Meditation

"If the neck is carrying any tension at all, meditation posture will be dysfunctional--the whole body will be off one way or another.” -SH





  • This page makes reference to the spiritual organization Self-Realization Fellowship (“SRF) and to some of the common practices therein (eg: Energization Exercises).  If you are unfamiliar with the teachings but are interested in how to have proper meditation posture, this article still holds much valuable information and insight.


Meditation Posture - A Perspective

Is your chin really level when you meditate? Are you sure?  Do you realize the importance of getting this one thing RIGHT? Did you know you may be carrying your chin too high (or too low), for years and years even, and not know it? Because it feels "normal"?  Unless someone corrects you?

Do you have neck pain when you meditate?  Or feel that the harder you try to have good posture, the worse it feels, and the more it gives you trouble?  Keeping your chin too high (or too low) can be the basic cause of this!

Perhaps you can learn from my experience.  For years I suffered from intermittent neck pain and back trouble in meditation--due to scoliosis, and wrong ideas about what good sitting posture really is. My neck pain became so bad, after a whiplash accident, that I could not meditate more than 20 minutes, and often had to go to bed very early--the pain was too much. This continued for nearly a two year period. After trying many different therapies, spending over $5000 searching for help, I had about given up. I thought my neck was permanently damaged, and the pain would NEVER END!!

Someone suggested I try a particular approach--not a therapy, but a way to re-educate how one uses the body-- The Alexander Technique.  After the first "lesson" all pain was gone! And I had a tool to make the pain disappear whenever it came back!

It seemed somewhat mysterious, and involved doing less, relaxing in a certain, very specific way, making no effort. The only effort allowed was the mental repitition of certain words, by way of "directing" the body. By "getting out of the way" while giving these directions, a pain free way of sitting and standing magically came about.

Apparently, the cause of my trouble was that I was doing too much, trying too hard to fix things. I just did not know how and where to stop trying so hard!

After following the instructions of my teacher for some months, and reading books, investigating other similar methods of re-education (the Feldenkrais method, mainly), taking classes at UCLA, studying how people use their bodies in all situations--with special attention to head/neck alignment--I came to a understand how I arrived at my problems, and why the Alexander Technique was so effective. Further, it became apparent that much of The Alexander Technique (so to speak) is already in the SRF teachings.

For example, while doing a forward bend or stretch before meditation (Such as the Maha Mudra), do you keep your chin to your chest as directed? In my case, I felt that because I had neck pain and such, I would give myself a "break"--and did not keep chin to chest. If you keep chin to chest while stretching forward, before meditation, it will give you a wonderful start to good posture. There will be no tendency to raise chin and there will be a sense of lengthening the spine--because you just finished stretching it!  But if do it while chin is too high, you lose these benefits!

If you are going to "cheat" in a forward bend, at least keep the chin in! Don't feel you need to stretch forward a certain distance--do only what is comfortable. You won't be able to go as far with chin to chest. That's OK. It may hurt more, to keep chin to chest. That's OK. Do it anyway! It is very important.


The Alexander Technique taught me how to keep the chin level; to develop full and free use of the occipital joint and axis at the top of the neck; to become less "frontal" and more in the spine and medulla (not only in meditation!); to sit, stand, walk, and run in such a way that the  body weight is supported mostly by the skeletal structure, easily, and not by the musculature; to use all the joints of the body freely in order to not interfere with the integrity of the spine (which includes the neck); and to avoid straining or holding any tension in the meditation posture.

These things are also "taught" in the SRF teachings, but not always in an intellectual way. But you have to really pay attention, and particularly to not doing too much; do only what the instructions say.

Especially in the Energization Exercises, there are exercises that will point us in the right direction, if we only take the hint!  IF you do the exercise exactly as instructed!  without adding anything. Here is a test: Right now, as you sit, do the Energization Exercise where you first tense the neck and then rotate the head around. Just do it in your ordinary way.


Now, let me ask you: was your neck moving also as your head was going around?  Did you know that the instructions for this exercise do not say ONE WORD about moving the neck?  So why do you do it? Do you realize that if you keep the neck still, and use the articulations in the back of the head, top of the neck, this exercise can give you wonderful training in free use of the occipital joint and axis? Without interfering with the neck, which will always cause trouble, in time? After meditation, when you are feeling very peaceful and aware of the spine--you would never dream of throwing your neck around this way--the neck is part of the spine! Do you think Master would create an exercise which causes you to do this?   When I was relearning how to do this exercise properly, I had to place both hands around the neck, to keep it still--I had such a habit of moving it, and not using occipital joint and axis at top part of neck. More on this later.

