focus. Then we are free to open to primary awareness and explore other fields of consciousness. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There goes that knee again...

There goes that knee again...
It seems to come out of nowhere. I wake up and my right knee is complaining loudly and feels loose and sloppy in the joint as if it's twisting out of its range and really doesn't like it. Even the weight of the blankets seem to intensify the pain. Eventually, after trying several sleep position, I find one that seems to cause the least distress, hoping when I wake in the morning, my knee is not tangled in the covers and crying "ouch" again.

I had just returned from spending three days and nights at a nature camp my 11 year old son attended in the woods of New Hampshire. I thought it might be fun to tag along and act like a kid again for a couple of days. Sleeping on a mat that's too thin for real comfort and too narrow to make turning over easy did leave it's mark. We spent the days hiking, scaling fallen tree trunks, fording slippery-rocked creeks in our bare feet and huddling around smoky campfires listening to the owls hoot in the darkness before calling it a day and sliding into our sleeping bags.

I felt great after the brief time away. On my first morning back I sat longer than normal in spite of sore muscles in my legs and bruises on my shins. It was so nice to just sit there in peace. I have no idea how long I sat. It wasn't until the wee hours when I woke to the pain in my knee that I knew I had overdone it. That familiar ebbing and flowing tenderness that makes even thinking about moving my knee difficult. As in, which way is out of harm's way, when no position makes the pain go totally away but only lessens it.

Even before I attempted to actually stand on my right leg, I massaged the muscles and tendons above my knee, the joint itself and then on down to my calf, ankle and foot. As soon as I think it's possible I do a gentle stretch of the front of my quads and the back of my calf. Finally, I give myself the reminder to take it easy for a day or two and to check for any swelling to go down.

If all goes well, my knee will be back to its old self. I'll soon forget about it. I am left no worse for the wear, humbled by the responsibility to pay heed to this faithful friend on the journey,  honor its limits and respond promptly with wholehearted attention when I overdo it and ...... there goes that knee again.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Getting the right Meditation Cushion - a journey worth taking

Like many things to do with the bodymind, there are variables to consider and some adaptation to circumstance that is necessary to achieve balance - if only for now.

Help your muscles recover

During the night our muscles recover from the day's use by ridding themselves of wastes, doing repair to damaged fibers, and replenishing stores of the nutrients and electrolytes that make future contractions possible. In the process, muscles shorten and our joints tighten up by morning. Gentle stretching, especially of the backs of the legs and the large postural muscles surrounding the hip sockets, helps us to take a comfortable seat without putting undue stress on the joints. Even after taking a seat, you might notice there is tightness along the tops of a thigh, or just where the knee meets the thigh muscles. Take a second to rub the area a little to focus a little stretch right into the part of the soft tissue that is complaining, then go back to your focus.

Watch the flow of breath

Check to see if you are cutting off the the flow of breath by slumping forward ever so slightly just below the ribs. Your diaphragm needs to be as free as possible to move up and down with the breath. If you find that you are, or just to run a comparison check, roll your shoulders up, back and towards each other slightly. Float up from the crown of your head as if drawn skyward by a strong thread. Breathe in deeply as you do, and on exhaling allow your spine to remain to retain some of this lengthening. Scan for tension and subtle straining - there is no need to strive for perfection, just take today's best seat in the house. The right cushion can work wonders for you here. Keep feeling your way into it.

Be aware of injuries and individual structure

You may have injuries or structural asymmetry - often this will be evident as one hip being higher that the other. These are very specific from person to person. I have a background in massage therapy, and talking to folks who call Sun and Moon Originals about getting a cushion has helped me gain experience in this area.

What's your experience? What works best for you?

Monday, June 18, 2012