I started meditating long before I ever heard of the Alexander Technique. Now, my experience as an Alexander teacher has profoundly affected how I sit on the cushion and even how I approach meditation altogether. A week ago, I taught a workshop at the Interdependence Project called Posture, Pain, and Meditation Practice. My experience there inspired me to write about “good posture.”
If we look at a meditator like this, from my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher I can see a few imbalances which are likely making this posture uncomfortable. The low back is arched, the chest is lifted, the neck braced to keep the head from falling back, etc. But mostly what I want to tell this person is, “Don’t try so hard to have good posture!”
A Punitive Approach to Posture
What most of us associate with good posture is that oft-uttered admonition from mom, “Sit up straight.” For many of us, there is a “snap out of it!” element to this impulse. There we were, daydreaming and slumping, and Whack! We were chastised to sit up straight. There might be a little shame or guilt lurking about in the moment between being reminded to sit up straight and our attempt to do so. As if it were immoral or embarrassed to be in the posture we were in.
What’s not clear from the sit up straight recommendation is where you sit up from? What part leads this movement and where do we get support from? Lacking this important information we tend to lift our chest and arch our back to be more upright.
And yet, sitting up straight never feels that comfortable or satisfying. It feels like we are barely hanging on to this upright posture and it’s just a matter of time before we are deposited back into our familiar slump. I would argue that part of the reason we fail to find a comfortable, upright posture is due to the very intensity of our pursuit. When we strive to sit up straight, we neglect such essentials as our breathing, a free neck, and relaxed shoulders to name a few. By the way, I found this photo when I googled “correct meditation posture,” and there are loads of other photos in a similar breathless effortful hold.
Good Posture Is within Us Already
But don’t take my word for it, here is Suzuki Roshi talking in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. “People ask what it means to practice zazen with no gaining idea, what kind of effort is necessary for that kind of practice. The answer is: effort to get rid of something extra from our practice. If some extra idea comes, you should try to stop it; you should remain in pure practice.”
It’s not that we give up our intention to have a healthy posture. Rather, we accept that good posture can be found within us naturally, just as meditators believe that Buddha nature resides within. If we realize that our posture can be uncovered just like the natural qualities of our mind, it transforms the way we approach our bodies. Good posture emerges when there is a lack of interference.
The last word goes to Roshi: “We do not need to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are. When something is added, that is impure.”