How many times have you heard the instruction, "keep the chin level"?  How do you know if you are really doing it?  Look at virtually any picture of Yogananda, or the any great guru in meditation--a profile pose is best. You will see a perfect demonstration of "chin level". Beware of paintings, however; the artist does not always get it exactly right. Really, it involves more than the chin--look at the whole head, try to sense if the back of the neck is being compressed or tensed.  Or if it is relaxed and gently "lengthened".

What you need to do, is ask someone to evaluate your normal meditation posture--because if you have the habit of "chin too high" (or too low) you will never suspect it! ESPECIALLY, if you carry the chin "just a little bit" too high, say 3/4 inch or less. THIS IS VERY COMMON. It is so "normal feeling" and habitual, that when someone helps you rotate your head on the occipital joint in order to lower the chin, you reaction will be : "NO WAY--THIS CANNOT BE CHIN LEVEL, IT FEELS LIKE I AM LOOKING DOWN AT THE FLOOR!!! 


Interestingly, part of your "retraining" process will be to keep doing this thing that "feels wrong"--until it "feels right"!  A basic premise of "posture correction" is that the "internal kinesetic sense" is unreliable, that ANYTHING YOU DO WITH THE BODY --good or bad--for a long time, will feel "right", and a better way will feel "wrong", because it is different!

In my experience, keeping chin too high is a VERY DANGEROUS, pain-producing practice. Why is it dangerous? Remember the instruction "lift the eyes to the point between the eyebrows"?  Well, if you are lifting the face, instead of the eyes---which is what happens when the chin is too high--you THINK you are lifting the eyes and concentrating at the spiritual eye and the medulla oblongata, but really all you are doing is copping out: you are lifting the face, and feeling the back of the neck where the tension is.

Do you think "dangerous" is too strong a word for this?  Not me!!  You can really fool yourself. You may think you are making a big super effort, because you are aware of all the strain and hard working muscles!  And when you have someone show you where chin level REALLY is, it will feel suspiciously easy in one way, yet VERY DIFFICULT in another--looking upward to concentrate on the spiritual eye! Because your eye lifting muscles have become lazy! It will take you time to strengthen them again, as it does to strengthen any part of the body with an exercise program.

If the chin is too high, the back of the neck is tensing. This is the ONE THING in this article you need to remember. And it bears repeating! IF THE CHIN IS TOO HIGH, YOU ARE TENSING THE BACK OF THE NECK! (Or, if you are holding the head habitually in ANY unusual position). You don't believe this? It can be demonstrated.  Have you ever done the Energization Exercise # ___ where you drop chin on chest and raise the head with tension?  What happens when you relax?  The head drops! If you fall asleep in a chair, your head will drop.  It is the BACK of the neck muscles that lift the head, as you can discover if you aware enough, when you do this exercise (and not the entire neck). If you did this exercise with unhurried awareness, it could teach you, in time, all about the occipital joint and how to raise and lower the head in a relaxed, functional manner. Especially this is true if you are concentrating on the medulla while you do it.


Here's a little homework assignment: Whenever the chin is too high, or head is held in some other less-than-optimal position, fix it ONLY by mentally affirming that the neck is relaxed and free. Do nothing physically. Don't even THINK of trying to do anything! It is impossible for the neck to be relaxed and "free" if the head is locked in an unnatural position.  It is also impossible for the head, neck, torso postural set up to be absolutely correct for the circumstances if you carry tension in the neck. Leaving the neck alone is the key. By affirming that the neck is relaxed and free, without making any effort to do anything else, the body will arrange (much better than you could!) for the head to go back to a more functional position. Especially in meditation, do this. If you try to do anything besides this, you will foul it up.

