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Take a Seat: How to Choose a Meditation Cushion or Bench

How to Choose a Meditation Cushion or Bench

People sometimes chuckle when I tell them that sitting meditation is physically rigorous. But it’s true. When you sit still and tune into your body for any length of time, you’re likely to become uncomfortable. And sitting for long periods in the same position will at some point start to make you antsy.

Even in my hour-long meditation class, people sometimes experience physical difficulties. That’s when I work with them to find the best sitting position and the best support for each person’s individual structure.

It’s All About Your Skeleton

Curves of the Spine

Comfortable sitting depends on your spine’s ability to maintain its natural curves (see illustration). The human spine is designed to hold itself up naturally when its curves are in integrity. The most common problem that happens in sitting meditation is that because of the shape and structure of our hip joints, or because of inflexibility, our sacrum becomes vertical, or in some cases, it tilts back instead of forward. When this happens, our lumbar curve has to straighten or even hunch forward, causing us to have to use a whole lot of core strength to sit upright. When we spend a lot of energy just to sit upright, we will struggle simply to sit, and we will get tired pretty quickly.

While Sukhasana (Easy Cross-Legged Pose) is the traditional sitting position, not everyone can sit this way. Some people’s hip joints easily rotate externally, while others’ more easily rotate internally. If your knees are lower than your hip bones when you sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, that means your hip joints rotate externally with ease. When your knees are lower than the hip bones, your sacrum is encouraged to tilt forward, keeping your spinal curves intact. If your hip joints are more inclined to rotate internally, your knees will rise to the level of the hip bones or higher. When your knees are higher than your hip bones, your sacrum will naturally tilt backward, making sitting for long periods uncomfortable.

We need to sit high enough on a meditation cushion or bench so that our sacrum, and therefore our pelvis, can tilt forward so that the spinal curves above can fall into place. That is why meditation cushions are designed to give us extra height. Here are some tips on how to choose the best support for your body and your practice:

Zafu and Zen Cushion

Zafu Meditation Cushion Zafu

Zafus are the traditional, round meditation cushion. Our Zafus are filled with organic buckwheat hulls and are about five inches high. For many people the height of our Zafus will be more than sufficient for comfortable sitting.

Our Zen Cushions are similar in height to our Zafus, but rectangular shaped. Whether you choose the Zafu or Zen is a matter of personal preference. Sitting on the wide side of the Zen Pillow will support the tops of your thighs more than the Zafu will. Some people prefer more

Zen Meditation Cushion Zen Cushion

support, while others prefer that their upper thighs extend off the edge of their cushion. These people will prefer the Zafu. But all in all, the support is very similar between the two of them.

If you’re thinking of trying a Zafu or Zen Cushion for cross-legged sitting, first try sitting on a 5-inch-high stack of firm blankets with your ankles on the floor in front of your blanket stack. Check where your knees land, and if you find that your knees are at hip bone level or higher, Sukhasana might not be your best meditation position.

The good news is that the Zafu and Zen are adaptable. If cross-legged sitting doesn’t work for you, you can turn your Zafu or Zen Cushion on its side. Place it between your thighs and sit on it with your knees bent, shins on the floor on either side of the cushion.

V-Shaped Meditation Cushion

V-Shaped Meditation CushionOur V-Shaped Cushion is similar in height and purpose to the Zafu. But here’s what makes me love the V-Shaped Cushion: Because my hip joints externally rotate easily, my legs need more support than traditional cushions can give. The V-Shaped Cushion slants downward so that it supports your entire leg and encourages your pelvis to tilt forward—provided your hips externally rotate as described above.

Whether you decide to use a Zafu, Zen Pillow, V-Shaped Cushion or Meditation Bench is a matter of personal preference. All of them will work well for a daily sitting practice. Most people find them equally comfortable even for marathon sitting on longer retreats, as long as the cushions allow them to maintain their spinal curves.

As with the Zafus, you can check whether a V-Shaped Meditation Cushion is appropriate for you by sitting on a 5-inch stack of firm blankets and observing whether your legs are higher or lower than your pelvis. If your legs can’t rest on the “legs” of the cushion because they are high in the air, the V-Shaped Cushion won’t be comfortable. So, if you can use a Zafu, you will probably also find the V-Shaped Cushion to be comfortable.

All of Hugger Mugger’s meditation cushions are filled with organic buckwheat hulls. The covers are zippered, so that you can add or subtract filling as you like. Here’s an overview of all the choices.

Meditation Bench

Meditation BenchMeditation Bench a a great alternative to using a meditation cushion. There are several advantages. Because you do not sit cross-legged on a Meditation Bench, it doesn’t matter whether or not your hip joints externally rotate. Some people experience knee discomfort when they sit in Sukhasana. Sitting on a Meditation Bench usually alleviates knee problems.

If you have a tendency to get tired when you meditate, a Meditation Bench might be a good choice. In short, sitting on a bench can, for some people, increase your energy level. Here’s a post that explains why.

