“Contemplation, especially the contemplation of inspiring concepts or ideals—such as truth, peace, and love—can be very helpful, although it is distinct and different than the process of meditation. In contemplation, you engage your mind in inquiry into this concept, and ask it to consider the meaning and value of the concept. In the system of meditation, contemplation is considered a separate practice, although one that also may be very useful at some times. When you engage in meditation, you do not ask the mind to think about or contemplate on any concept, but rather, to go beyond this level of mental activity.”
— Swami Rama, in Meditation and Its Practice, p. 11.
Relaxation in yoga means lying down, most commonly in the corpse posture, and it means settling yourself in a circle of quiet, emptying the mind of all outside concerns, and relaxing from head to toe. Meditation is a stage beyond. It means sitting straight, most commonly in one of several classic meditative postures, and it means schooling your psyche and quickening your existence in consciousness. Relaxation is a concentration exercise for the body-mind; meditation is an experience for the mind-body. Both complement the rejuvenating effects of hatha yoga—relaxation because it releases deep tensions, and meditation because it pulls the mind inward and introduces it to higher states of yoga. We’ll look at relaxation first because meditation cannot begin without a relaxed body.
Relaxation takes us beyond simply letting go of tension in skeletal muscles. It is a multifaceted process involving conscious control of the somatic nervous system and its innervation of skeletal muscle (chapters 1 and 2), regulation of the autonomic nervous system and its control over smooth and cardiac muscle (chapters 2 and 10), and the reining in of emotion and mental activity. The plan of this chapter is to look at how skeletal muscles relax and to examine the postures that are best suited for this. Next we’ll turn to the role of the autonomic nervous system in relaxation, and then we’ll look at advanced relaxation practices whose physiological correlates are unknown. Finally, we’ll consider the six meditative postures, leaving discussion of meditation itself to the experts in that field and to the many texts that delve into that topic.
After beginning students have experimented for a while with relaxation, meditation, and other hatha yoga practices, certain principles become axiomatic. The first is that relaxation and meditation usually work better after a session of hatha yoga postures than before. Done first or by themselves these practices can intensify tendencies to lethargy and sleepiness, and many people can avoid dozing off only by priming their nervous systems with postures. Experienced students in good physical and mental condition are exceptions: if they are clear, calm, and alert even after a sound sleep, their teachers often advise them do their meditation immediately upon waking.
Experience also makes it apparent that even though relaxation and meditation go beautifully after hatha yoga, they do not work as well after a lengthy practice of aerobic exercise or heavy musculoskeletal workouts. Hatha yoga postures pull the mind inward, and physical exercises tend to scatter it. So if you are an enthusiast for sports or conventional exercises, try to do them at a different time of day from the practices of yoga. If you can’t do that, if your schedule requires you to do everything in a sequence, do the conventional exercises first, follow these with hatha yoga, and end with relaxation and meditation.
The third axiom is more subtle. Unless you are compulsive, you can’t overdo conventional exercises, hatha postures, or meditation. They are all self-limiting for one reason or another—aerobic exercise and musculoskeletal workouts because you know you’ll get sore, hatha postures because they self-regulate from beginning to end, and meditation because you’ll be uncomfortable if you sit too long. None of this is true of yogic relaxation. If you do too much of that practice the motor neurons seem to lose their edge: they get lazy. And as that condition develops you can lose your capacity for controlling them. Even worse, you do not get immediate feedback that this is happening. For this reason most of us would do better to practice relaxation only once or twice a day for no more than twenty minutes per session.
We’ll begin our discussion of relaxation with skeletal muscles for two reasons: they are linked directly to the somatic nervous system, whose neurological circuitry has been widely studied and is relatively simple (chapters 1 and 2), and because skeletal muscles can usually be brought under conscious control. In chapter 1 we saw that the dendrites and cell bodies of the somatic motor neurons are located in the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain), that the axons of motor neurons exit the central nervous system and travel in peripheral nerves, and that the axon terminals of motor neurons stimulate contraction of the muscle cells. The more nerve impulses per second that travel down the axon, the more vigorous the contraction of the muscle; the fewer nerve impulses per second, the weaker the contraction. We also saw in chapter 1 that skeletal muscles execute our speech, respiration, and every willful and habitual movement of the body, and that the commands of motor neurons (figs. 1.3–9 and 2.12) are an absolute dictatorship: they control skeletal muscles just as a puppeteer controls puppets. When the axons of motor neurons transmit nerve impulses, the muscle fibers on which they impinge contract, and when the axons don’t transmit nerve impulses, the muscle fibers relax. You might think that muscular relaxation involves some complex planned activity, but that is not the case. All you have to do is silence the motor neurons. What we want to know here is how to do this consciously.
THE MOTOR UNIT
The functional entity for both relaxation and muscular activity is the motor unit, which is defined as a single motor neuron plus all the individual muscle fibers it innervates (fig. 10.1). The fewer the muscle fibers in the motor unit, the more finely we can control the muscle. The fact that the smallest muscles of the fingers contain only 10–15 muscle fibers in each of their motor units is what allows us to perform precise and delicate work with our fingers. As motor units become larger, ranging up to 500–1000 muscle fibers in the individual motor units of the largest postural muscles, our capability for fine movement diminishes. This is the reason for establishing distal-to-proximal priorities in standing postures (chapter 4). If you first establish control distally, it is possible to keep awareness of the small muscles in the background while you attend more consciously to the bulkier and less easily controlled proximal muscles.
The motor unit, in short, is the sole link between the central nervous system and skeletal muscular activity. Every time a nerve impulse reaches an axon terminal, all the muscle fibers in the motor unit contract. And when many motor units in an individual muscle contract repetitively and in concert, the entire muscle becomes active. What is important to us here is that relaxation requires us to silence the individual motor units one or more at a time. And this is indeed possible. Studies with electromyography carried out with needle electrodes have demonstrated since the 1950s that we can train motor units in most parts of the body to become totally silent.
Although motor neurons exert absolute control over muscles, they themselves are only agents of the body and mind as a whole. They are prisoners of our habits, addictions, and the willful decisions of the mind; they are prisoners of our hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch; and they are prisoners of internal signals from stretched muscles, pain, or an overloaded stomach. Data from all of these sources are integrated and funneled into the final common pathway of the motor neurons.
FACILITATION, INHIBITION, AND RELAXATION
The key issue for someone trying to relax their skeletal muscles is to know something—knowledge is indeed power—about the specific form of the marching orders that regulate the rate of firing of motor neurons. These orders take the form of signals from thousands of other neurons whose cell bodies are located throughout the nervous system (mostly in the brain and spinal cord) and whose axon terminals impinge on motor neuronal dendrites and cell bodies that are specialized for receiving this information. Some axon terminals signal the motor neuron to increase its number of nerve impulses per second (facilitation), and other axon terminals signal it to decrease them (inhibition). It is in this manner that orders to the motor neurons are translated into simple stop and go inputs. The motor neuron integrates the sum of these often conflicting signals to increase or decrease the firing rate of its axon, and in that way it dictates contraction or relaxation of the individual muscle fibers of the motor unit (fig. 10.1). To relax we can conceive of decreasing the firing rate of motor neurons in three ways: by decreasing the rate of firing of the facilitatory neurons whose axons impinge on the motor neurons, by increasing the rate of firing of the inhibitory neurons, or by both in combination. Speaking simplistically, that’s what is happening every time you do not respond to some desire or sensory signal.
What we see recorded in our movements is the summed activity of motor units, but something more subtle happens in the central nervous system during deep relaxation: the motor neuron cell bodies in the brain and spinal cord become so inhibited that a large facilitatory input is required to fire them back into activity. This can have an unexpected result: if you are in deep relaxation you may not be able to move on command. The telephone may ring, and when you try to jump up and answer it—surprise. You can’t do it. You may experience several seconds of temporary paralysis, which can be startling and even alarming. With practice, however, you can learn to speed the process of facilitation and gear the system up for activity in less than a second. You can feel it happening. First you can’t move, a half-second later you feel the nervous system preparing itself, and a half-second after that you can spring up like a grasshopper. This should never be done as a classroom exercise, of course, because it is too jarring. It’s a physiological experiment, not a yoga practice.
Figure 10.1. Two possible pathways for relaxation of skeletal muscles are shown here. In the cerebral cortex, if the activity of a facilitatory upper motor neuron is diminished, it will send fewer nerve impulses per second to spinal cord lower motor neurons (which in their turn drive the contraction of skeletal muscles). Conscious relaxation might also involve a pathway for stimulation of inhibitory pathways, as exemplified here by an inhibitory neuron in the brain stem. If such a neuron starts firing more nerve impulses per second than usual to the lower motor neuron, it could help silence the motor neuron independently of the reduced input from the facilitatory neuron in the cerebral cortex. In the spinal cord, the + indicates the corticospinal neuron’s facilitatory synaptic effects, and the - indicates the brain stem inhibitory neuron’s inhibitory synaptic effects (Dodd).
The temporary paralysis induced by deep muscular relaxation underscores and documents the need for honoring the third axiom—not to overdo relaxation. It is tempting to be excessive, relaxing before and after meditation, before and after meals, and before and after a night’s sleep, but doing this without the balancing effect of other hatha practices diminishes your conscious control over the motor neurons. So get a good night’s sleep, go to the bathroom, take a shower, and practice asanas enthusiastically for an hour. Then relax thoroughly while you are still full of energy.
Not everyone can will their muscles to relax. What goes wrong? We can only make inferences. If the circuits from the cerebral cortex are intact (fig. 10.1), the potential for willed relaxation as well as willed movement is available, but if those higher circuits are not used regularly, they gradually become dysfunctional and the unconscious input from other regions of the brain gets bossier. And because these non-cortical circuits are not under conscious control, their continuing activity prevents conscious relaxation. More encouraging, as long as the circuits from the cerebral cortex are intact, hatha yoga can help train them.
DISTAL AND PROXIMAL MUSCLES
As we have seen, the control of movement becomes more precise as the motor units become smaller in the more distal muscles in the extremities. Your ability to relax is affected in the same way and for the same reason. It is easy for almost everyone to relax the muscles of their hands, but shoulders and backs are another story. Relaxing larger and more proximal muscles of the body may require some additional help. A regular practice of hatha is the most certain tactic—stretching, contracting, and relaxing the deeper muscles of the body over and over again until the motor neurons get accustomed to obeying your conscious will and becoming silent on command. Another useful trick is the tension-relaxation sequence to be discussed in the next section. As a last resort, those who have chronic muscular stress in the deep postural muscles of the body can try biofeedback with electromyography. In such conditioning, electrodes are placed near hard-to-train muscles that operate just beyond the edge of your conscious awareness; you learn to relax and gain control of them by gaining control of their motor units.
TWO RELAXATION POSTURES
There is one classic relaxation posture in hatha yoga for the supine position, the corpse posture, which was discussed briefly in chapter 1 (fig. 1.14), and one for the prone position, the crocodile, two versions of which were discussed extensively in chapter 2 (figs. 2.23–24). We’ll begin here with the corpse because it is the most common and because it permits the most complete relaxation.
THE CORPSE POSTURE
The corpse posture can both precede and follow a session of hatha yoga postures. At the beginning it calms the body and focuses the mind in preparation for the postures to follow; at the end it relaxes you from head to toe and integrates that experience into your conscious and unconscious awareness.
Lie supine on a padded but relatively firm surface, one that allows the spine to flatten slightly against the floor but still provides some support for the lumbar and cervical region (fig. 10.2). The surface should be flat. If you are on a surface that slants, lie with the head down. Otherwise, in the deep relaxation that minimizes or even eliminates most skeletal muscular activity, blood will pool in the lower half of the body, possibly diminishing venous return enough to jeopardize the blood supply to the brain and other vital organs.
A soft pillow to support the head and neck may be helpful. The arms and thighs should be comfortably abducted, leaving the feet spread apart and the hands swung 12–18 inches away from the thighs with the forearms supinated (palms facing up). The upper and lower extremities will keep the entire body in a state of mild tension if they are kept adducted, and pronating the forearms by facing the palms of the hands to the floor creates a closed-off feeling that is also counterproductive to relaxation.
Stretch the body out before settling down. Thrust the hips down from the shoulders, the hands down from the shoulders, the heels down from the hips, and lift the head away from the body, stretching the neck. Then adjust this way and that without losing too much of the stretched-out feeling. You should start in a slightly elongated position because when the muscles of the extremities and torso relax, they lengthen, and if you relax without first doing such stretching you may end up crowded in a foreshortened position and feel crimped at the end of the exercise.
Figure 10.2. The corpse pose is the most famous relaxation posture in hatha yoga. Ideally, muscular activity is greatly diminished, if not eliminated, in skeletal muscles throughout the body, the most notable exception being the respiratory diaphragm, which is required for breathing.
Now let go. Just relax and breathe abdominally. Notice that the abdomen rises with each inhalation and falls with each exhalation. You can check this by temporarily placing one hand on the abdomen and the other hand on the chest, and then inhaling and exhaling in such as way that the chest does not move. As you become more relaxed, your rate of breathing will slow down.
