Learning to find a “good seat” for meditation may take some time and experimentation. Whether you sit in a chair or in the (increasingly rare) full lotus position, three basic principles to bear in mind are:

  • Stability
  • Alignment
  • Relaxation

Stability. In order to settle the mind, it’s important to settle the body. If your body is balanced with a low center of gravity, the natural result is stillness. In a chair, stability means sitting up straight, perhaps on the edge of the chair, and making sure your feet are both flat on the floor or a cushion, if you have shorter legs. On a sitting cushion, stability means aiming for a tripod effect, with your pelvic “sit bones” and your two knees forming the three points of contact.

Alignment. Sitting up straight, with the head and shoulders aligned properly with the pelvis, is especially difficult for those of us who are habitually hunched over tablets and phones. The best way to make sure you are sitting in good alignment is to ask one of the zendo monitors to check your posture, either before or during a sitting. (And don’t be surprised if a monitor, unasked, adjusts your posture during a sitting.)

Relaxation. Most Zen students are initially somewhat tense while sitting. The unusual posture, unfamiliar surroundings and rituals, the presence of other sitters, physical pain, and most of all, tormenting thoughts, can all contribute to tension. When you notice that you are tensing up, you can get relief quickly by relaxing into the pain, exhaling and moving your attention down into your hara (a few inches below your navel). Pushing pain away only makes it worse: resistance breeds more tension, not less.

A special note about your eyes: in Zen meditation, the eyes are kept open. Allowing the light in helps promote alertness, and also makes your sitting meditation more like your everyday life. Once you’re in a comfortable seated posture, lower your gaze, look at the floor four or five feet in front of you, and then let your eyes go slightly out of focus so they are relaxed.

 

Zazen Postures

These descriptions were written by the Center’s late founder, Roshi Philip Kapleau, in his classic, The Three Pillars of Zen, which, in 1965, was the first book to explain Zen meditation to a Western audience. Contemporary comments are added in italics. Illustrations by Richard Wehrman.

 

Illustration of man in full lotusFig. 1. Full-lotus posture, with right foot over left thigh and left foot over right thigh, both knees touching mat. Knees should be in line with one another, the abdomen relaxed and slightly protruded. Hands rest on the heels of both feet, with thumbs touching lightly to make an oval This posture may be reversed when the left foot gets tired.

Note how the arms and the legs all come together, centering the body in the abdomen.

Illustration of man meditating in full lotus, side viewFig. 2. Full lotus posture, side view, showing ears in line with shoulders, and top of nose in line with navel. The chin should be slightly drawn in. The buttocks are thrust out, with the spine erect. A single low cushion is preferable in this posture.

The round cushion shown, called a zafu in Japan, is stuffed with kapok or another firm filling. The floor is covered with a mat, which cushions the knees. A folded blanket or yoga mat could be used for the same purpose.

Illustration of man meditating in half lotusFig. 3. The half-lotus posture, with left foot over right thigh and right foot under left thigh, both knees touching mat. To facilitate the knees resting on the mat it may be necessary to use a support cushion under the regular round one.

This posture may be reversed, with the right foot on top, when the left knee or ankle gets tired.

Illustration of man meditating in quarter lotusFig. 4. The quarter-lotus, with the left foot resting over the calf of the right, both knees resting on the mat.

This posture may be reversed, with the right foot on top, when the left knee or ankle gets tired.

Illustration of man meditating in Burmese postureFig. 5. The so-called Burmese posture, with the legs uncrossed, the left or right foot in front and both knees touching mat. Here, too, a higher sitting base may be necessary so that both knees rest squarely on the mat.

Illustration of man meditating in Japanese postureFig. 6. Side view of the traditional Japanese sitting posture with knees in line with one another on the mat and straddling a husk cushion inserted between the heels and buttocks to relieve pressure on heels. The hands may rest on the front of the husk cushion. For extra height, the husk cushion may be placed on top of a round cushion.

Another option for the Japanese position is to use a round cushion, either flat or on its edge.