Sukasana Cushion

Sukasana Meditation CushionHugger Mugger’s Sukasana Cushion is a much smaller, portable meditation cushion. While it doesn’t give as much hip support as our other meditation cushions, these small cushions are great for travel. You can also use them to elevate cranky knees when you’re sitting on a Zafu, Zen or V-Shaped Cushion.

 

Zabuton

Zabuton Meditation PillowA Zabuton is like a mini-futon. It’s a wide, rectangular, cotton-filled cushion with a removable cotton cover. Using a Zabuton will make your meditation more comfortable. Ankle bones, feet or knees pressing against a hard floor may feel okay at first, but over time, even 20 to 30 minutes, this can get pretty uncomfortable. A Zabuton is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to commit to a meditation practice. Just place it underneath your cushion to create some extra padding for your ankles and knees.

 

Check out our Meditation Cushion Guide for more info.

If you want to read in more detail about how to sit comfortably, or how to structure a yoga practice to support your sitting, pick up my book Yoga for Meditators. In it I devote several chapters to choosing the right sitting support and finding the optimum sitting position.

Updated article from February 25, 2015.

 

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About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

11 thoughts on “Take a Seat: How to Choose a Meditation Cushion or Bench”

  • Kevin Brennan

    Which cushion do you recommend for on a typical chair to help with meditation?

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi, Thanks for your question. Unless you are pretty tall, the meditation cushions would probably be too thick for sitting on a chair. I recommend a firm blanket for sitting on a chair.

      Reply
  • Carlos

    I recnetly got an Alexia Meditation Seat, and this really feel correct to me and my meditation practice, I wanted to know what are your thoughts on this product, have you tried it?

    Reply
  • […] article about the price of meditation This is a helpful, in-depth guide to choosing the right meditation cushion for your body. And here is another guide to different types of meditation seating. Here is more information about […]

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  • […] And what is that, like a mat? J: A cushion. Actually yeah, cushions are really helpful but you can just use a pillow. And you want to make […]

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  • Sandra Bell

    Hi!

    How can you tell if your hips rotate out or in?

    Thanks

    Sandra

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for your question. Since I can't see you, it's a little tricky trying to figure out how to determine this for sure. There are lots of variables. But with this disclaimer, here's a way you might be able to get an idea as to what degree your hips externally rotate: Sit in a cross-legged position. If the shin and calf of your bottom leg is on the floor and the other shin is resting on your bottom foot, there's a good chance your hips externally rotate easily. If, on the other hand, your knees are high--at the level of your hipbones or higher--and your shins can't rest on the floor or on each other, your hips are probably not able to externally rotate easily. When your knees are high in the cross-legged position, it will cause your pelvis to tilt back and your spine to round. This can wear down the intervertebral discs in your low back.

      There can be different reasons for this. In yoga, we most often think it's because of soft tissue tightness. That may indeed be the case. But it is just as likely that it is due to the unique construction of your hip joints. This includes variations in the size, shape, depth, angle and orientation of your hip sockets and/or the size, shape and angle of inclination of your femur heads, necks and shafts. If limited external rotation is due to soft tissue, it can change. If it's due to the construction of your joints, it won't change because once bone hits bone, you won't move any further.

      If you internally rotate easily, you may find Virasana (Hero's Pose) to feel easy (unless, of course, your knees limit your a ability to sit in Virasana). As you can see, there's not a definitive answer I can really give in a forum of this type, but if you're really interested in finding out, you might want to do a one-on-one with an experienced yoga teacher or physical therapist.

      Reply
  • Sandra Bell

    Thank you, dear. You are lovely to have given me a thorough and detailed response. Neat that we have the same last name.
    That helps me pick a cushion a little bit easier. I really appreciate the depth you went into in this article. I'm a little bit confused if I prefer thigh support or not. I just know that the zafu cushion I got from another company is uncomfortable under my thighs, like it digs in. It's 5 inches high, but only 12 inches wide. Too narrow, but I don't know if that is why my thighs hate it so much. Another zafu that I had to leave behind in London was a bit more normal size. That was better, but I can't say it was super comfortable. It could be just because they were inferior products, but they weren't cheap either.

    If my thighs do NOT rotate externally (I do not think that they do after your explanation), is that v cushion comfortable for thighs? Or is the rectangular one better?

    Warm Regards,
    Sandy

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      You could try a v-shaped cushion and see if it’s better. I prefer the v-shaped cushion because it supports my legs evenly. When I sit on a zafu, the spot where my legs drop off the edge of the cushion gets really sore because there’s a lot of pressure there. The v-shaped cushion gives a continuity of support from the glutes down to the knees. When you say the zafu digs into your thighs that makes me think that a v-shaped cushion might work for you.

      That said, if your knees are at hipbone level when you sit on your zafu, a v-shaped cushion wouldn’t help because your thighs won’t lower enough to be supported by the “legs” of the cushion. If your knees are able to lower down when you’re sitting on your zafu, then a v-shape might be a good choice. You can always order one, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you can return it.

      BTW, I know another Sandy Bell!

      Reply
  • […] are many anatomical reasons to choose one form of sitting support over another. But the retreat taught me that I also need to consider energy […]

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