After getting settled, don’t move again until you are ready to break the relaxation. If you feel a need to move you’ll know you didn’t get positioned ideally in the first place. You should hold the posture no more than 3–5 minutes at first, and then gradually build up your time. The longer you hold the pose, at least within your personal limits, the quieter the motor neurons become. Finally, when you are ready to come out of the relaxation, bring the arms overhead and stretch from the tips of the fingers to the tips of the toes. Or you can first wiggle the fingers and toes, slowly recruit the proximal muscles of the extremities and the deep muscles of the torso, roll over to one side, and sit up slowly.
To avoid fainting or dizziness, those who have low blood pressure may need to turn onto their left sides before sitting up; if they rise suddenly, their venous return and cardiac output may not be sufficient to supply the brain. Turning onto the left side before sitting up will momentarily increase blood flow from the vena cava (situated on the right side of the heart) into the right atrium and tend to keep cardiac output high enough to prevent fainting.
What exactly do you do to quiet the activity of the motor neurons? Most important are two things you don’t do. The first is don’t move. Even the thought of movement or of responding to some sensory stimulus results in neuronal activity which cascades throughout the nervous system, stimulates the motor neurons enough to activate at least a few motor units, and sabotages relaxation.
The second thing you should not do is sleep. Learning not to sleep during relaxations is just as important as not moving, because if you lose consciousness and doze off, motor neurons throughout the nervous system become active. If falling asleep during relaxation exercises is a persistent problem for you even though you are rested and have done hatha postures before you try to relax, you may be able to prevent this by holding the root lock mildly or by simply moving move your feet closer together, which will accomplish the same end. Or you can bring the upper extremities closer to the body. It is true that these measures create a small amount of tension, but this is usually manageable and does not interfere with relaxation nearly as much as losing consciousness. Finally and simplest of all, you can adjust your breathing to keep you awake, either by breathing faster or by breathing diaphragmatically. It is difficult to fall asleep if you are breathing on a 1- or 2-second cycle of inhalation and exhalation. We’ll examine the consequences of diaphragmatic breathing on relaxation in the corpse posture later.
Be prepared for one other potential problem. If you do not have a sense of calm and clarity when you lie down to relax, but instead feel as if you might jump out of your skin, you may be experiencing “relaxation-induced anxiety.” If you are not accustomed to relaxing your skeletal muscles, any number of mental, psychological, and spiritual concerns may arise during the course of the practice, and if you are unable to come to terms with them, you may be uneasy in the exercise and find some excuse not to continue. A course of hatha yoga postures before you lie down is the most helpful remedy because it produces pleasant mental states and reintegrates body, mind, and spirit. If that doesn’t help, don’t lie there and suffer. Get up and get moving. This is not for you, at least not yet.
SUPINE TENSION-RELAXATION EXERCISES
If you consistently have trouble relaxing, one of the best remedies is an isometric tension-relaxation exercise. Lying in the supine corpse posture, try a sequence of tensing and then relaxing both upper extremities, both lower extremities, the right upper and right lower, the left upper and left lower, the right upper and left lower, the left upper and right lower. Finally, create whole-body tension; then relax.
These exercises not only train the motor units to respond to your will, they also place tension on the Golgi tendon organs in the tendons connected to the muscles being tensed. Stimulation of those receptors reflexly relaxes the muscles involved. Students can safely be encouraged to go to extremes in this exercise: the more vigorously they hold tension, the more the Golgi tendon receptors will stimulate relaxation in the affected muscles.
COMING OUT OF RELAXATION IN SLOW MOTION
When you have gotten to the point at which you can sustain relaxation for a while, you can try this experiment. At the end of a long relaxation, and before you have moved any part of the body, think of coming out of the posture in slow motion. Try to flex only one finger in the most minuscule possible movement. What you notice if you are completely relaxed is that each movement comes as a tiny jerk, like a cursor moving across a computer screen one pixel at a time rather than in a smooth sweeping motion. You do not ordinarily notice either the jerks in the body or on a computer screen because they are so tiny and numerous—you are aware only of the totality of the motion.
After you have made yourself aware of the jerks in one or two fingers, try the same thing with a shoulder. Concentrate carefully on making the smallest possible movement to lift the shoulder, and again you will see that the first movement comes as a jerk, larger in the shoulder than in the finger. These jerks may result from single nerve impulses impinging on the muscle fibers of the motor unit or they may result from overcoming resistance within the connective tissues—resistance that for some reason yields in spurts. I think it is more likely the former, but the question can’t be settled without electromyography using thin-wire electrodes embedded directly into the appropriate muscles.
The crocodile is the standard prone relaxation posture. It may not allow you to relax as deeply as the corpse, but the first variation that follows comes close. We discussed the crocodile in chapter 2 with respect to breathing, but here we’ll look at it in its entirety, as a mild backbending relaxation posture that also stretches the arms overhead. First try the simplest crocodile with the arms stretched out in front of you, the hands catching the elbows, and the forehead on the uppermost wrist (fig. 2.23). If that position does not overstretch the muscles on the undersides of your arms, it will probably be comfortable. If it is not, try supporting the chest with a pillow, and notice how easing the stretch in the arms allows those muscles to relax. Use your personal preferences for foot position: heels in, heels out, or toes straight back. Those who have limited ability to extend their ankles may need to support them with a pillow. Then, lying still, try to notice if you are still holding tension, and if so, where.
Next try the second position for the crocodile with the arms at a 45–90° angle from the floor (fig. 2.24). This will be more of a challenge for many people. The abdominal muscles may resist the backbending that is defined by the posture, and the flexion in the neck may not be entirely comfortable, but if you practice this posture regularly, you will sooner or later be able to relax in it.
Last, try the full crocodile with one elbow on top of the other, each hand gripping the opposite shoulder, and the head tucked into the combined crooks of the two elbows (fig. 10.3). This is the only true crocodile; its “jaws” are formed by the upper extremities. Calling it a relaxation posture may be something of a joke at first. Many people will have to arch their upper back and neck substantially to the rear in order to make room for the head and neck, and it may not be possible to use this posture for relaxation until muscles and joints throughout the body get acclimated.
Pain stops relaxation in a hurry. It intensifies undesirable mental states, disrupts autonomic functions, and prevents muscular relaxation. If you have low back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, gas pain, arthritis, or any other physical discomfort, your mind will be diverted in that direction as soon as you lie down and make yourself still. Another problem is pain induced by a particular posture, but this can sometimes be circumvented with props. If you do not have enough subcutaneous fat to lie comfortably in the corpse posture on a hard surface, you can lie on a mat that is soft enough to keep your bony protuberances from pressing directly against the floor; if that is not enough, you can place pillows under the knees, the head, and even the arms and forearms.
Even if you do not use a prop elsewhere, it is important for everyone to experiment with a pillow under the head. If you have good mobility in the neck, a soft down pillow provides important support for the mid-cervical region (which will tend to prevent and be therapeutic for reverse cervical curvatures) and yet allows the back of the head to drop to the same level as the rest of the body. A more substantial pillow creates a very different experience. It establishes traction in the neck, pulls the head both anteriorly and superiorly, and induces a well-known relaxation response all by itself. And more problematic, older people often have semi-permanent skeletal forward bends in their necks and chests which may leave their heads lifted 2–8 inches away from the floor even before the attempt to relax gets under way. The only way to make such students comfortable is with one or more thick supporting pillows; such props are especially important for gentle yoga classes.
Figure 10.3. The advanced crocodile pose is a relaxed backbending pose, but many beginning and even intermediate students will find that the position of the head, neck, and upper extremities creates so much discomfort that the front of the body cannot relax. Such students may find the beginner’s crocodile (fig. 2.24) more useful, at least for the time being.
BREATHING AND RELAXATION
Even breathing in both the corpse pose and the crocodile has a soothing effect and seems to diminish activity generally in motor neurons. In either posture we have a choice of breathing abdominally or diaphragmatically.
ABDOMINAL BREATHING IN THE CORPSE POSTURE
Abdominal breathing in the corpse pose is the most relaxing of any mode of breathing in any posture. In this position the abdominal wall yields so easily to the movement of the diaphragm that respiration produces little movement in the rest of the body, and the breath becomes so delicate that it almost seems to stop. The motor neurons whose axons travel in the phrenic nerves to the respiratory diaphragm supervise this activity from beginning to end, resulting in concentric shortening of the diaphragm during inhalation and eccentric lengthening during exhalation (chapter 2). The number of nerve impulses per second to the diaphragm will peak at the end of inhalation when the abdominal organs are pushed most inferiorly, diminish as exhalation proceeds, and drop almost to zero at the end of exhalation—the only time the system is at rest. You can feel it. You have to make an effort to stop breathing at any other time in the cycle, but at the end of your tidal exhalation you can stop breathing effortlessly. Please note: this is fine to try as an experiment, but it’s a risky habit pattern. As mentioned in chapter 2, constantly pausing the breath at the end of exhalation is thought in yoga to have an adverse impact on your cardiovascular health.
Even though abdominal breathing during deep relaxation is minimal, it is still desirable to cultivate even breathing because every inhalation, no matter how fine, still pulls on the lumbar region by way of the crus of the diaphragm and on the lower part of the rib cage by way of the costal attachment of the diaphragm. As a result, tension spreads throughout the body by way of those attachments, and if we can minimize such tensions we can minimize their impact on relaxation.
There are two ways that feedback from breathing will tell you if you are relaxed. First, your breathing can become so quiet during the course of 10–15 minutes of stillness in the corpse posture that there is a diminished need for the intercostal muscles to maintain the muscular tone that ordinarily keeps the chest from collapsing inward during inhalation (chapter 2). The chest can actually become frozen, not from muscular activity but from inertia as the motor neurons supplying the intercostal muscles become silent. You may not notice this until you have had some experience with the posture and have remained quiet for twenty minutes or so, and even then you may not be aware that the chest has become frozen until after you have felt the sudden gathering of activity in the intercostal muscles as you start to come out of the relaxation. This situation is not found in any other posture or with any other method of breathing.
Second, when you are relaxed, the eyes, cheeks, and other soft tissues of the face are pulled inward during each inhalation and bulge out during each exhalation. This is because fasciae are interconnected throughout the body, and the slight vacuum in the chest produced during inhalation is translated through the fasciae to the face. You may not be able to feel this unless you are completely relaxed, but it’s there.
DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING IN THE CORPSE POSTURE
Diaphragmatic (thoraco-diaphragmatic) breathing in the corpse posture is not as relaxing as abdominal breathing, but it is a powerful energizing technique that should be explored by intermediate and advanced students. It engages the chest and abdomen without significantly disturbing relaxation in the rest of the body, and it is more effective for keeping people alert than abdominal breathing. Anyone who has a tendency to chronic chest breathing should avoid this for the time being, however. As we saw in chapter 2, the moment chest breathers stray from the tried and true abdominal breathing that is so important at the early stages of their training, they will automatically revert to constricted thoracic breathing.
To explore diaphragmatic breathing in the corpse posture, first lie down and breathe abdominally for a few minutes. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and that your forearms are relaxed but supinated, with the palms facing up and situated about 12–18 inches from the thighs. Then breathe diaphragmatically, holding a little tension in the abdomen during each inhalation. You can breathe as slowly as five breaths per minute or as fast as 12–15 breaths per minute. The concentration required for either tactic will help keep you awake if you tend to doze off.
RELAXED BREATHING IN THE CROCODILE
Although the crocodiles are rightfully included among relaxation postures, their architecture, both with respect to arm position and to breathing, does not lend them to the same kind of deep relaxation as the corpse posture. It would be rare for a class of students to hold the crocodile for more than a minute or so, but an extravagant teacher might hold a class of experienced students in the corpse posture for half an hour or more.
One reason the stretched-out crocodile is less effective for complete relaxation than the corpse posture is that it produces a more complex mode of breathing (fig. 2.23). To reiterate, in the prone position the abdomen is pressed against the floor, and the downward thrust of the dome of the diaphragm has to push the abdominal organs inferiorly and lift the entire body, rather than push the abdominal wall forward as happens in the corpse posture. This is a type of abdominal breathing, but the movement of the entire body in the crocodile, together with the extra effort needed to breathe, makes it more difficult to relax.
The beginner’s crocodile, with the arms at a 45–90° angle from the floor, also prevents complete relaxation. In addition to the effort required to press the abdominal organs inferiorly (which also happens in the stretched-out crocodile), the beginner’s crocodile requires diaphragmatic breathing (chapter 2), and this creates movement in the chest that in turn activates even more of the body (fig. 2.24). And that applies to someone who is relatively comfortable. The problem is compounded in those who are not.
