Fall and winter are the perfect time to embark on a meditation practice. The definition of Yoga, according to Alistair Shearer’s translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is “the settling of the mind into silence.” The sutras outline eight limbs of yoga practice, of which asana, the practice of poses, is the third. Others include ethical precepts, personal practices, breathing exercises, refinement of the senses, concentration, meditation and Samadhi (the completely settled mind). Asana practice, like all the other limbs, is meant to support the settling of the mind. Some sutra scholars believe that asana was originally conceived to be just the simple sitting posture for meditation, Cross-Legged Sitting Pose (Sukhasana). All the other poses were developed to prepare the body for Sukhasana.
Sukhasana is often translated as “easy pose.” As anyone who’s practiced meditation likely knows, when you sit in Sukhasana for any length of time, it is anything but easy. To sit in Sukhasana for a long meditation period requires the precise physical refinement that comes from practicing all the yoga asanas. I like to think of sukhasana not so much as an easy pose, but as a pose of ease, a pose with a stable base that creates a tranquil ground for the mind to settle into silence.
In order for Sukhasana to be easeful, we need to find a position that allows the spine to relax into its natural curves. There are four curves in the spine. Beginning at the bottom of the spine, these are the sacral curve (convex), the lumbar curve (concave), the thoracic curve (convex) and the cervical curve (concave). These curves form a giant “S,” and are necessary for shock absorption and for optimal support of the head and rib cage. When these curves are straightened, we have to employ extra muscular energy to hold our frames upright. This can tire us out, making Sukhasana a chore.
The key to maintaining your spinal curves in Sukhasana is making sure you are sitting up high enough so that your pelvis tilts forward. This creates the sacral angle—a 30-degree forward slant—that then allows all the other curves to fall into place. Even if you are very flexible, it is helpful to sit on a stack of blankets or a meditation cushion if you plan to sit in Sukhasana for pranayama (breathing) or meditation practice.
Begin by stacking a few blankets (or setting up your meditation cushion). If I’m using blankets, I like to turn them so that I’m sitting on a corner of the stack, so that my thighs can easily hang off the edges. You may begin by crossing either leg in front of the other. Note which leg is in front, so that you can switch the cross of your legs next time.
If your knees are jutting up above your hipbones, you likely won’t want to sit in Cross-Legged Sitting Pose for long meditation or pranayama sessions. When your knees are elevated, your pelvis rolls back, flattening the lumbar curve. Try adding another blanket or cushion under your hips.
Now slowly rock forward and back, allowing your pelvis to tilt gently forward and backward. Try to find your natural center in the pose, the place where your torso feels neutral. Feeling neutral is tricky, however, as neutral is a place of little sensation. It is always much easier to feel extremes, but because Sukhasana is meant to help us center and quiet for meditation, neutral is the optimum place to be. Here’s how I test whether or not I am in my neutral center: When you are centered in your body, when you press your sit bones down you will feel a gentle rebound or lift up through your body.
Practicing Sukhasana’s revolved variation can help prepare your back for sitting in Sukhasana. It also feels great after you’ve sat for a while. Sit in Cross-Legged Sitting Pose with your spine in neutral. Turn to the right, placing your left hand on the outside of your right knee. Place your right hand on the floor behind your back and press gently into the floor to help lengthen your spine upward.
As you inhale, feel your spine rising upward, and as you exhale, allow your spine to rotate a bit more. Allow your breath to guide you into the twist rather than using your left arm to force it. Turn your head in the direction of the twist, but not so far that you feel neck strain. Relax your eyes and your brain. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths. Repeat, twisting the opposite direction. Then cross your legs the opposite way and repeat the twist on both sides.