Zen & Buddhism Q&As

What is a good posture for Zazen?

We can get a bit hung up on the ideal of sitting in the full lotus position.

Very few western people can do that, so they have some variant. For example, they might sit in the ‘half lotus’, ‘quarter lotus’, the ‘Burmese’ position, or some other variant.

There are two essential aspects to the posture, which can be practiced whether we are sitting in a cross legged position, or kneeling, or sitting in a chair.

These two aspects are, that firstly, that our pelvis needs to be in the correct position and secondly, broadly speaking, our weight needs to be slightly forward – or at least not leaning back. That’s why, when we’re cross legged, our knees need to be on the ground; if they’re not, our weight tends to go backwards.

Taking these two aspects in turn:

The most important thing to learn is to position our pelvis so that our weight is dropping down through our sit bones. Almost anyone can do this.

We need to find a position where our buttocks are sticking out, creating a slight curve in our lower lumbar spine. When we do this, we feel that our weight is going forward. We can feel our sit bones – they are the knobbly bits to either side of our anus. Our weight needs to drop down to the earth through our sit bones. That is the single most important thing that we can do. You need to be able to feel them, their three dimensionality. If the pelvis isn’t in the right position, nothing above it is either, and your Zazen will be effortful and difficult, when it doesn’t have to be. People experience back pain and body compression in Zazen because their weight is too far back, which in turn throws the head forward to compensate, which compresses the torso and means our front postural muscles can’t do their job.The temptation for the practitioner who doesn’t attend to pelvic position is to stick the chest out, which seems to create the same curve in the lumbar, but it can’t be maintained, and so the practitioner alternates between strain and collapse.

Once we have found this position, our weight also requires to be going slightly forward. If we are in a cross legged position, then it should feel as if about half our weight is on our knees. If we are sitting on a chair, a substantial part of our weight should be going down through our feet and specifically through an acupressure point in our foot called, ‘bubbling spring’, which is a little bit below the junction of the big and second toe. You can find it by flexing your toes and moving your weight forward and backwards on the sole of your foot.

 The purpose of not leaning back is that it makes the posture dynamic. If you are leaning back, your posture will lack energy, and the body and the mind will be out of balance. Leaning forward, the activity of the mind takes place within the dynamic space of the body, and is much easier to bear with equanimity.

Those two things taken together, effectively mean that our weight is pushing the earth. Because of that,  there is a counter-push which comes up through our sit-bones (although energetically it feels that it comes up through our base chakra, which is at the perineum) and rises up through our spine and out and up through the crown of our head.

Frequently, instructions are given in Zen advising practitioners to tuck in the chin and push up with the top of the head. These are dreadful instructions. They just create tension in your neck.

However, if your pelvis is in the right position and your weight is going forward, then there is naturally an upward sense in your spine; your head should feel nice and relaxed and spacious, and the chin will be slightly tucked in with no effort. There is no tension in your neck at all – because you’re not trying to do anything – it is just as if there is a lovely push coming up through the body, uncompressing the spine, releasing tension and contraction. The back of your head around the occipital joint – what the Chinese call the jade pillow – will feel open, spacious and uncontracted.

Those are the two most important aspects of the posture. If you maintain them, everything else will follow.

More detailed teachings on Sitting Instructions and The Body