You need to understand the reasons for this. First, it is a matter of relaxing into it, not doing anything. If you even THINK of doing anything, you lose. You body got into this fix through tension and misdirected effort. More tension and effort will NOT FIX IT, no matter how long you try, or how determined you are.  Relaxation is the ONLY possible way. Second, the body may need to make hundreds of small adjustments affecting the bones, muscles, tendons, energy patterns, weight distribution, breathing patterns, and more. Can your conscious mind do all that?  It would make more sense to put a three-year-old child in charge of building a skyscraper!  Finally, whenever you try to hold ANY fixed position, or even any fixed pattern of movement, using only the physically directed will, as soon as you stop trying to do it, you go back to the way you were.  See how long you can hold the abdomen in! Or keep the chest lifted! Nature obviously did not intend for us to do such things continually.  You are adding tension and effort onto an already established pattern of tension and effort. It is not a pleasant easy feeling for the body, and the mind will not want to repeat it, since anything unpleasant, the mind tends to shy away from.

Many persons, when told this, end up walking or sitting like zombies, stiff like a board--because they are trying to hold their chin down (or hold the head in some other position they think is "correct") and keep it there by an act of will.  For some, this is a part of the learning process. Even though intellectually you certainly understand, by now, what is meant, it does not mean the body has learned. Plus, if you give the body the message "chin level" it will try to DO it, and stiffen with effort. But if you give it the message "relax, especially behind the neck",  or "neck free, neck free", then the chin  will be level naturally (or the head will naturally go back in proper position), and there will be no stiffness.  It is a matter of focusing on the process, and not on the goal. In the Alexander technique, the words "let the neck be free" or "I leave the neck ALONE" or "neck free" or "I release the neck" are commonly used. In my case I have spent hundreds of hours mentally repeating these directions (along with two other commands that go with it) since I was in such desperate need to stop pain. It was the only way that worked.


The directions, "sit in meditation with chin level, chest up, shoulders back, stomach in, and spine erect" are very good for starting a meditation, but "chin level" is the ONLY ONE of these directions that can and should be continued--and checked!!--while you meditate.  It is the only one that requires NO EFFORT, just relaxation. If you try to keep doing the others, you carry tension and effort into meditation. It seems so obvious as to not even need saying. Yet how often people are seen to be holding tension in meditation, while trying to continue to do these things!  Do you see signs of such struggle and effort in the pictures of the great masters in meditation?

I observe many persons, some on the SRF path for years, who sit in meditation with chin too high; some with chin WAY WAY to high!  And their lower back is continuing to arch and tense in a misguided effort to "sit straight". After awhile they get exhaused doing that, and go into a slump. The mind is wavering between heroic strained effort and passivity. They keep repeating the cycle, never resting easily in the middle. If you have to keep making a physical effort to sit in good meditation posture, you should get professional help, from someone trained in these matters, or from someone you feel could help you. 


Whatever you do, do not go on for years and years thinking it is not possible to attain relaxed, pain free, erect and EFFORTLESS meditation posture. It is! Patanjali's second step on the eight-fold yoga path is asana, or how to sit EFFORTLESSLY and steadily in an erect meditation posture, with a very pleasant feeling about it, no strain. NOT, "how to sit with conscious or habitual tension" while TRYING to sit erect! With various levels of success and failure, depending on how hard you try, or on some mysterious process of luck, when you get everything right, somehow.  It is a science, and can be learned!  There is no luck or mystery to it!!

To sit effortlessly, you first have to use the sit bones in the right way--pointing straight down.  The chair cushion should not be too thick, or this is difficult.  When you arch the lower back they are not straight down! Or, if you slump. You want to be right in the middle of these two extremes. Second, you need a chair so you can have feet flat on floor with legs and torso making a 90 degree angle (although this requirement is not as crucial as the other two). The third essential requirement, and of supreme importance-- is to relax--especially the front of the body -- and keep the chin level.  (The Alexander Technique would add here: "and also to feel that the head is then leading the spine and torso into length"). For example, if the neck is not relaxed and free then probably the chin will go up, the lower back starts to arch and tense --the two are connected in some way. With the chin too high, a message of "downward pressure" is communicated to the entire spine.

If the neck is carrying any tension at all, meditation posture will be dysfunctional--the whole body will be off, one way or another. And you will usually alternate between trying hard to sit straight, and giving up when that exhausts you. Not only are you giving yourself a rough ride, in time you will find you have been damaging yourself in certain ways. Remember, if you are doing this, especially for a long time, you need to get guidance from someone--there is something you are doing wrong; that is NOT the way it should be. Perhaps you need to see a doctor, or chiropractor, or physical therapist. Usually, the thing you are doing wrong is so "close to you" that you can never see it--it takes an outside observer.