Illustration of woman meditating in a chairFig. 7. Side view of zazen in a straight-back chair, with cushion under buttocks and the feet resting firmly on the floor the width of the shoulders apart.

Note that the sitter maintains an upright posture and does not lean back in the chair. People with shorter legs may wish to have a yoga block or firm cushion under their feet.

 

Breath Meditation

Most Zen practitioners begin with a breath-counting practice. Once you are stable and relaxed in your sitting posture, your eyes are lowered, and you can feel your center of gravity sinking into your abdomen, begin the count. Count “one” on your inhalation, “two” on your exhalation, “three” on your inhalation, and so forth up to the count of ten. At that point, begin again at “one.”

If your thoughts multiply and you lose count, take heart: you are human. Simply let go of the thoughts and begin again at “one.” If you find yourself counting “fifteen”…”sixteen”…simply return to “one.” Don’t get derailed by beating yourself up or evaluating your practice in any way. In fact, the very act of bringing yourself back to the count is at the heart of Zen. By doing this over and over, you are building up your “mind muscle” – the habit of returning to the present moment – which will enrich your life immeasurably.

 

When to do Zazen

The most fruitful time for people to sit is usually in the morning. You probably have more energy at that time of day, and sitting helps set the tone for your entire day. However, the best answer to this question is “every day.” Whenever you can make it work, depending on your schedule, is the right time to sit. Even if you can only spare five minutes a day, it is more important to be consistent on a day-to-day basis than to sit for hours at a time but only sporadically. In this way, zazen becomes not just a “special practice” but an integral part of your day-to-day life.

 

Stretches for Zazen

Because of habits of bad posture, sitting in zazen, especially for longer periods of time,  can be difficult in the beginning.  A program of yoga or stretching that helps open the hips and builds core strength will make a big difference.  Click the link for pictures of the 12 stretches described below.

Stretches for sitting

1 – Place a chair with its back against the wall, so that it won’t move. Place a hand on either side of the front edge of the seat. Keeping the arms straight, walk back with the feet, until you begin to feel a good stretch in the back of the legs. Have the feet parallel. If possible, keep  the legs straight. Distributing your weight between the hands and feet, lengthen the torso so that buttocks move away from hands. Lift up with buttocks and ground the heels. Front of the rib cage lifts toward the seat. Crown of head lengthens toward the chair. Be aware of the breathing, keeping it free from belly to neck.

2 – Sit on the front of a chair.  This helps put most of the weight on the two “sit bones” so the spine doesn’t become rounded. Sit tall and adjust the spine by leaning the trunk forward, lengthening through the crown of the head. Stay tall as you come back to the erect position. Take the right leg and place it across the left thigh. Take ankle and heel with the left hand, and put the right hand over the knee. Lift the bent leg and gently rock it to right and left, releasing in the hip jo Keep the trunk erect and breath flowing freely. If this becomes easy, place the right foot into the crook of the left elbow, and rock from that position. Repeat  the same with the left leg.

3 – Sit on the front of a chair. Lengthen through the crown of the head. Tip forward, rolling forward on the sit bones, then come back to an erect position. Ground the feet and have them parallel. Now bending the right knee upward, place a belt under the sole of the right foot. Holding the belt with two hands, slowly begin to straighten the right leg forward, while maintaining a tall spine and even breathing. Keep both buttocks grounded, without tipping to right or left. You’ll feel a stretch behind the right leg. Eventually, the leg becomes straight. If comfortable, shorten the length of belt. Then the leg will have to be raised higher. Keep the shoulders back, and the spine long, not rounded. If this is easy, you can raise the foot higher. Hold this pose for a few breaths, while comfortable, up to a minute or so. Do the same exercise for the left leg.