The full crocodile (fig. 10.3) yields either abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing depending on the length of the arms. If they are long enough to lie flat while you tuck the head into the crook of the elbows, we see a situation similar to the easy stretched-out crocodile, which yields abdominal breathing. In this case the posture is very relaxing, at least for those who have thoroughly accustomed themselves to the pose. But if your arms are shorter, you will have to arch the upper back and neck upward in order to place the top of the head in the crook of the elbows, and in that case your chest will be lifted as in the beginner’s crocodile, which requires you to breathe diaphragmatically and which again checks relaxation.
One indirect way in which the crocodile posture furthers relaxation is that the arm position tends to prevent thoracic breathing, which as we saw in chapter 2 stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and prepares the body for activity. Because of the anatomical restrictions to chest breathing, the easy stretched-out crocodile pose is an excellent posture for compelling chest breathers to come in touch with relaxation and abdominal breathing, and the beginner’s crocodile is possibly the best all-around posture (as well as the only relaxation posture) for teaching chest breathers diaphragmatic breathing.
THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Our discussion of the autonomic nervous system in chapter 2 focused on its associations with breathing, but its main role is helping to regulate functions of internal organs in general, including non-somatic structures such as blood vessels throughout the body and sweat glands in the skin (figs. 10.4a–b). Even though these regulatory functions are mostly outside our conscious awareness, some of their effects are important to relaxation. If you lie down to relax and notice that your hands and feet are cold and sweaty or that you are dizzy and headachy or that your heart is beating too fast, autonomic functions are not being optimally managed. In such cases training in relaxation may help you diminish the symptoms. How this happens is not clear because the autonomic nervous system is not directly under the control of our will. Its regulation has to take place indirectly, and the only way we can manage it is to capitalize on everything in our bag of tricks—mental attitude, exercise, postures, and relaxation—and then trust the wisdom of the body to keep everything operating smoothly. And that’s what you want. You would no more want to micromanage internal functions of the body than you would want to enter into a debate with a pilot of a commercial airliner about how fast to fly. If authority for management of internal organs is delegated to the autonomic nervous system, internal functions will not annoy us when we try to relax, and we’ll be able to work with those aspects of mind and body that are more obviously within our grasp.
THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
The idea of the sympathetic nervous system goes back almost 2000 years, to Galen, who believed and taught that this complex of nerves permitted animal spirits to travel from one organ to another, creating “sympathy” among them. Here we are especially concerned with the sympathetic nervous system as a part of what we now recognize as the autonomic nervous system (chapter 2 and figs. 10.4a–b) because the sympathetic component is generally sedated by breathing and relaxation techniques. It activates the body globally when it is stimulated and it quiets the body down globally afterward. Stress is its stimulant, and preparation for “fight or flight” is its response. To that end it speeds the heart rate, opens the bronchial tree, stimulates the release of glucose from the liver, dilates the pupils, constricts arterioles in the digestive system and skin, dilates arterioles in the heart, and contracts sphincters in the gastrointestinal tract and in the urethra. All of these responses act together and in “sympathy” with one another—Galen had the right idea, after all—to gear up the body for emergencies. Only a few sympathetic reactions, such as orgasm and dilation of the pupils in dim light, occur in relative isolation. The parasympathetic nervous system, by contrast, affects the internal organs specifically and often in isolation.
We can see the operation of the sympathetic nervous system and how it orchestrates bodily processes during an ordinary sequence of postures followed by relaxation. The sympathetic nervous system, including one of its main endocrine components, the adrenal medulla, becomes activated by vigorous hatha yoga practices, especially standing stretches, sun salutations, and abdominopelvic exercises such as leglifting and agni sara. Relaxing in the corpse posture after an invigorating session of postures will then quiet this system and diminish the sympathetic effects on organs and tissues throughout the body.
RELAXATION AND BODY TEMPERATURE
The autonomic nervous system regulates body temperature, not only in the core of the body where it affects the chest, abdomen, and pelvis, but also in tissues of the skin and extremities. When the sympathetic system is activated, skin (especially in the hands and feet) becomes cold because its blood supply is diminished by vasoconstriction (chapter 2), and it becomes clammy because sweat glands flood the surface of the body with moisture. When you lie down to relax, the sympathetic nervous system calms down, decreasing muscular tone in the smooth muscle that encircles arteries and arterioles, which allows those vessels to dilate and causes blood supply to the skin to increase and skin temperature to rise.
You would think this would make you feel warm, but that is not the case because during relaxation, the skin temperature rises and radiates heat, and this causes the body to cool down. Ordinarily the internal temperature regulating systems would then prompt you to shiver, but you curb that impulse, knowing that any movement would break the relaxation. The result is that you are chilly when you come out of the exercise, and the next time you try to relax, your body does not remember the experience fondly. But knowing in advance that the body will lose radiant heat during a long relaxation, you can cover up—even a pillow placed on the chest and abdomen can make a difference. This is a good example of how we can anticipate and accommodate to the peculiarities of the autonomic nervous system—coddling it and letting it do its job rather than trying to bend it to our will.
BRONCHIOLAR DILATION AND CONSTRICTION
Breathing and relaxation go hand in hand. As we have seen, respiration slows down naturally during the course of relaxation, and under carefully monitored conditions 2:1 breathing (chapter 2) can slow the heart rate. Relaxation also has an impact on how easily air moves through the airways, and this is controlled by both the sympathetic and parasympathetic components of the autonomic nervous system.
Exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal medulla, and this dilates the bronchioles and makes breathing easier. As we saw in chapter 2,relaxation diminishes the activity of the sympathetic nervous system to the bronchioles and increases parasympathetic input. Both systems together act on the smooth muscle encircling the airways, causing them to constrict and thereby increasing resistance to air flow, and this neatly coincides with the fact that we make use of less alveolar ventilation when we are relaxed.
During an hour or so of hatha yoga, management of air flowing through the airways should take care of itself. Your session may start quietly with a short relaxation, build quickly into abdominal exercises and vigorous standing poses, proceed to postures done sitting and lying on the floor, continue with inverted postures, and end with a final relaxation. When you start, your airways are slightly constricted, corresponding to decreased activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increased activity in the parasympathetic input to the lungs. Then as you do more vigorous postures, the sympathetic nervous system prevails and the airways open. As you quiet down in your final relaxation, your bronchiolar tree constricts but remains open enough to accommodate air flow.
It should now be apparent that anyone who wants to master relaxation must have a full repertoire of breathing practices. If airflow is unimpeded, you can stick with abdominal breathing for maximum relaxation and stimulation of the parasympathetic effects on the bronchioles. If you sense some restrictions in the airways, it will be more appropriate to mildly stimulate the sympathetic nervous system with diaphragmatic breathing, which will not only open the airways but will also keep you awake. And for a more dramatic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, take 5–10 empowered thoracic breaths, or even complete breaths, which have a paradoxical component. This will open the airways significantly and prepare you for a peaceful relaxation.
THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that an anatomically and functionally separate division of the nervous system to the viscera was described. Since it was anatomically separate and yet supplied most of the same organs (fig. 10.4a), it was named the parasympathetic (para = alongside) nervous system. It soon became evident, however, that the mode of operation of this accessory system was entirely different from that of the sympathetic nervous system. In contrast to the operation of the sympathetic nervous system, “relaxation” of the parasympathetic nervous system has no meaning except in relation to each organ and each function. In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which causes global effects throughout the body, the parasympathetic nervous system is organ-specific. With only a few exceptions such as regulation of the heart and lungs, it does not “balance” the sympathetic nervous system. Nor does it become generally active or inactive as does the sympathetic nervous system. It presides over functions as disparate as stimulating salivary, gastric, and pancreatic secretions, stimulating peristalsis (the movement of food distally through the gastrointestinal tract), stimulating the synthesis of liver glycogen from glucose, accommodating for near vision (as for threading a needle), sexual arousal, slowing the heart rate, constricting the bronchial tree, contracting the wall of the bladder for urination, and relaxing the internal urethral and anal sphincters to facilitate elimination.
Figure 10.4a. Parasympathetic nervous system (craniosacral outflow) outlined on the left, and sympathetic nervous system (thoracolumbar outflow) outlined on the right. (Both systems innervate both sides.) The cranial portion of the parasympathetic nervous system is included in cranial nerves 3, 7, 9, and 10, the latter being the famous vagus nerve that innervates most of the viscera, including the lungs, heart, liver, and the upper part of the digestive tract. The sacral parasympathetic plexus innervates the genitals, the bladder, and the lower part of the digestive tube. The sympathetic nervous system innervates the entire body from its source in the spinal cord between T1 and L2, which is why the sympathetic nervous system is called the thoracolumbar outflow (Dodd).
Figure 10.4b. Peripheral nervous system, with components shown in blue, red, and yellow.
Although it’s not in the realm of ordinary experience, there is one way that you would be able to experience all parasympathetic reactions at the same time. Untutored and unwary mushroom aficionados have been known to ingest the poisonous fungus Amanita muscaria, which globally stimulates the muscarinic receptors of the parasympathetic nervous system (and which is where those receptors got their name). Don’t be tempted. Depending on the dose, you’ll have a most disagreeable experience. From the top down if you don’t die your pupils will constrict to pinpoints, you’ll slobber and froth saliva, your heart rate and blood pressure will plummet to near death, extreme bronchiolar constriction will make it almost impossible to breathe, your digestive tract will thump, thrash, and grind like a washing machine gone berserk, and you’ll suffer from explosive diarrhea. Amanita muscaria is plainly not suitable as a mushroom sauce for your dinner guests, but it does provide us with the only naturally occurring illustration of a general parasympathetic reaction, and it also makes clear the altogether different ways in which the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems act on internal organs.
Looking at a more typical scenario in ordinary life, if you eat a large meal at noon, the portions of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with the digestive system will preside over digestion during the course of the afternoon, and then its effects will recede into the background. Then if you do a session of hatha yoga followed by relaxation at 5 PM, the main autonomic effects will first be stimulation and then “relaxation” of the sympathetic nervous system. In another possible scenario, if you were to eat a meal at 5 PM, do a vigorous practice of hatha between 6 PM and 7 PM, and finally lie down to relax between 7 PM and 7:30 PM, the parasympathetic nervous system would initiate digestion after the meal, be partially stymied around 6:15 PM by the hatha session, and kick in again to re-stimulate digestion during the course of relaxation around 7:15 PM. And so it goes, day and night, year after year, without the necessity of our conscious supervision.
THE ENTERIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
It was not until 1921 that the physiologist Langley published his famous textbook in which he conceptualized and formalized the idea of an autonomic (autonomous) nervous system. He also suggested that the autonomic nervous system was made up of not two but three components—the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. He defined the latter as being comprised of the vast system of nerve cells that resides in the wall of the gut (by definition, the entire digestive tube from the oral cavity to the anus). Although Langley publicized his ideas widely, only the idea of the sympathetic and parasympathetic components caught on, and the concept of an enteric nervous system was either forgotten or was simply included conceptually as a part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Finally, however, after the idea had languished for six decades, biologists started seeing in the 1980s that the enteric system was indeed an independent nervous system just as complex, with just as many neurotransmitters, and with even more neurons, than the spinal cord itself—a veritable “second brain” within the gut, one which is not only important to digestive system function but one that is probably important for the experience of many emotions. The story of this system has just begun, and textbooks that continue to ignore it will soon be obsolete.
Langley actually commented in his 1921 text that the enteric nervous system was probably more truly autonomous than either the sympathetic or parasympathetic systems. And neuroscientists ultimately found this to be correct. We now know that the enteric nervous system is capable of supervising the digestion of food, the propulsion of food through the bowel, and management of all other bowel functions, even when all nerve connections from the brain and spinal cord have been experimentally severed. This system is almost certainly important to relaxation, although attempting to say exactly how would be premature. Emotional connections may catch the attention of experimental psychologists in time, but it’s anyone’s guess.
So in summing up the widely disparate ways in which the nervous system affects relaxation, we see that several separate but related pictures emerge, one relating to muscular relaxation and the somatic nervous system (which we discussed earlier in this chapter as well as in chapter 1 and 2), another to the sympathetic nervous system, another to the parasympathetic nervous system, and possibly yet another to the enteric nervous system. First of all, relaxation requires skeletal muscular relaxation, and it requires that the sympathetic nervous system be quieted down. There is no way you can relax if you are fidgeting (somatic system) or if you are in the middle of a flight-or-fight response (sympathetic system). And second, before you do a relaxation, your activities and behaviors should be adjusted so that the parasympathetic and enteric nervous system are not overly burdened with housekeeping tasks that draw attention to themselves and prevent relaxation—tasks such as digesting a large meal or coping with constipation, diarrhea, a full bladder, asthma, menstrual cramping, or sexual excitation. And finally, if the purported emotional content of the enteric nervous system grips you with regrets for the past, anxiety for the future, fear of the unknown, or an overly joyful mood in the present, relaxation will be impossible. Let it go; it’s useless for relaxation.
Even if the somatic and autonomic systems are not creating obstacles, the mind may still be active, and this too can prevent deep relaxation. It has been documented that when the body is relaxed and the subject purposely entertains extraneous thoughts, a biofeedback monitor keeping track of skeletal muscular activity reacts immediately, showing clearly that quieting the mind is just as important to relaxation as quieting the body.
