Sunday, June 26, 2011
Full Lotus: The Ultimate Asana?
In the contemporary American Buddhist scene, we typically hear that all meditation postures are created equal. If you can't sit full lotus (padmasana), you can sit half lotus, and use as many cushions as you want, or sit seiza and use a bench, or just sit in a chair. And if you can't sit in a chair, just lie down. After all, not everyone is Gumby, and if you sit full lotus in the zendo you're probably just showing off. This is certainly the impression that I got growing up (as it were, from 16 to the present) in the dharma scene and I think it continues to be the prevailing sentiment. It is, after all, the politically correct one.
However, I have heard conflicting views from a few different sources. First, I recently received pointing out instructions as well as some very basic tsa lung trul khor exercises from a Tibetan lama who emphasized, repeatedly, that full lotus is the best posture for meditation. She even told a story from her lineage about a monkey who attained the rainbow body by imitating the posture of a monk, and another story about an old monk who attained the rainbow body after having a room full of people help him get his brittle old body into full lotus. Of course, this lama also said that if you can't do full lotus, that's fine, and you should do whatever other posture you can, making sure to keep the back as straight as possible. But she did make it clear that full lotus is the best. I have since found other sources online corroborating this perspective within the Vajrayana. Apparently, padmasana redirects the subtle winds associated with the five organ systems/five emotions into the central channel, thus helping to sublimate negative emotions toward liberation.
My second source for the superiority of full lotus is the teaching of qigong master Chunyi Lin, founder of Spring Forest Qigong. According to qigong researcher (and all around wild and crazy guy) Drew Hempel, Chunyi Lin said that 20 minutes in full lotus is worth 4 hours of any other meditation practice. That sounds like an exaggeration, but Drew has had some pretty far out results from his practice.
Finally, I also remember being taught that full lotus is the best position at the City of 10,000 Buddhas during the several weekends that I spent there during college. We were told that full lotus posture is the most stable for long-term sitting and we were taught specific stretches to help us get into the position with greater ease and less discomfort.
In my personal practice, I have only recently started sitting in full lotus on a regular basis. I have always been able to get into this asana fairly easily, even without using my hands. However, I have mostly meditated in half lotus and only switched to full lotus after having its benefits extolled to me by the aforementioned lama. Since making the switch--aside from having to buy a zabuton to put under my zafu (hardwood floors were killing my knees at first)--I have noticed greater stability and comfort in my my meditation practice, and sitting for longer periods of time is now easier for me. I have also felt more chi flow in my hands despite not really practicing much Taijiquan or qigong lately.
So, there it is, the politically incorrect truth: full lotus is the best posture for meditation. If you can do it, do it. If you currently lack the flexibility, you might be able to work your way up to it by stretching or doing yoga. And it might be worthwhile. And if you have a disability that makes full lotus impossible for you in this lifetime, then of course, do what you can and try to keep your back as straight as possible during meditation.
Whatever posture choose, may your meditation practice bloom like a lotus into full enlightenment.