When I was in India in 1988 studying yoga and meditation, I took an intensive meditation course one weekend. We had little squares to sit in on the floor – maybe 2 feet by 2 feet. It was hard to stay in the little square all day without squirming. I got more and more uncomfortable, and my back started hurting. The pain radiated out to more and more parts of my body, until my entire body ached intensely. At that point, all I could do was sit there and cry. I had no idea what to do to get comfortable.
Whether you are a regular meditator or someone who sits on the floor only when you have to, sitting without a chair can pose problems for most people. While this may come naturally to people in some cultures who grow up sitting on the floor, many Americans experience pain and discomfort if they sit without a chair for too long.
Why is it so uncomfortable?
One reason is that in the US, almost everyone has grown up with the typical American posture, which is out of alignment with gravity. That usually leads to a tightening of the hamstring muscles (on the back of your thighs). If you don’t do any stretching, the hamstrings get even tighter. Then when you try to sit on the floor, tight muscles in your legs and hips, as well as your postural habits, lead you to feel squirmy and fatigued, or in pain.
Why Is This Important?
When you are sitting on the floor (or on any surface without back support, such as a bench, bleachers, etc.), most people try to “sit up straight” and tighten their back muscles in the process. Then as they get tired, they end up collapsing and sitting like a “cashew”. This is a dangerous position for the spine, because it compresses the intervertebral discs, as well as the internal organs. It crimps the arteries in your neck which bring blood and oxygen to your brain. This makes you tired. Sitting this way often leads to postural changes which can be difficult to reverse, as you get shorter and curvier.
How to Sit Comfortably
The best way to start is to learn how to sit comfortably in a chair, leaning against the back of it. You can find instructions for this in my blog post entitled “10 Tips for Pain-Free Sitting” (www.sonomabodybalance.com/blog/2009/12/). The next step is to learn how to sit forward on a chair, without back support. I teach this in my Balance Your Body courses. Then you can learn some stretches for your hamstrings and hips to open up those areas in preparation for sitting on the floor.
One other helpful tip is to use a pillow or some other support to sit on when you’re on the floor. There are various options sold for meditators that can be helpful, such as benches or zafu cushions. Try to sit so that your knees are not way higher than your hips, if you’re sitting cross-legged.
If your back is already hurting, or you’re afraid it might, don’t be afraid to get a chair. In many meditation groups, this is completely acceptable. If you’re at an event, grab a pillow or some other prop to help yourself sit a bit up off the floor.
If you are a regular meditator, you might have practiced just “being” with the pain. While that can be an interesting focus, I prefer not to meditate on my pain unless I have to! If you learn to sit more comfortably, your mind will be free to focus on or be aware of other things besides pain. This could open up a whole new world for you.
So the next time you are meditating or sitting on the floor, try sitting on a prop and see if your back feels more comfortable. Of course, there’s a lot more to this than I can go over in this article, so I’d suggest also reviewing the blog post I mentioned above on pain-free sitting. I’m wishing you peace and comfort in this New Year!
If you’d like some instruction in how to sit on the floor without pain, come to my upcoming workshop on Friday, January 28 – “How to Sit for Meditation Pain-Free”. For more details, visit www.sonomabodybalance.com/html/workshops.html.
©2011 Dana K. Davis