Hatha yoga includes many techniques for making the mind still, from concentration exercises on the surface of the body, to watching the breath, to more subtle abstract exercises such as “sweeping the breath up and down the body,” or holding your attention on regions such as the navel center, the point between the eyebrows, or the pit of the throat, whose anatomical locations are not precisely defined. The results of these exercises are clear, the mechanisms obscure. We know only that the skeletal muscles relax, and that the autonomic nervous system fulfills its autonomous role in managing the internal organs and tissues of the body without the necessity of conscious input. That is quite enough.
One word of caution about abstract exercises: those who are flighty sometimes go off on odd tangents when they try them. Anyone who is psychologically fragile should stick with more grounding concentrations such as focusing their attention on the rise and fall of the abdomen during inhalation and exhalation, or thinking of relaxing large body parts such as the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and forearms.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ABDOMEN
This is the beginner’s first exercise for relaxation. You simply lie in the corpse posture and concentrate on the rise of the abdomen with each inhalation and the fall of the abdomen with each exhalation. Make the breath as even as possible and watch its pace gradually diminish. Notice that inhalation merges smoothly into exhalation, but that exhalation does not merge so smoothly into inhalation (chapter 2). After you have practiced this exercise for some time, it will feel natural to allow your breath to stop at the end of exhalation. It seems as if it could stop forever, as if you could literally expire. As discussed earlier, the end of exhalation is the only time this should happen because that is the only time the diaphragm is completely relaxed.
Paradoxically, this simple concentration exercise in even breathing is also one of the most advanced, and few people will be able to do it for long without falling asleep or letting their minds drift. Resorting to diaphragmatic breathing, taking deeper breaths, complete breaths, or breathing faster all minimize those two problems, but they also compromise relaxation. But even if these techniques are counterproductive as far as relaxation is concerned, at least they prove that concentrating on the rise and fall of the abdominal wall is so relaxing that you have to be hyperalert not to drift. This exercise is not easy.
SWEEPING THE BREATH UP AND DOWN THE BODY
There are many different relaxation exercises in the corpse posture that involve sweeping the attention up and down the body in coordination with the breath, usually from the toes to the crown of the head during inhalation, and from the crown to the toes during exhalation. You should breathe normally at first and then gradually lengthen the breath as relaxation deepens. Your greatest challenge will be to keep attentive.
There are many variations of this exercise. You can reverse directions and inhale your attention to the toes and exhale your attention to the top of the head. Or you can use your “breath” as a vehicle for traveling your attention to different parts of the body. The point of all such abstract relaxation exercises is less complicated than may at first be apparent: they are all tricks to hold the mind steady while the body relaxes of its own accord.
THE SIXTY-ONE POINTS EXERCISE
One of the simplest but most interesting of the abstract exercises carries your attention to a succession of 61 points on the surface of the body (fig. 10.5). If you can hold your focus for a moment at each spot, by the time you get all the way around the body and mind will be deeply relaxed. The exercise can be done in many different ways, but the simplest is to pretend that you exhale to each point. This means that at the beginning of each exhalation you lock your attention onto a specific point on the body, hold it there throughout exhalation and the ensuing inhalation, and then move on to the next point at the start of the next exhalation. A variation is to imagine a blue light at each point. As you become proficient you can lengthen the time you hold your attention at each point in one of two ways—by extending your time for each inhalation and exhalation, or by holding your attention at the same spot for more than one breath cycle.
Assuming that you are physically comfortable, the main challenge in this exercise is holding your attention on each one of the sixty-one points successively. You might get down to the right hand, or partially back up to the tip of the right shoulder, and suddenly realize that you have lost awareness of where you were. Or if someone is leading you through the exercise you may suddenly find yourself being asked to concentrate at some specific point and have no idea of how you got there. In any event, this means that you either went to sleep or let your attention wander, and this broke the relaxation. The most certain remedy for such problems is daily practice and better preparation, which can include a good night’s sleep, an enthusiastic session of hatha yoga, and a less soporific diet.
If you have trouble keeping your concentration even under ideal conditions, try just focusing on the first 31 points (the upper half of the body) and come back to the beginning from there. Or you can try breathing faster, and thereby move more quickly through the exercise. If you take 1-second inhalations and 1-second exhalations the entire exercise will take only two minutes, and once you have memorized the points you can usually hold your attention throughout the cycle, at least at that rate. Then you can slowly lengthen your breaths. Don’t be surprised, however, to learn that lengthening the exercise to just four minutes (2-second inhalations and 2-second exhalations) may create a real challenge. Keep trying. Keep improving the conditions under which you do the exercise, and keep gathering more experience. If you are determined and patient the exercise will finally work.
Figure 10.5. To practice the 61 point concentration and relaxation exercise, you travel your attention sequentially to 61 points on the surface of or within the body. #1 and 61 is the “point between the eyebrows.” #2, 14, 26, and 60 is the pit of the throat. # 27, 29, 31, and 59 is the “heart center,” between the nipples, which are in turn 28 and 30. #32 and 58 is the “navel center,” and #33, 45, and 57 is the “pelvic center.” The rest are obvious—shoulders, elbows, wrists, tips of the fingers, hips, knees, ankles, and the tips of the toes. The exercise is easier if you journey from beginning to end quickly (2–4 minutes total, or one breath and 2–4 seconds for each point); the exercise may challenge your alertness severely if you move through it more slowly. The main idea is to move quickly enough that you do not fall asleep or get confused about where you are in the sequence.
CONCENTRATING ON THE HEART CENTER
The more steadily you hold your focus on a fixed spot the more advanced the exercise, and one of the most interesting is to hold your attention at the heart center. Here we are not necessarily speaking of something structural. The “heart center” is an abstract concept. You simply hold your attention in the region of the mid-chest. You may notice that your concentration tends to wander once in a while, flitting away especially at the junction of inhalation and exhalation or at the junction of exhalation and inhalation. So be sure your breath is slow and even. Be especially aware of your eyes. Even though they are closed you must hold the gaze steady: tiny darting movements of the eyes beneath the closed lids correspond to lapses in concentration. Hold this exercise as long as you are comfortable, building up your time gradually.
If this practice is difficult for you, draw in your mind’s eye a tiny ellipse in the heart center. Then inhale up the ellipse and exhale down the ellipse. Allowing your attention to move just an infinitesimal amount makes the exercise easier. And after making use of this trick for a few weeks you can go back and again try to hold your attention steadily on one point.
These exercises are usually done in the corpse posture, but they are concentrations that relate as much to meditation as they do to relaxation. They assume that you are relaxed; then they carry you beyond . . . .
According to many traditionalists, one of the main purposes of hatha yoga is to train the body and mind for meditation. The relaxation exercises just discussed are part of this training, and they can also be used in modified form when we sit in meditative postures. Other exercises that can prepare you for meditation include sitting perfectly still in the meditative posture of your choice; holding your attention within the body and maintaining awareness of muscles, joints, and the structure of the sitting posture; remaining calm, comfortable, alert, and still; and above all breathing evenly, silently, and diaphragmatically without jerks, pauses, or noise. Only when you have achieved some mastery of these seemingly simple exercises in the meditative sitting postures can actual training in meditation begin.
To get an idea of what’s involved, sit cross-legged on the floor and focus for a few seconds on the body. Then prepare for meditation—going beyond the body to work with the breath and beyond the breath to examine the operations of the mind. To remain alert in meditation the body has to be erect, stable, comfortable, and still. So why not stand? Because you do not want to be concerned about tipping around in a gravitational field. Then why not lie in the corpse posture? Because you do not want to doze off instead of remaining alert. But what if you can stay awake in the corpse? That’s harder to say, but something about meditation requires an erect spine—not merely erect, but erect under its own power. Lying down, it does not work for most people.
So we must sit and sit erect. There are six main postures that accomplish this—sitting in a chair, kneeling on the floor or a bench, sitting in the cross-legged easy posture, and sitting in what we’ll call the classic meditative postures: the auspicious, the accomplished, and the lotus poses. Most students of yoga would like to use one of these last three, but nearly all Westerners will have difficulty doing that at first. In ancient India where the postures were refined, people sat on the ground or on their haunches with the feet flat, and they grew up with strong and flexible hip and ankle joints. They had no trouble sitting flat on the floor. But in the West we sit mostly in chairs, couches, and automobile seats, and because of this we have trouble acclimating to these three traditional meditative postures.
To resolve some of these difficulties, we’ll first look at the architecture of a generalized classic yoga sitting posture and then we’ll discuss the anatomical features required to hold it upright. Next we’ll examine props to make the pose easier for Westerners. Then we’ll look at the six standard sitting postures in detail, and we’ll end with some general guidelines for mastering them.
MAINTAINING THE GEOMETRY
When you are sitting correctly in one of the three classic meditation postures, the pose is self-supporting. The spine is straight, the feet are locked into positions that keep the lower extremities in place, and the upper extremities stabilize the torso. When you have mastered them, the postures should be so comfortable that you are not aware of the body, and this permits you to focus your mind on meditation.
THE RIGHT TETRAHEDRON
It is the geometry of these three postures that makes them so stable. They are identical except for the position of the lower extremities, and in all of them the body assumes the shape of a tetrahedron—the simplest possible three dimensional structure. All tetrahedrons are made up of four triangular surfaces. In the classic meditation postures the base triangle lies against the floor and is formed by the thighs and an imaginary line connecting the two knees. The spine extends upward perpendicular from this triangle’s posterior corner and forms the upright axis for both the second and third triangles, which are completed by the right and left upper extremities resting on the right and left lower extremities at the knees. The fourth triangular surface, which completes the tetrahedron, is formed by an imaginary line that connects the knees, and by two lines that follow the upper extremities from the knees to a point near the top of the head (fig. 10.6). The 90° angle between the axial skeleton and the lower extremities therefore gives the posture the shape of a right tetrahedron. The triangle formed by the lower extremities provides a firm base for the posture, the right angle between the base triangle and the upright axis of the spine is what makes the posture upright, while the upper extremities stabilize the upright axis and keep the torso from pitching forward.
THE AXIAL MUSCLES
The erector spinae, the muscle complex that attaches between various vertebrae on the posterior side of the body and to the pelvis (figs. 4.14, 5.5, and 8.14), holds the back axis of the tetrahedron in a straight line, flattening the thoracic kyphosis and providing lift to that part of the vertebral column. Since part of its inferior attachment is to the pelvis, the erector spinae also acts to increase the lumbar lordosis. In the classic cross-legged sitting posture, it is the foremost muscle group that counteracts slumping (that is, the flattening of the lumbar lordosis followed by its further rounding to the rear). The erector spinae also acts to create what we call an axial extension, which is an overall lifting of the axis of the body.
Two more muscles—the quadratus lumborums—lie anterior to (beneath, when approached in a dissection) the lowermost portion of the erector spinae. These muscles, one on each side, take origin from the posterior part of the iliac crest and the sacrum, and insert on the upper lumbar vertebrae and the 12th rib (figs. 2.7, 3.7, 5.5 and 8.14). They function as synergists to augment the function of the erector spinae, acting roughly like a string on a bow. When they contract, they bend the bow of the lumbar curve forward, and so they are most effective when the lumbar lordosis is already being maintained by the erector spinae and the iliopsoas muscles.
Figure 10.6. A generic meditative sitting posture (in this case the accomplished pose), with a right tetrahedron superimposed on the model. The base triangle rests on the ground, with its back corner underneath the coccyx. The middle upright line extends to the top of the head at a right angle (90°) from the plane (and back corner) of the base triangle.
The longus colli muscles on the anterior side of the cervical vertebrae act to increase lift in the region of the head and neck. And like the erector spinae in the thoracic region, these muscles are situated on the convex side of their vertebrae (fig. 8.13). If the longus colli muscles along with the scalenes acting as synergists are not fulfilling their role in supporting the posture, the head and neck droop to the rear.
THE ILIOPSOAS MUSCLES AND THE SACROILIAC JOINTS
The erector spinae, quadratus lumborums, longus colli, and scalenes operate to keep the general orientation of the spine in a straight line, and in principle this could mean a spine that is leaned forward, that is perpendicular to the floor, or that is tilted to the rear. It falls then to the psoas and iliacus muscles to maintain the rear axis of the tetrahedron at a 90° angle from the base triangle. The individual actions of the psoas and iliacus muscles differ, however, even though they share an attachment site on the upper part of the femur, and these separate roles are significant. Specifically, the iliacus muscles sit you up by pulling forward on the ilia and favoring sacroiliac counternutation, while the psoas muscles sit you up by pulling forward on the lumbar lordosis and favoring sacroiliac nutation (see chapters 3 and 6 for more background).