4 – Lie down on your back, on a nonskid mat (such as a yoga mat). Bend the knees and place feet near the buttocks. Raise the right leg off the ground and place its ankle on the left thigh.  Gently rock the legs side to side. If this is easy,  keep the right ankle where it is while raising the left leg off the ground, and grasp behind the left knee with both hands. (The right hand will be threading its way between left and right thighs.) Contact of your right elbow with right thigh helps to gently stretch the groin. Go slowly and carefully, ensuring that abdominal breathing is not restricted. Do this for about 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

5 – Lie on your back, on a non-skid surface. Bend both legs, so feet are near buttocks, about hip-width apart. Be sure feet are parallel rather than with toes pointing out. Have the arms at the sides, palms facing down, elbows straight. Gently pushing feet into the ground, raise the tailbone off the ground and then raise the spine off the ground, from the lowest vertebra on up to the shoulder area.  When you reach the area under the shoulder blades, think of raising the chest to the ceiling, as though someone had placed a belt behind you and pulled upward. Shoulders are firmly grounded. Similarly lift the pelvis toward the ceiling. Hold for several seconds without letting the knees spread apart. Keep the neck relaxed and the breath even. Exhaling, gently lower the spine back to the floor

6 – Lie on the back, on a non-skid surface. Bend the knees, so that feet are near the buttocks. Stretch the arms out to the sides with the palms facing up.  Exhaling, let the knees drop to the right, releasing in the left shoulder blade. As much as you can, keep left shoulder near the floor. Breath evenly for several breaths, then with an exhalation, draw the knees back up to center. Repeat this exercise, dropping knees to the left.

7 – Come onto all fours, with a pad protecting the knees. Knees are under the hips; hands are just ahead of shoulders. Exhaling, let the spine round upward in a C-curve, while head drops and tailbone drops. Inhaling, the spine curves downward as the tailbone lifts up and the belly opens and chest expands. Continue exhaling and inhaling, curving the spine up and down, at your own rate, for a minute or two.

8 – Sit tall on the floor, with legs stretched in front of you. Bend the knees out to the side and bring the soles of the feet together. Reaching between the legs, grasp the ankles and tip forward with the trunk, keeping the breath even. Do not strain. Maintain for about 30 seconds, and tip back up with an inhalation.

9 – Sit sideways on a chair, with the chair’s back to your right. (Chair seats are often sloped downward, so you may have to put a blanket at the rear of the seat, to even it out.) Take the right arm back, and grasp the back of the chair. Take the left arm forward and grasp the other side of the chair’s back. Sit tall. Exhaling, begin turning your trunk to the right as much as is comfortable, with gentle assistance from the arms. Hold for a few breaths and then with an exhalation release the twist. Pause and take a breath. Then turn around in the chair so that its back is near the left side of your body, and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.

10 – Sit near the front of a chair. Have the legs separated a foot or so, and the feet firmly grounded. Roll forward on the sit bones and lengthen through the crown of the head. Place hands on the knees, and with an exhalation tip forward, while lengthening throughout the spine. Using hands for support as needed, let the trunk tip until it reaches the thighs. Hold for a few breaths. If this is comfortable, place hands on the floor, in between the legs, and let the body tip forward until the head can hang down. Hold this position for a few breaths. Inhaling, come up slowly, using hands for support, as needed. Pause, and take a few breaths, afterward.

11 – Come onto all fours on a non-skid surface, with a pad protecting the knees. Knees are under the hips; hands are just ahead of shoulders. Walk both hands forward a foot or so. Keep them there, and keep the arms straight as you lower the forehead toward the floor. The buttocks remain elevated, and the chest is stretched. Breathe deeply in this final position. Then inhale, push the hands into the ground,  and lift the trunk up. Walk the hands back to you. Take a few breaths before coming out of this position

12 – Relaxation posture. Lie on the floor, near a bed or a chair. Swing the legs up onto the bed (or chair), so that hips are at right angles to the trunk and lower legs are supported by the bed. Have a small cushion or rolled towel under the head. The arms are out at the sides, palms up. If this is uncomfortable, rest the hands on the belly. Dig the heels into the bed (chair) to raise the tailbone. Then gently lower it. Let the buttocks, back, shoulders and head sink into the ground, and focus on the breath. Stay here 5 or 10 minutes. Then bend the legs one at a time, and bring them down, turning over to the right side. Rest on the side for a few breaths, and sit up very slowly.