Here is a secret, one that will help you very much in your efforts to keep the chin-level: Your spine does NOT end where the head starts, at chin level (as many think), but about between the ears, in the back of the head!  The very top of the spine, and top of the neck, is called the OCCIPITAL JOINT. It is located almost exactly in the middle of the head, between the lower part of the ears. It is where the head rotates to raise or lower the chin. It takes VERY little effort to rotate the head on this joint. VERY LITTLE. It bears repeating! VERY LITTLE!! Most persons, however, give evidence of effort and strain while looking down--because they think they have to do strange and wonderful things to the neck itself to look down, or up!!  They don't know they have an occipital joint!  Or use it!! 

Which brings us back to the Energization Exercise you did earlier, rotating the head in circles while tensing the neck. I asked you if your neck was also moving.  When you rotate the head, you WILL move the neck UNLESS you know the occipital joint exists (at least on some level of the conscious or subconscious mind) and are willing to USE IT.  Why do you think, in this exercise, Master first has us rotate the head while tensing the neck, and then rotate the head while relaxing the neck?  Is it that he knows we have a tendency to move the neck along with the head, and by tensing neck first, we can learn to stop doing that--while tensing the neck you can hold it STILL?  (Knowing what I know now, I can't even THINK of tensing the neck and throwing it around in a large circle, as I used to do.  The very idea makes me shudder). Then once you can do that, you can do the more difficult thing, rotating the head with a relaxed neck--WHILE NOT MOVING THE NECK?  You just use the occipital joint, and the vertebra right below it (the axis), to achieve the full circular motion of the head. That's all!

This feels so easy and pleasant, we think there should be more to it; so we start in on moving the neck too. That is where we go wrong! The reason I use this exercise, is because it so clearly illustrates how we all have the tendency to do things with the neck which are not called for.  It is the opposite of "letting the neck be free.


Over the years I have wondered: How can it be, why is it, that so many of us don't use the occipital joint, and raise the face too much instead of the eyes when we meditate? Where does the tendency to do this come from?

Let me offer some ideas. First, we get too "frontal" in this society--being more aware or concerned about how we look, using the senses (which are in the front of the face and body, for the most part. Hearing is least frontal--and the last to go when you die.) and identifying with the front because that is "us", what we see in a mirror, and what we present when we walk into a room.  The medulla oblongata and the occipital joint both are nearer to the BACK of the head. I have noticed that those who seem to really be "in the spine", or aware of the medulla, also use the occipital joint freely.  This may be because the medulla oblongata is extremely close to the occipital joint.

In fact, It is very difficult to separate them using the internal kinesthetic sense, as far as sensing exactly where they are in the head.  Try rocking the head gently on the occipital joint, see if you can sense where it is.  You have to use a bit of intuition, since there is not a lot of sensory feedback from that area! See if you can sense how far the medulla is from the occipital joint. Believe it or not, this gentle exercise of developing awareness of the occipital joint can do wonders for your sitting posture--as can relaxed awareness of the medulla oblongata.

Second, TV and movies. It can "get you" three ways. The first of these ways happens if you sit too close in a movie theater or have your TV too high. You will lift the face to watch, and not the eyes, because it takes too much effort to lift the eyes. You are building a habit of lifting the face to look up!  A very fixed and unyielding habit! Move that TV down to the floor!!  Or better yet, out the window! Second, what you see and hear there. More poor examples of posture and body usage than good ones are seen. And the content of the programs usually brings you strongly into sensory awareness and superficial thinking--which is "FRONTAL"! Third, you tend to stare while watching TV or movies. Staring creates a visual lock, which is frontal, and blocks out awareness of the periphery, or physical surrounding of where you are. Your awareness shrinks into the little mortal body and mind, locked into one fixed local, pattern of staring. Hardly conducive to free use of the occipital joint, would you say? 

What do you think happens when you carry the habit of staring into meditation? The visual lock will prevent awareness of the medulla, and by a process of "muscular osmosis" the tense eye muscles will tense the neck muscles, which will cause lots of problems. 

Finally, stress causes tensions in the body, particularly BEHIND THE NECK. And you know what happens then! When you think of relaxing, that is a good place to begin!