The iliacus muscles are the simplest to understand because they act solely across the hip joints, from the femur to the ilium, fanning up and out to the inner surface of the ilium on each side and acting as a pair to create an anterior pelvic tilt. You can feel these muscles in action if you sit upright in a straight chair and think of pulling the ilia forward to the exclusion of the sacrum. You want to leave the sacrum behind in a position of counternutation (fig. 6.2a), or at least in a neutral position between nutation and counternutation. The actions of the iliacus muscles are subtle. You’ll get the idea if you feel a sense of lifting along with a sense of controlling the angle of the spine with respect to the floor. But try to avoid a direct pulling forward on the lumbar spine. And even more to the point, avoid creating a lateral spreading of the ischial tuberosities. Just to make sure of the latter, squeeze the hips together—and with the hips the ischia—to affirm counternutation.
The two psoas muscles have a more complex action than the iliacus muscles because they each act across three joints—the hip joint, the sacroiliac joint, and the lumbosacral joint—rather than just the hip joint. Since the psoas muscles attach to the lumbar spine, they not only act with the iliacus muscles to flex the two hip joints, they also place tension on the lumbosacral joint between L5 and the sacrum, and they support nutation at the sacroiliac joints (fig. 6.2a).
To feel the effects of the psoas muscles over and above those that are characteristic of the iliacus muscles, lift the posture as much as possible with the iliacus muscles alone (which also produces a slight anterior pelvic tilt, as mentioned above). Next, without releasing the iliacus tension, think along completely different lines and pull the lumbar region frankly forward. Look for a deep and peculiar feeling—an internal tension that is directed specifically to the lumbar spine from the femurs, a tension that ultimately pulls the promontory of the sacrum forward in relation to the pelvic bones. This is nutation. Also look for the other components of nutation—the squeezing together of the ilia and an even more obvious spreading apart of the ischial tuberosities. Full sacroiliac nutation is what to aim for and hold in a classic meditation posture because it permits the lumbar lordosis to be maintained and even accentuated without depending so much on the iliacus muscles and an anterior pelvic tilt. And it’s also helpful that spreading the ischia apart from one another during nutation shifts the origins of the adductor muscles laterally. That is practical and significant for everyone who is struggling with tight adductors, which we’ll soon see are the muscles that protest meditative sitting postures the most.
The lumbosacral joint and the sacroiliac joints are the weakest links in the classic sitting poses, so be watchful. In the absence of good hip flexibility, trying to perfect these postures forcefully by ratcheting the promontory of the sacrum forward with the psoas muscles may strain one or more of these weak links. And if this happens, pain emerges near the site of the strain—lumbosacral pain close to the midline in the lower back, and sacroiliac pain at the rear of the pelvic bowl (chapter 6) just an inch or so lateral to the midsagittal plane of the body. To avoid problems with all of these joints, you must work patiently with the exercises suggested for freeing up the sacroiliac joints in chapter 6. You are less likely to hurt the hip joint because it is designed for flexion.
THE GLUTEAL MUSCLES
The gluteus maximus muscles (figs. 3.8, 3.10, and 8.9–10) are hip extensors and antagonists to the hip flexors, and one would at first assume that they would inhibit sitting correctly in the cross-legged postures, but that is not the case. It’s true that they act as antagonists to the hip flexors in standing postures, but paradoxically, in meditative sitting postures they can actually support the action of the iliopsoas muscles by acting as slings to lift the pelvis from underneath. They do this only temporarily, however, if and when you momentarily double your efforts to sit straighter. In contrast to the continuing and highly desirable isometric contraction of the psoas muscles, keeping the gluteus maximus muscles continuously under tension would be too distracting.
The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles (fig. 3.8, 3.10, 8.9–10, 8.12, and 8.14) are abductors of the thighs, and will thus aid any sitting posture in which you are aiming to stretch the adductors and spread the thighs apart, which is necessary for all three of the classic yoga meditative postures. If you have a sudden urge to try harder to sit up straight in the classic sitting postures, and if you feel that effort in muscles deep to the more superficial gluteus maximus muscles, you are probably feeling the gluteus medius and minimus. As in the case of the gluteus maximus, such efforts can only be of a momentary nature—more for educating the adductors about new limits than for wrangling with them throughout a period of sitting.
Along with flexors (the iliopsoas), extensors (the gluteus maximus), and abductors (the gluteus medius and minimus), we also have adductors for pulling the thigh medially, a movement which we considered in detail in chapter 6 in relation to forward bending. To understand why the adductors are important here, experiment with the movements required for sitting cross-legged. Sit on the floor with the knees up and the feet side by side about a foot from the buttocks. Now pull one foot in toward the perineum, flexing the leg maximally against the thigh, and lower the knee laterally toward the floor. Notice that the thigh has now been abducted, flexed, and laterally rotated, and recall from chapter 6 that each and every one of these movements is resisted by the adductor muscles. And not only that: since the adductors attach between the bottom of the pelvic bowl and the femur, they also act in the other direction, pulling forward on the base of the pelvis and causing the lumbar region to flatten or even round posteriorly. This creates resistance to the 90° of hip flexion necessary for maintaining the right tetrahedron.
In summary, the iliacus and psoas muscles are most important for creating 90° hip flexion in the three classic sitting postures, and the adductors are most important for preventing it. Accordingly, the iliopsoas must be strong enough and the adductors long enough to permit you to sit upright with a convincing lumbar lordosis, flex the thighs 90°, abduct them enough to bring the heels to the position required by the posture, and rotate them laterally enough to keep the knees pressed to the floor—and do all of this at the same time.
The most obvious (although long-term) solution is to strengthen the psoas and iliacus muscles with leglifts (chapter 3) and gradually lengthen the adductors with prolonged adductor stretches. The less obvious solution is to free up the sacroiliac joints so that full nutation permits the ischia—and with the ischia the origins of the adductor muscles on the inferior pubic rami—to be spread apart from one another. This has the same practical effect as lengthening the adductors.
What about the hamstrings? These muscles take origin from the ischial tuberosities, which are even further to the rear than the inferior pubic rami, and they certainly limit flexion from the hip in forward bending positions with the knees straight (chapter 6). In the classic sitting postures, however, in which the knees are bent, the hamstrings are not stretched at all because their insertions on the tibia and fibula are drawn toward the ischial tuberosities, leaving them slack. They are a problem in sitting postures only if they are injured.
THE PUBOFEMORAL LIGAMENT
Muscles establish the most important restrictions to hip flexibility, but there is another restriction within the hip joint itself—the pubofemoral ligament—which is one of the three extension-limiting ligaments that spiral down to the neck of the femur from each of the three parts of the pelvis (fig. 3.6). Tension comes off these ligaments during a forward bend, but when we abduct the flexed thighs in a sitting posture, the head of the femur is pulled away from the acetabulum, and this creates tension in the pubofemoral ligament, which runs straight laterally from the pubis to the femur in the flexed and abducted thigh. In an anatomical dissection, this ligament may even have to be cut to permit full abduction of the flexed thigh. The pubofemoral ligament is one of the few ligaments in the body that can and should be stretched over a period of time by those who wish to use the classic sitting postures. In the absence of that need, leave it alone.
THE KNEE JOINTS
The knee joint (figs. 5.24–25) also inhibits sitting properly in the classic sitting poses. As seen in chapter 5, in an extended position it can withstand extreme pressures because the joint capsule is taut and all of its components fit together perfectly. In flexing the joint for walking, however, the joint capsule and internal components have to become loose to permit motion. This is why almost all severe knee injuries occur when the joint is in the flexed position. A sitting posture is less hazardous than others, but still, folding the legs back towards the thighs, laterally rotating the legs at the knee joint (chapter 7) and pressing the knees to the floor, and then staying in that position for a long time, places an unusual strain on the joint. Not everyone can accommodate to this position overnight. Flexibility and strength has to be developed in connective tissues that may have been held in static positions, possibly for decades, and to accomplish this, the time-honored solution is to strengthen the muscles that insert into the joint capsule with standing postures (chapters 4 and 7).
The cross-legged sitting postures are inherently asymmetrical because one foot has to be tucked in place before the other one can be settled, and this will cause small but habitual imbalances in the muscles that act as extensile ligaments (chapter 1). If you always place the same foot down first, dozens of pairs of postural muscles will develop differing lengths on the right and left sides and ultimately lead to imbalances in the skeleton and other connective tissues. In time the pelvis will develop a permanent side-to-side tilt as well as a twist with respect to the rest of the torso. In the short run this is sometimes the reason for deep muscle pain in the hip on one side, but in time it will cause the right lower extremity to become shorter than the left. Needless to say, it is important to compensate for these imbalances by alternating the position of the feet. We’ll look at this matter experientially when we examine the auspicious posture later in this chapter.
The ideal posture for meditation is sitting flat on the floor with optimal curvatures in the vertebral column, but it may be some time (if ever) before you will be able to maintain such a position comfortably. One solution is to support the pose with one or more props. Even though many traditional teachers are ardently opposed to such devices, they can help get you started and are useful for pointing you in the right direction. Some props raise the hips off the floor and take tension off the adductors, some brace the lower back from behind and relieve tension on the erector spinae and hip flexors, and some hold the knees down and relieve tension on the hip extensors. The commonest and simplest device is one that lifts the hips.
RAISING THE HIPS
Most of the problems associated with the classic sitting postures can be alleviated by raising the hips 1–6 inches off the floor (fig. 10.7). A rolled-up blanket is ideal for this because it is firm and because you can vary the thickness to suit yourself. If the height is adjusted precisely, you feel as if you can sit up straight without straining and yet notice that some effort is required.
You can sit straighter with a prop under the hips for several reasons. The thighs are angled down, and as a consequence the reduced demands for flexion of the thighs means that adductor muscles that are otherwise too short have more slack. Second, since the hips are lifted, the legs end up further underneath the thigh muscles and will not force the thighs into as much lateral rotation. Third, with less stretch being placed on the adductors by flexion and lateral rotation, these muscles have more room to permit abduction. And last, the adductors are not pulling so insistently on the bottom of the pelvis, so the iliopsoas muscles will not have so much difficulty maintaining the back axis of the body perpendicular to the floor.
If your support is not high enough to suit your particular needs, and if you are determined to sit “straight” no matter what, a strained and inappropriate posture results. The vertebral column compensates for the stress by generating a lordosis that is higher in the back than normal. So instead of an anteriorly convex lumbar lordosis between the first lumbar vertebra and the sacrum (L1 to S1), the curvature flattens and deteriorates in this region and you develop what might be called a thoracolumbar lordosis, or one that is convex anteriorly between about the eighth thoracic and the second lumbar vertebrae (T8 to L2). The posture is awkward and unnatural; to make matters worse you can adjust to it easily and begin to sit that way habitually.
It is also important not to sit on a support that is too high. Your pose may be satisfactory as far as the basic curvatures are concerned, but after a few minutes it will be unstable and you will tend to pitch forward. This will soon cause you to weave around and lose your concentration. A support that frankly lifts the hips also causes you to lose the purity of the right tetrahedron. You may be upright, but the angle between the thighs and trunk becomes an obtuse rather than a right angle, and the proximal parts of the thighs are not solidly against the floor.
KEEPING THE KNEES DOWN
Unstable thighs can be a big problem: if you are pushing your limits trying to sit in one of the three traditional cross-legged postures with minimal or no elevation from a support, the knees will tend to float away from the floor, especially the knee on the same side as the foot that is on top. This situation is less than ideal in the three classic sitting postures because the base triangle of the tetrahedron depends on stable thighs. If the psoas and iliacus do not have a rock-solid foundation from the femur, the posture gets tippy.
Figure 10.7. The supported auspicious pose (see fig. 10.11 for details of the unsupported posture) is propped here with a sandbag that permits the model to maintain a convincing lumbar lordosis, which is required for a “straight” spine. Unless you can flex your hip joints 90° with your thighs abducted and feet folded in, you may not be able to sit comfortably and straight without a firm prop under your ischial tuberosities.
It is muscular tension from the iliopsoas muscles that either lifts the knees or pulls the torso forward at an unattractive acute angle, and one remedy for this is to place 10–40 pound weights on your knees to hold them down. This prop all by itself helps you maintain the correct lumbar lordosis and permits you to minimize or even eliminate the need for a cushion under the hips. A commercial apparatus has also been developed that will press the knees down painlessly and evenly on both sides, make a cushion unnecessary, and yet maintain the posture in an exact right tetrahedron.
Keeping the knees down allows you to place all of your attention on lifting the posture with the iliacus muscles and creating sacroiliac nutation with the psoas muscles, but it also takes the place of the work you would ordinarily do to maintain the pose. It improves the external appearance of the posture but changes its fundamental nature. The other disadvantage is that it is impractical to carry such props around with you, so they are generally fit only for home use.
BRACING THE BACK FROM BEHIND
An even more radical way to support the classic sitting postures is to use a special manufactured back support that pulls the lumbar region forward. These devices are quite comfortable, and they certainly place you in a state of ease. The main problem is that they also put you to sleep. They should probably be reserved for those who usually sit on the floor but who are temporarily decommissioned with low back problems. In classes taught by many traditional teachers, such supports are viewed with considerable distaste.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
In the last analysis the important question is not whether props are comfortable, but whether they are advisable. If you believe that much of the point of the meditation postures is to lift your energy and consciousness with your own internal efforts, props that make the posture too easy can only be counterproductive.
