Thursday, 22 January 2015

An aligned, relaxed body leads to the mind of awakening

Life takes place in this body, right here and now.

We experience the world around us through our body and its senses, so obviously how we use, move, understand and perceive our body has an enormous effect on how we live our lives. If we perceive our body as out of proportion, ugly, or incapable, this necessarily affects how we live compared to someone who is comfortable in their body.

Posture and alignment


Feeling pain, particularly chronic on-going pain, can very easily lead to negative feelings towards the body. One of the biggest causes of pain is bad posture, and the body area that suffers the most is often the back. According to the NHS, back pain is the leading cause of long-term sickness in the UK, and was responsible for a whopping 15 million lost work days in 2013. Sitting for long periods in front of a computer is bad enough, but couple that with bad posture and you've got a recipe for pain.

In meditation we also sit for long periods, so it's no wonder that meditation teachers have a lot to say about sitting posture. The famous 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote that to practice meditation one should "Sit ... with your [clothes] tied loosely and arranged neatly. ... Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel." Simple enough!

When we start our meditation practice and bring awareness to the body, one of the first things we may notice are areas of stiffness or tension. These can arise for many reasons as I wrote about here.

One of the keys to releasing tension and encouraging relaxation is bringing the body into correct alignment (the subject of a wonderful little book by Will Johnson). But what are we aligning our body to? The answer is our innate sense of “up” and “down”, and this comes from gravity. If we can align our body around a predominantly vertical axis (whether sitting or standing), then the force of gravity will support us instead of weigh us down. Right now try leaning to one side. It takes a some work! So aligning of the physical body with the vertical allows us to relax and shed unnecessary tension. This is why sitting up straight is so important, and that's why doing something like yoga practice is also so important.

Upright meditation position
Firstly, yoga practice shows us where our tensions and imbalances lie. For example, almost all of us have natural imbalances in the hips which cause a slight scoliosis (sideways curve) in the spine, which in turn causes our shoulders to sit skewey and our neck and head to be slightly off-centre. Through correct practice we can learn to release and unblock these tensions and asymmetries so that both our physical and energetic bodies can come into balanced alignment.

However, it's important that the uprightness we cultivate isn't rigid. The strength to hold ourselves upright (especially in this day and age where we tend to slouch at every opportunity) takes time to develop, and it must come together with a sense of softness. This is particularly important in the chest and belly so that our breathing can be as unrestricted and natural as possible.

An aligned, relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind


A relaxed body, in turn, encourages a relaxed mind – one that is less distracted by pain and discomfort, and more able to feel and sense what’s happening in this present moment. Zen master Dogen said, "if one's body is straight, one's mind is easily straightened too. If one sits keeping one's body upright, one's mind does not become dull... One must be aware when one's mind runs around in distraction, or when one's body leans or sways, and allow body and mind to return to sitting upright."
In this quote, Dogen is making an analogy between present moment awareness and our vertical axis. As soon as the mind loses alignment to this axis (i.e. the present moment), we can say our mind loses balance and we start to wander off into memories or fantasies.

One of Dogen’s students once asked him “Do we find the way in the mind or the body?” Dogen answered "In the body." And in his famous book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" the 20th century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said "The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is itself enlightenment."


I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

What's your experience of sitting up straight in meditation? How do you combine uprightness with soft relaxation? Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

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