Do you think your chin is always level in meditation? Don't need to have anyone check it for you? Then try this test: In meditation posture does your mouth stay closed easily, teeth gently apart, no tendency to clench the teeth?  With face and jaw relaxed, this is how it should be!  If your chin is too high, you will have to carry tension in the jaw in order to keep the mouth closed. If your chin is too low, there will be a tendency for the teeth to clench. It is almost an infallible test. Just relax, totally, the face and jaws, and if the jaw drops (or teeth clench) and the lips part, your posture is defective!  This should be obvious. How many pictures of the saints and so forth have you seen in meditation with their mouths hanging open? Did you think they were constantly tensing the jaw muscles to keep the mouth closed?  Or they applied a special glue to their lips before meditating? Or how many appear to be clenching the teeth?

Your practice of the Energization Exercises, by the way, will also be defective, if tension is causing you to carry the chin too high.  Instead of lifting the eyes to the point between the eyebrows, and concentrating on the medulla oblongata, you will be lifting the face, and thinking you are lifting the eyes, and feeling the tension and compression behind the neck instead of the medulla.  How much benefit are you going to get that way? To really get that all important connection to the medulla, it is essential to KEEP THE CHIN LEVEL!! And really lift the eyes, not cross-eyed, but gently upwards "above the horizon" towards a point about, say, 18" in front of you.

You may feel I am exaggerating things here, and that is true, to make a point. Just because chin is above level while exercising or meditating does not mean eyes are not lifted, or that the chin is too high due to habitual tension carried behind the neck. If chin is too high for a long period, though, it is. If you use the occipital joint while rotating head up, and neck stays relaxed (and is not used in the process of looking up), there is nothing wrong with it. If you are really lifting eyes, it is perfectly OK. But not as an habitual practice!


One of the magical things that happens when the chin is kept level in a relaxed and natural way is a sense of "lengthening upwards" of the spine and torso. It gives you an effortless, erect, sitting posture. By relieving pressure behind the neck, the spine and torso are free to assume their natural length.  There are certain "postural muscles"--usually not under conscious control--that achieve this lengthening.  Some of these muscles are long, striated muscles close to the spine itself.  These are the muscles that will help you sit for long periods in meditation with very little effort.


We will finish this with a little exercise-- a way to teach you to feel where these muscles are, and perhaps to activate them at will. 

  • First, you need to be aware of the exact location of the crown of the head. When you turn the head left and right, keeping the chin level, the crown is the only point on the top of the head that does not move--it is the center of rotation. Feel with the fingers on top of the head as you turn head. Find the point that does not move. The crown of the head is important when discussing posture, since that is where the spine would "connect" to the top of the head, if it went that far.
  • So, if you press down on the crown of the head, it is as if you are compressing the spine directly downwards. The body will immediately counteract this by activating the "postural muscles". Try it. Place the bottom of your right wrist on the crown of the head. Now grab right wrist with left hand.  Relax both arms, letting their full weight press straight down on the head through the crown (Or, clasp the fingers, and rest the clasped fingers on top of the head around the crown). Remember you MUST have the chin level while doing this. If you have any pain, do not do it.
  • Hold pressure about 20 seconds. When you release, the postural muscles will still be activated, and you can clearly feel them working, to give you a nice, balanced, straight, relaxed sitting posture. It is as if--when you were a kid--you stood between a doorway and pressed the arms apart. Remember how the arms went way up when you walked away, the arms muscles were still working?  This exercise could be repeated whenever you need to improve your posture, or clarify it. If you feel no benefits as described, you probably need to re-think and re-make your sitting posture.  I have noticed that persons who habitually carry head in an unnatural position, will not feel any connection from the crown to the spine when pressing. They need to spend time improving and integrating their posture first.


The main benefit, however,  of this exercie, is that it very quickly and distinctly makes you aware of the skeletal structure supporting the weight.  Usually, without trying, the sit bones will line up square to the chair, at least while you do the exercise.  Once you have clarified where the skeletal structure IS, it becomes easier to relax the front of the body (the ENTIRE front, from the forehead down to the toes), feeling it hang loosly and nicely on the "bones" or spine. With NO effort.  When I do this, I can even feel the distribution of weight in the legs change--more to the heels, where the weight supporting bones connect, instead of the toes.  It is just a subtle feeling.  Also, I notice my breathing becomes easier and deeper, the ribs expanding outward and upward freely. This will not happen if you hold frontal tension.

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com