You have many options for training yourself to sit in the traditional postures. One is to forget all about them for a year or so and concentrate solely on improving your sacroiliac and hip flexibility (chapter 6), back strength (chapter 5), and abdominal strength (chapter 3). Then make a serious effort to construct (or re-construct) a respectable meditative posture. Or you can try to sit as straight as possible without any props at all while at the same time working to improve strength and flexibility with a rigorous and balanced program of hatha yoga postures. That may work if you are already fairly flexible, but if you are not it is a tough course indeed. Finally, you can take the middle ground with the judicious use of props: you can use a cushion or folded blanket but adjust the height so that the knees remain down without external weight and with only moderate effort. The mild isometric effort needed to keep the lumbar region arched forward and the knees down keeps you aware of the dynamics of the posture and yet allows you to maintain an inward focus.
If you take this last option, you can gradually lower the height of the support as you lengthen your adductors and develop sacroiliac flexibility for nutation. Those who are almost able to sit flat on the floor comfortably may even be able to get by with only a thin cushion placed under the fatty portion of the hips—behind the ischial tuberosities rather than directly underneath them. This does not lift you significantly away from the floor but it does help you hold the lumbar region in its proper curvature. In any case there may come a time when you feel that you have reached your limit for stretching the adductors, opening the hip joints, and freeing up the sacroiliac joints (chapter 6), and in that event you should content yourself with the imperfections, use the least conspicuous prop possible, and attend to meditation.
THE SIX POSTURES
The three classic sitting postures can be challenging, but fortunately there are easier poses you can use while you work up to the traditional ones. We’ll consider six meditation poses in an ascending curve of intensity and effort. The friendship posture (maitryasana) is excellent if you need (or prefer) to sit on a chair; the adamantine posture (vajrasana) while kneeling on a bench is probably the most comfortable; the easy posture (sukasana) is suitable for short periods of sitting before you are comfortable in the traditional poses; the auspicious posture (swastikasana) is the easiest of the three classical postures; the accomplished posture (siddhasana) is valued for stabilizing sexual energy; and the lotus posture (padmasana) brings a profound sense of repose.
THE FRIENDSHIP POSTURE (MAITRYASANA)
The friendship posture (maitryasana), in which you are sitting on a chair, is best if you are just beginning to practice hatha yoga, if you are among those who are not able to sit comfortably in any position on the floor, or if you usually sit on the floor but are in pain for one reason or another. And even if you do not intend to use the posture as your primary sitting pose in the long run, it is a useful learning tool. Start with a wooden chair cushioned just enough to enable you to sit still comfortably for 10–20 minutes. To do the posture simply sit on the edge of the chair with the head, neck, and spine in a straight line, the knees comfortably apart, the feet flat on the floor, and the hands resting on the thighs (fig. 10.8).
The greatest advantage to this pose is that the lumbar lordosis is easy to maintain. The thighs are at a 90° angle from the trunk, the feet are planted solidly on the floor, and the arms are resting on the knees where they can help stabilize the spine. The vertebral column can be held erect because there is no tension from the adductors and hamstring muscles on the underside of the pelvis, and also because the iliopsoas muscles exert only minimal effort to maintain a right angle between the thighs and the torso. This makes it easy to do breathing exercises, pranayama, and meditation.
The disadvantage to the friendship pose is that sitting on the edge of the chair requires you to be constantly alert to keep your balance. Unlike the classic postures, your base does not form a solid triangle against the floor, and without that stability a big part of your attention must remain on staying upright. If your awareness lapses, the posture will begin to sag and wobble.
Sitting toward the rear of the chair is a more secure option because in that position your back is steadied from behind. The pelvis and sacrum are braced, and the position of the ilium against the back of the chair stabilizes the origins of the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles. So in this version of the friendship posture you can concentrate your attention on keeping a sense of lift to the spine and do not have to think about stability. There are two downsides, however: it is too easy to relax, get drowsy, and lose your concentration, and the pressure of the chair against your back impedes diaphragmatic (although not abdominal) breathing.
Figure 10.8. It is easy to sit straight in the friendship pose (maitryasana), because neither the adductors or the hamstring muscles create tension on the base of the pelvis that would cause a posterior pelvic tilt (a rotation of the top of the pelvis to the rear that would in turn degrade the lumbar lordosis). It is also easy to maximize sacroiliac nutation in this posture by selectively contracting the psoas muscles. The main disadvantage of the pose is that without a broad base it tips around (both front to back and from side to side) fairly easily, and you have to remain hyper-alert to maintain stability.
THE ADAMANTINE POSTURE (VAJRASANA)
There are several variations of the adamantine, or warrior pose (vajrasana), but only two of them are suitable for sitting more than a few minutes or so at a time. For the basic posture start in a kneeling position with the thighs together and the head and torso vertical. The feet should be together with their upper surfaces facing the floor and the heels slightly apart. Now lower your body until you are sitting on the heels, which forces full extension of the ankles. If the posture is beyond your capacity you can use any combination of several props: supporting the ankles with a small pillow or folded towel, placing a soft pillow between the thighs and the legs, or placing a substantial pillow under the hips and between the feet.
To develop enough flexibility for the basic posture, you can spread your feet apart and sit between them in one of three possible positions: with the heels up, with the heels in and the toes out, or with the heels out and the toes in. In this last one you usually place some of your weight on the feet as well as on the floor. If your knee and ankle flexibility do not permit sitting squarely on the floor in these three variations, most instructors suggest that you place a supporting pillow between the feet just high enough to make the posture comfortable.
The basic adamantine pose can be used for brief periods of meditation and pranayama, but unless you have grown up with it in an Islamic culture, or have taken a decade or two of training in the formal Japanese tea ceremony, sitting in this posture for more than a few minutes should be approached cautiously. First of all, it may strain ligaments in the knee that are not accustomed to prolonged tension. Second, circulation may be cut off in the legs as a result of the extreme flexion of the knees, causing a pins-and-needles sensation. Finally, the pose places pressure directly on a superficial branch of the common peroneal nerve, which is subcutaneous just lateral to the head of the fibula and which supplies several muscles on the anterior side of the leg. If that nerve is traumatized by prolonged sitting in the adamantine pose, the muscles it supplies can be temporarily paralyzed. You will experience numbness and a clinical syndrome—someone cleverly but unjustifiably thought to call it “yoga foot drop”—in which you are unable to flex the ankle when you step forward. If the trauma is mild you will experience the symptoms for only a few minutes or at most a few days. But if you damage the nerve to the point at which its axons degenerate distally from the site of their injury, you will have to wait for the nerve fibers to regenerate from that site to the peripheral sensory receptors and muscles before you regain sensory and motor function. This regeneration happens slowly but surely, at the rate of about one mm per day.
All of these problems can be remedied by sitting 5–8 inches off the floor on a small bench with a tilted-forward seat (fig. 10.9). In this position the knees are incompletely flexed, and because of this, little pressure is placed on the common peroneal nerve, and blood circulation is less impeded. The biggest advantage, however, is that none of the muscular tension associated with cross-legged postures is present. It is easy for the iliopsoas muscles to tilt the back of the pelvis up and forward to create a strain-free lumbar lordosis, even for those with severe restrictions in hip flexibility. The pelvis is automatically placed in a forward tilt defined by the angle of the seat (the only sitting posture in which that happens) and this creates an automatic lumbar curve that keeps the abdomen open and yet taut, which in turn is helpful for experimenting with different methods of breathing. The other attractive feature of this posture is that it is possible to sit comfortably in it for much longer than is possible for any of the three classic sitting poses—all without pins-and-needles sensations, lower back discomfort, and cramped circulation.
The advantages to sitting in the adamantine posture on a bench are logical, obvious, and huge. So why is it not in widespread use, and why is it not included in the canon of traditional yogic meditation postures? The reasons fall into two categories. Structurally, the adamantine posture on a bench does not form a right tetrahedron, and it is therefore not as stable as the classic sitting poses. The thighs are not at a right angle from the spine, the knees are not very far apart, and the upper extremities do not brace the posture as efficiently as they do in the cross-legged postures. If you have gotten accustomed to one of the three classic sitting poses, and you try this one as an alternative, you may sense a lack of groundedness—a floating feeling and a sense that your energy is being dissipated. If you cannot put this feeling aside or compensate for it in some manner, you will probably not be content with this pose in the long run. But still, if you keep having discomfort with the other postures, and especially if you wish to sit in perfect comfort for long periods of time, it’s worth a try. Perhaps you can make it work.
Figure 10.9. The adamantine posture (vajrasana) on a bench is hard to match for long periods of sitting. The psoas and iliacus muscles work efficiently to keep you upright, the tilted-forward seat places the pelvis in a natural anterior pelvic tilt that encourages a comfortable lumbar lordosis, the feet and knees are not stressed, and problems with blood circulation and damage to the common peroneal nerve are minimized. The disadvantages, often mentioned by those who have long accustomed themselves to one of the three classic sitting postures on the floor, is that this posture leaves them with an ungrounded, floating sensation that distracts them from meditation.
THE EASY POSTURE (SUKASANA)
As the name implies, the easy posture (sukasana) is the first one beginners learn when they are ready to sit on the floor. To do it, simply fold the lower extremities so that each leg rests on the opposite foot and sit up as straight as possible. The lateral sides of the feet are against the floor and the legs and thighs may point up at an angle of 20–30° (fig. 10.10a).
The easy posture is appropriate for 2–5 minute periods of meditation or for breathing exercises at the beginning or end of a class, but it has several disadvantages as a meditative posture. To understand why, try the following experiment. Sit flat on the floor and assume the easy posture, making a moderate effort to hold the back straight. Remembering that the psoas and iliacus muscles insert on the femur, lift the posture by using those muscles. Notice that when you try to lift and straighten the vertebral column, the lumbar lordosis is pulled forward by the iliopsoas muscles, as expected, but the thigh is also pulled toward the torso, raising the knees (fig. 10.10b). This makes the posture unstable: the thighs float up and down and the lumbar region floats back and forth.
Another reason this posture is unstable is that it doesn’t form a true right tetrahedron. Compared with the other cross-legged sitting poses, the base triangle is smaller, since it is supported only by the lateral sides of the feet rather than the full length of the thighs, and the elbows are bent 90°, making it difficult for the upper limbs to stabilize the posture.
A cushion that lifts you several inches off the floor modifies the posture to the point at which it becomes more stable: the thighs are closer to being horizontal and the hands can grasp the knees with the forearms extended. And because of this you can lift the vertebral column without springing the thighs into a flexed position. This posture, supported by a thick, firm, round pillow called a zafu cushion, is commonly used for marathon periods of sitting in zen meditative traditions, and is definitely worth exploring.
THE AUSPICIOUS POSTURE (SWASTIKASANA)
At some point serious students of yoga will want to try one of the classic sitting postures for meditation, and the one to start with is the easiest of the three—the auspicious pose (swastikasana). Place the left foot against the opposite inner thigh with the back of the heel to the right side of the genitals (fig. 10.11a). Notice a prominent bony knob on the medial side of the ankle. This is the medial malleolus, and it should be just to the right of the midline of the body. The lateral malleolus (fig. 6.8), on the opposite side of the ankle, rests against the floor. Next, tuck the lateral side of the right foot between the left leg and thigh. The two heels are now separated by the width of about four fingers. The lateral malleolus of the right ankle is now to the left of the medial malleolus of the left ankle. In other words, they cross one another in the midline. If the heels are not far enough apart, these bones will be on top of one another and will cause discomfort. Now, reaching between the right leg and thigh, pull the left foot up so it is fixed between the calf and thigh muscles. Then sit straight and place the hands lightly on the knees with the palms down (fig. 10.11b). The body is now stabilized in the form of a right tetrahedron.
Figure 10.10a. The easy posture (sukasana) isn’t easy for long because it doesn’t have a stable base. It is fine for a few minutes of meditation or breathing exercises at the end of a class, during which time you can make a special effort to sit up straight. Otherwise, it can be used as a more relaxed posture for playing music or eating a meal. In any case, the foot that is pulled in first should be alternated regularly. The pose is shown here with the hands at the sides for comparison with the profiles of the thighs and back in figure 10.10b. The hands would ordinarily be placed on the knees.
Figure 10.10b. When you try to sit up straighter in the easy pose, your psoas muscles act to pull the lumbar lordosis forward, and your iliacus muscles act in emphasizing an anterior pelvic tilt. That much is fine. The problem, however, is that the thighs are not stabilized, and the hip flexors create an unwanted side effect of increasing hip flexion (lifting the knees), which makes sitting in this posture for meditation a constant battle for stability.
As mentioned earlier, the right foot should be placed on the bottom every other time you sit in the auspicious pose, as well as in all other cross-legged sitting postures. After a few weeks, it becomes a simple matter of habit to alternate. As a reminder, you can place the left foot underneath on odd days of the month and the right foot underneath on even days of the month. Why do this? With nothing on from the waist down, watch yourself carefully in a mirror and notice that the foot on the bottom lifts the pelvis slightly on that same side. More specifically, if the left foot is on the bottom, the left leg is slightly further underneath the left thigh than the right leg is underneath the right thigh. The proximal portion of the left thigh will therefore be slightly higher than that of the right thigh, and as a result the crest of the left ilium will be slightly higher than the crest of the right ilium. And since the pelvic bowl is tilted to the right, the vertebral column has to tilt slightly to the right in the lumbar region, to the left in the thorax, and again to the right in the neck. If you switch the positions of the feet you will notice that the postural adjustments reverse themselves from head to toe, leaving you with an opposite set of right-left imbalances. It is impossible to eliminate them entirely, but it is a good idea to compensate for the imbalance on one day with an equal and opposite imbalance the next. It becomes a matter of routine and does not violate the classic injunction to stick with one sitting posture for meditation.
Figure 10.11. To prevent imbalances in all the cross-legged sitting postures, the foot that is placed first should be alternated daily, such as the left foot first on odd days of the month (a) and the right foot first on even days of the month. The key feature of the auspicious posture (swastikasana, shown here) is that the feet are placed against the opposite thighs so that the medial malleolus of the lowermost ankle and the lateral malleolus of the upper ankle are both situated beyond the midsagittal plane (b). In other words, the malleoli cross one another rather than being on top of one another. In the case pictured above, the left foot (big toe side) is pulled up between the right calf and thigh, and the right foot (little toe side) is inserted between the left calf and thigh (b).
The auspicious pose is the easiest of the three classic sitting postures because the feet cross one another in the midline of the body and end up in a natural and stable position planted against the opposite thighs. The adductors and pubofemoral ligaments are not stretched excessively, and the knees and hip joints are not placed under intense torque. Your main needs for this pose will be to develop hip flexibility and to acclimate to torques and pressures on the ankles. After that, almost everyone can be comfortable in this posture. If you are using a cushion, adjust it to the point at which it is high enough to support you but not so high that you do not need to make moderate efforts to keep the lumbar lordosis arched and the sacroiliac joints in full nutation. Decrease the height of the cushion over a long period of time until you are sitting closer to the floor. This pose is aptly named the auspicious posture. You can settle into it indefinitely and without regret.
THE ACCOMPLISHED POSTURE (SIDDHASANA)
The accomplished pose (siddhasana), also known as the perfect pose, is said to be the meditative posture of yoga adepts and renunciates. It is the most demanding—and some say the most rewarding—of all the sitting postures, but anyone who is reasonably comfortable with the auspicious pose can begin to learn it.
Several variations of the accomplished posture are given in the hatha yoga literature, but for even the commonest one which we will describe here, different authorities give slightly different directions for how to place the feet. Regardless of this, all agree that the backs of the heels are to be exactly in the midsagittal plane of the torso.
In men the base of the penis rests against the bottom heel, so when you first explore the posture it is best not to wear anything from the waist down. Lift the penis, scrotum, and testes up and out of the way, and then place the left heel underneath the inferior pubic rami (figs. 1.12 and 3.2) so that there is barely room for the penis to emerge above the heel. If you are sitting squarely on the floor with no support to lift you up, the back of the heel will be situated slightly in front of the center of the perineum (fig. 10.12). Your weight will be supported by the thighs, the ischial tuberosities, and by the left heel and inferior pubic rami.
The corpus spongiosum of the penis (chapter 3) will be slightly compressed from below by the medial aspect of the heel, but it will be protected by the depth of the upside-down V formed by the inferior pubic rami (fig. 10.13). The back of the heel should be pressing against the inner surfaces of the inferior pubic rami from which the corpora cavernosa arise. The skeletal foundation of the posture, which shows the contact points of the heel with the two ischiopubic rami, as well as space for the penis between the heel and the pubic symphysis, makes the nature of this pose apparent immediately (fig. 10.13). The corpus spongiosum should be exactly in the midline, locked between the heel and the top of the V. Be careful not to get any part of the spermatic cord (containing the ductus deferens, blood vessels, and nerves) caught between the pelvic bones and the heel. Make doubly sure of this after settling the first foot into position (in this case the left foot) by pulling the skin of the scrotum up and forward so that the skin and underlying tissues of the front of the perineum are pulled taut.
Notice that the medial malleolus of the left foot is to the left of the midline. Adjust the genitals to either side of the heel—penis and one testis to one side and the other testis to the other. Then place the right foot above the left so that the back of the right heel is exactly in line with the back of the left heel. You can lift the right heel above and to the front of the pubic bone, allowing the foot to angle downward, or if that is not possible you can fold a small, soft cloth and use it as a cushion between the two ankles without violating the essence of the posture. The malleoli do not cross beyond one another as they do in the auspicious posture. The lateral malleolus of the right foot is now to the right of the midline and also to the right of the medial malleolus of the left foot. Straighten the spine and rest the hands on the knees, allowing the thumbs and index fingers to touch one another. The body has now formed a right tetrahedron (fig. 10.14). As with other cross-legged sitting postures, the positions of the feet should be switched on alternate days or sittings.
Women, like men, should position the heel against the inner surface of the inferior pubic rami. But this means that the heel will have to be placed directly against the soft tissues of the genitals, well in front of the fourchette (the fold of skin which forms the union of the lower ends of the labia minora). The heel will be more intrusive in the female because the upside-down V formed by the pubic rami is shallower than in the male. Some authorities describe a posture in which women sit with nothing on from the waist down and press the lowermost heel between the labia, calling the pose yoni siddhasana. Other authorities state heatedly that women should never sit in any form of the accomplished pose. Those who find it uncomfortable can use the auspicious pose.
Figure 10.12. The key feature of the unpropped accomplished posture (siddhasana) is that the back of the heel of the lowermost foot is placed at the perineum (between the anus and the genitals) exactly in the midline. The medial and lateral malleoli of the respective feet are both located short of the midsagittal plane of the body, so that if the top foot is laid down directly against the bottom foot, the two malleoli do not rest on top of one another. Most people will require a prop to make this posture comfortable.
It is said that the accomplished posture stabilizes and sublimates sexual energy because of the position of the feet with respect to the genitals. So to monitor the subtleties of the pose you have to monitor the position of the lower heel in relation to the structures lying within the confines of the urogenital triangle (figs. 3.4 and 3.27–29). If you are sitting straight in the accomplished pose without a cushion, and if the sacroiliac joints are fused or locked, the pelvis will rotate forward in exact proportion to how far the lower back arches. And if or as the posture improves under these circumstances (which means establishing a fuller lumbar lordosis and a straighter posture), the inferior pubic rami are rotated to an even more acute angle with respect to the floor. In men this catches the base of the penis between two unyielding surfaces—the bones of the foot and the inferior pubic rami. In women, coming more fully into the posture presses the lower heel more deeply into the soft tissues of the external genitals.
Figure 10.13. The skeletal details of fig. 10.12 (unpropped accomplished pose) reveal that the tarsal bone of the heel (the calcaneus) is locked squarely against the inferior pubic rami. The soft tissues at possible hazard in the male are the corpus spongiosum of the penis in the midline, and especially the two corpora cavernosa, which take origin along the medial borders of the inferior pubic rami. It is the possible damage to arteries within the corpus spongiosum and the corpora cavernosa that suggest contraindicating extensive practice of the accomplished posture in men who wish to maintain sexual activity. With three exceptions, a similar situation occurs for a woman: the exposed portion of the clitoris is well out of harm’s way; the pubic arch is wider, thus easing contact of the heel with the corpora cavernosa; and the back of the heel will be placed squarely between the labia in the vaginal introitus (Dodd).
It is at this point that sacroiliac joint mobility makes a big difference. If instead of being fused or locked, the sacroiliac joint is capable of 5–10° of movement between the extremes of nutation and counternutation, you will want to establish full nutation. This can help the posture circuitously in two ways: First, because nutation spreads the ischial tuberosities apart, it eases tension on the adductors, and this helps you sit straighter with an intact lumbar lordosis. This can help you in all of the classic meditative sitting postures, but nutation is especially important in the accomplished posture for yet another reason: with the sacroiliac joints in full nutation, the pelvic bowl as a whole does not have to be tipped quite so far forward to complete the posture, and this means that in relative terms nutation will have produced a slight posterior pelvic tilt and will have reduced the acuteness of the angle between the inferior pubic rami and the floor. In combination with spreading the ischia apart, this makes a little more room for the penis. Each of these effects is tiny, but the results add up. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that sacroiliac joint mobility for nutation is almost as important to this posture as adductor and hip flexibility.
Figure 10.14. The completed accomplished posture. As in the case of the unpropped auspicious pose, the foot that is placed first should be alternated daily for the accomplished pose. There are two options for the upper foot, one with a pad between the ankles (but with the malleoli short of the midsagittal plane), and the other with the upper leg rotated severely enough that the upper foot is placed entirely above the genitals. The former is easier; the latter, shown here, is more traditional. In any case, the toes are tucked in between the calves and thighs as in the auspicious pose.
As to props, a supporting cushion changes the position of the heel and alters the posture so completely that even calling it the accomplished pose becomes questionable. If you are four inches off the floor, the lower heel will probably not even be in contact with the body and even the upper heel will be below the base of the penis, or, in the female, midway in the labia. At three inches off the floor the lower heel can be positioned easily in the center of the perineum in either men or women, but it may not press firmly at that site; and the upper heel is still below the genitals in the male and at the level of the opening of the urethra in the female. One to two inches off the floor, the lower heel is situated in front of the center of the perineum, and the upper heel will now be slightly above the penis in men, and at the level of the clitoris in women.
The hatha yoga literature suggests that pressure of the lower heel against the penis is beneficial for men who are attempting to maintain celibacy. At the same time we see occasional warnings that the accomplished pose can cause impotence. There are two concerns. The first is that the posture can cause numbness in the penis as the result of direct pressure on the cutaneous nerves. If you wish to maintain sexual activity you should therefore sit without traumatizing those nerves. This is easy if you sit on a support which lifts the ischial tuberosities—and with the ischial tuberosities the inferior pubic rami—high enough so that the base of the penis is not compressed. Also take care to sit with the heel perfectly in the midline. Cutaneous nerves (nerves that distribute their fibers to the skin) never cross the midline, and if the posture is adjusted perfectly no serious problems are likely to be found.
A second concern is potentially more serious: impotence caused by traumatization of the central arteries of the corpora cavernosa, the erectile bodies of the penis (fig. 3.28a), from too much or too prolonged pressure from the lowermost heel. Urologists who specialize in sports medicine commonly see this problem in cyclists who fall against the top tube of a bicycle, a mishap which damages the arteries of the corpora cavernosa and interferes with their ability to dilate. Sitting on a support for the accomplished posture may prevent trauma to the central arteries of the corpora cavernosa as well as numbness because the rear of the heel is situated more posteriorly and will not lock the corpora cavernosa quite so firmly against the inferior pubic rami.
In summary, sitting up on a cushion that protects the vessels and nerves of the base of the penis changes the posture from one that significantly restrains sexual energy to one that moderates the sexual impulse more subtly and provides support and nurturance generally to the base of the body. A soft, supported posture seems more appropriate for men who are in an active sexual relationship or who wish to maintain that potential. For men at least, sitting for hours daily in the accomplished pose in its pure form—flat on the floor with the penis locked in place—is appropriate only for those who are in a state of celibacy and who wish to remain so for the rest of their lives.
If women sit directly on the floor, the back of the lower heel will be in the exact place where both the urogenital and pelvic diaphragms are interrupted by the vaginal introitus. We do not have enough data to say whether this heel position brings the same benefits (or problems) to women as it does to men. Some women report that it is uncomfortable but harmless, others say that it is beneficial for restraining sexual energy.
If you wish to master the accomplished pose, first sit in the auspicious pose regularly for a few months, gradually decreasing the height of your support. Then make it an inch higher and try the accomplished pose. Because the backs of the heels are aligned in the midline of the body for the accomplished pose, the adductors must be longer than for the auspicious posture (given a constant height of the support), and for this reason the accomplished pose will create more resistance to flexion at the hip joints. Adjust the height until you are stable and then gradually decrease it. Your final position will depend on exactly what you hope to learn and gain from this posture.
THE LOTUS POSTURE (PADMASANA)
The lotus posture (padmasana) is one of the most beautiful postures in yoga but it is not practical for most Westerners as a meditation pose. It places peculiar stress on the knee and hip joints, and unless you have done it in your formative years it is not likely to work satisfactorily. If mastered it is said to bring an incomparable feeling of repose and calmness to the mind. The lotus posture is also used in connection with numerous other asanas such as the headstand (chapter 8), so it is worthwhile to practice even if you do not intend to use it for meditation.
To come into the posture place the lateral surfaces of the ankles against the opposite thighs as close to the torso as possible. The feet should be upturned and the toes should rest against the lateral sides of the thighs. Then straighten the spine and place the hands on the knees, generating the right tetrahedron (fig. 10.15). As with other cross-legged sitting postures, the positions of the feet should be switched on alternate sittings for the sake of balance, placing the left foot first and following with the right, then placing the right foot first and following with the left.
Because the knee joints are hinges, the legs force the thighs into extreme lateral rotation when the feet are lifted onto the thighs, and when coupled with an initial flexion and abduction of the thighs, the extraordinary lateral rotation places the hip joint in a stressed and unusual position. This plus the stress on the knee is what makes this posture so difficult. Years of consistent effort may be needed to alter the anatomy of the hip joints and supporting ligaments enough to make the pose feasible. And even after this, one knee is likely to resist resting squarely against the floor unless you are sitting up on a cushion or other support.
Yogis tell us it is important to apply mula bandha (the root lock, chapter 3) in all the sitting meditative postures. Only by doing this, they say, can we have a sound approach to meditation and govern the energy and vitality of the base of the body. It is the position of the lower extremities that determines the experience of the root lock, and this depends on four things: hip flexibility and the angle between the thighs and the pelvis, the amount of abduction of the thighs, the position of the feet and ankles, and the angle at which the perineum faces the floor. Because these differ from posture to posture, and because the experience of the root lock is fundamental to the experience of each, we shall have to consider the six standard poses individually.
In the friendship pose the base of the body feels open, and because of this, concentration is needed to hold the root lock continuously. But if a soft, padded surface is placed against the front of the perineum, this prop mildly stimulates the muscles of the pelvic floor and of the urogenital triangle (chapter 3). You can use a folded-up washcloth for this purpose, or purchase a little wedge-shaped “mula bandha cushion.” In either case the prop will allow you to feel the essence of the root lock and leave your mind free for meditation.
In the adamantine pose the problem is similar. If you sit between the feet directly on the floor, you can hold the root lock only with constant attention, especially if the thighs are together, because the perineum is isolated and pulled open. On the other hand, if the knees are spread apart the buttocks come together and the lock is easier to maintain. Sitting on a bench, you can tilt the pelvis forward, pressing the urogenital triangle against the supporting plank and thus making it simple to hold the lock.
Figure 10.15. The lotus posture is one of the most important symbols of yoga, floating in the water and yet anchored firmly to the earth below by a single strand. As a meditation pose the lotus pose is beyond the reach of most westerners, but even if it is not used for that purpose, it is important to so many other postures in hatha yoga that it should be practiced regularly. As for the other cross-legged sitting postures, the foot positions should be alternated daily.
In the easy posture the acute angle of the thighs with the trunk makes it difficult to hold the root lock for more than a few seconds. It’s almost as difficult as trying to hold the lock while squatting. It is easier to hold if the thighs are more horizontal, as when the easy posture is lifted up by a cushion and the front of the perineum (the urogenital triangle) is facing a folded-up washcloth or mula bandha cushion.
Of the three classic sitting postures, the root lock is most difficult to hold in the lotus posture: the extreme position of the lower extremities tends to draw the anus open and to stretch the entire breadth of the perineum. At the other end of the spectrum is the accomplished posture (without a supporting cushion), in which the underneath heel places pressure against the central tendon of the perineum and thereby stimulates the muscles of the urogenital and pelvic diaphragms. This makes it possible to hold the lock spontaneously in that posture with little additional attention. In order of difficulty, holding the lock in the auspicious pose is somewhere between these two. As with the friendship, adamantine, and easy postures, a supporting prop at the front of the perineum makes it possible to hold the root lock with only the tiniest thread of attention.
MASTERING THE SITUATION
Yoga teachers never tire of saying that sitting postures require you to remain straight, still, and comfortable. But what do you do if you cannot follow all three requirements at the same time? Where do you compromise? Do you relax if relaxing droops your posture? Do you tense the body to maintain stillness? If so, where and how much? And how do you sit comfortably if all the classic postures are uncomfortable? Every teacher will have a different answer, and every teacher will answer differently to students of differing constitutions.
Many teachers feel that sitting straight is most important. Only by sitting with the head, neck, and trunk in proper alignment is it possible to keep a clear mind. In the zen tradition a hall monitor whacks sagging meditators with a keisaku, a three-foot “encouraging stick,” in order to rouse their postures and energies during long stretches of sitting.
[Technical note: Like all aspects of zen, there is a lot more to doing this job than just walloping someone on the back. It’s an art form that involves the precise administration of the requisite “sensory input” to the muscular region of the shoulder just medial to the spine of the scapula. There is little margin for error. It informs you—the recipient—that sitting straight will alert the mind wonderfully and that if you put your life energy into what you have accepted in the moment, the job of the hall monitor—next time—may just be to pass you by.]
Sitting still is the next priority. When you attempt to improve the sitting postures, it is always a temptation to keep adjusting them: leaning forward, arching the lumbar region, pulling the shoulders back, adjusting the position of the head, and correcting a sideways tilt. You can make all of these adjustments while you sit, but you should make them so slowly that the movements cannot be detected by an outside observer. Obvious movements will disturb your concentration, but if you slowly tighten the pertinent muscles and feel the desired shift take place over a period of 30–60 seconds, your posture and concentration will become firm without diverting your attention from meditation. Your mind may be a bundle of nerves and random thoughts anyway, but you will have no chance of centering it if you scratch, twitch, and weave around.
Comfort is third. One meditator has said that the posture should be as easy as a coat hanging on a coat rack. And certainly you will be endlessly distracted if you are uncomfortable. Pain warns of danger, and not honoring that signal will place you at hazard. And pain is a common problem: every one of the classic cross-legged sitting postures will become painful after a 20–60 minute period of sitting unless you have been practicing them and acclimating for a long time. So if you want to extend your sitting time it is legitimate to push up to the point of pain, but then stop. (It might be noted that zen traditions are generally not in agreement with this advice. Ignore pain, they say: it will pass.) In yoga, the customary attitude is not to force yourself, but to choose a posture in which you can sit straight and remain still for 10–30 minutes and yet be reasonably comfortable. The point is not to set records, but to avoid disturbing your concentration.
A BALANCED SET OF POSTURES
If you want to master the classic sitting postures it is best to use a sequential, systematic approach. If you are a beginner, limit yourself to a balanced set of asanas for several months, including standing postures of all kinds, as well as forward bending, back bending, twisting, the shoulderstand, and the headstand. The standing postures are important because they tone and balance the muscles and joints of the pelvis. Twisted standing forward bends should be performed with the feet wide apart for stretching the adductors. Backbending postures such as the cobra and locust are helpful both for increasing the lumbar lordosis and for building strength in the back muscles.
Of the inverted postures, the many variations of the shoulderstand strengthen, limber, and lengthen many of the key muscles of the body that are important for correct sitting postures. The headstand has marvelous effects in preparing you mentally for sitting. It alerts the mind and body, and it wards off sleep in the early morning. After being in the headstand, the entire body is more responsive to your efforts to sit correctly.
Many other postures and exercises are helpful in obvious ways. Cradling each leg either with your back upright or lying in the supine position stretches the piriformis and obturator internus on each side. Placing the soles of the feet against one another as close as possible to the groin in a sitting position, and following this by pressing down on the thighs stretches the adductors. The lotus posture and the preparatory half lotus are invaluable for opening the hip joints and for toughening the knees.
Exercises to improve flexibility should not be practiced in isolation. If you merely stretch the connective tissue of a joint capsule without at the same time building strength in the associated muscles, the joint will become susceptible to injury. For sitting postures the knees and ankles are the hot spots, and if you do not keep them strong with standing postures, sooner or later they are likely to be injured from the chronic strain of sitting.
THE DEFINITIVE TEST
One test of whether or not you are sitting straight is to adjust your posture near a wall. If two points on the back of the hips, two points on the upper back, and one point on the back of the head barely touch the wall, you are straight (fig. 10.16). This is the ideal; you will probably be surprised to find that you have a tendency to pitch forward.
If you wish to try to meet the ideal, you will first have to tighten the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles in order to pull the body backward into a perpendicular position. It won’t take much effort but the resulting posture will feel insecure, as though you would tip over if it were not for the wall. To compensate for this you will have to lift the posture more insistently with the iliopsoas muscles, but just enough to balance and not enough to pitch you forward again.
At this stage, even if the four contact points for the hips and the shoulders are barely touching the wall, most people will have to drop the head back so much to contact the wall at the fifth point that the chin comes up and they are looking up 30–45°. The most obvious remedy for this is to tuck the chin in and pull the head back enough to make contact. This does not work. It feels awkward and looks ridiculous, like plebes braced at attention in military academies. The solution: either use a cushion or increase your capacity for sacroiliac nutation so you can increase the depth of the lumbar lordosis. Either of these options or both of them in combination lift the chest and pull the back of the head to the rear without extending the neck. All of the classic sitting poses become balancing postures at this stage.
Trying to sit straight while you are just barely touching a wall at five points may be difficult, but it also underscores the three most important requirements for sitting with an erect spine without a supporting cushion: hip and sacroiliac flexibility, hip and sacroiliac flexibility, hip and sacroiliac flexibility.
MASTERING THE POSTURES
You will probably have to work patiently and for a long time to master the sitting postures. The most important thing is to sit in them with intent and purpose. Do the postures. Do not look for shortcuts. Do not yield to the temptation of placing the first foot correctly and then plopping the other one down in front of the opposite leg instead of locking it into place. If you can sit comfortably with the second foot in front of the first, you can learn to sit correctly in the classic pose. Work and play with your personal posture—just one, not all three—systematically until you are sitting close to the floor. Always sit with full concentration. There is little to be gained if you sit haphazardly. In the beginning at least five minutes is needed for settling into the posture. The body yields to your intention only gradually.
RELAXATION AND BREATHING
That you should relax completely in sitting postures is a common misconception. What actually happens is that the body and mind should be brought to a heightened state of attention and alertness, an awareness that takes its origin from your core and permeates the head, neck, trunk, and extremities. The only skeletal muscles that are entirely inactive are the muscles of facial expression. The muscles of the upper extremities should be generally relaxed, especially the shoulders, but they should be in a state of readiness, expressing just enough tone to stabilize the posture and remind you of your geometry. The lower extremities are a different story. They form your base, and even though there should be an overall feeling of ease, they will have to remain in a mild state of isometric contraction to keep the posture looking respectable.
Figure 10.16. The definitive test of sitting straight requires that the back of the head, chest, and sacrum barely touch a perpendicular surface, preferably using an unpropped cross-legged sitting posture. This is a standard that few can attain. Lack of hip flexibility is a common problem, and most people droop their heads forward. Try it anyway; it will give you feedback about your posture.
After you have settled on a meditation posture and have had some experience with it, you can make improvements with specific breathing techniques. Start with diaphragmatic breathing and notice that inhalation deepens the lumbar lordosis, pulls the chest back, and lifts the head and neck. Ordinary exhalations reverse all of these effects, permitting your head and chest to come forward and allowing the lumbar lordosis to flatten. But if you emphasize exhalation with the abdominal muscles by pressing inward gently from below, you will quickly notice that this prevents the posture from deteriorating. Make the movements as subtle as you can so that someone watching you from the side would see the posture improve only over a period of several minutes. As soon as you are straight, still, and relaxed, do your meditation.
At the end of a period of sitting you should feel alert, centered, and wide awake. But you will probably not feel like jumping up immediately to resume your daily activities. Now you can relax. Simply “let go” and allow gravity to bring you forward until the forehead is resting on the floor. You can clasp your hands behind your back, or you can make them into fists and place one on each side of the groin. Rest there for as long as you like (fig. 10.17). This is yoga mudra—the symbol of yoga.
KNOWER OF THE VEIL
Two veils are said to stand between the student and reality, between the student and what the yogis call enlightenment—the veil of body and the veil of mind. Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras begins with three terse aphorisms: “Now an exposition of yoga;” then, “Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of mind;” and last, “Then the seer rests in his own true nature.” Few students are prepared to make use of such stark and mysterious statements, but all accomplished yogis honor them. They know that Patanjali is not referring to hatha yoga but to meditation, and they know that to shred the veil of mind the aspirant must sit steadily and comfortably for long periods of time. To prepare for this the practices of hatha yoga are supreme. The expert in hatha yoga is even called a “knower of the veil.” And within that realm alone there is much to know.
Figure 10.17. Yoga mudra, the symbol of yoga, and a fitting end to a practice of meditation.
“We are taught how to move and behave in the external world, but we are never taught how to be still and examine what is within ourselves. At the same time, learning to be still and calm should not be made a ceremony or a part of any religion; it is a universal requirement of the human body. When one learns to sit still, he or she attains a kind of joy that is inexplicable. The highest of all joys that can ever be attained or experienced by a human being can be attained through meditation. All the other joys in the world are transient and momentary, but the joy of meditation is immense and everlasting.”
— Swami Rama, in Meditation and Its Practice, p. 9.