A troubleshooting guide to common painful issues encountered during sitting meditation and support tips that will help you sit longer; with better posture; with less discomfort.
We base the following article on the insights we have gained from making ergonomic meditation cushions and supports for our customers for over 10 years. We are always learning from our customers and have a unique window into the many complex physical issues encountered when building a regular meditation practice. We also base suggestions on our own experience maintaining a daily meditation practices for two decades, testing our support solutions ourselves on intense meditation retreats. However, in no way are we claiming to be medical experts and should physical issues continue or increase after following any advice you find in this article, please consult your Doctor or seek specialist advice.
Discomfort during meditation that may not be directly related to a poorly matched meditation cushion or support.
Before we get started with common support issues that can lead to pain arising during meditation, it would be worth identifying those common causes of discomfort that may not be directly related to the application of cushions and supports.
Flexibility: specifically relating to cross legged sitting postures
Unfortunately, most cases of leg, ankle and knee pain during floor sitting meditation is simply an unavoidable consequence of our tendons and muscles stretching as we adapt to unfamiliar postures. This happens to most of us who commit to sitting in cross legged postures until our flexibility improves which can take many years even with a daily meditation practice.
Holding and releasing tension
We all have unique anatomies and carry tension in our bodies in different areas at different times. These problem areas in our bodies will inevitably become activated and troublesome in new ways when we become immobile and inward looking in a sitting meditation practice. The degree of pain and discomfort we feel when sitting can depend on many factors and it may not be as simple as finding the perfect support. It is very rare to find someone who has maintained a sincere and long term sitting practice who has not known some pain and discomfort in their posture at times. The very process of releasing long held tension can actually be very uncomfortable and so if we are starting out with some tension, then some pain must follow. Of course meditation is not an endurance test, and it might be wise to experiment with our supports on a regular basis in order to also attempt to know perfectly relaxed, pain free and balance sitting.
Injury and physical conditions
Identifying discomfort arising during meditation stemming from personal injury is be beyond the scope of this article. We will just say that if and when injuries occur in our life that prevent us meditation in our usual posture we can see this as an opportunity to explore other postures. At the end of the day peace and freedom that is only found when meditating in a particular posture is not yet integrated into the rest of life.
- Knee pain
- Ankle pain
- Upper front leg pain
- Numb legs
- Numb feet
- Shifting position
- Butt pain
- Back fatigue and pain
- Lack of restful stability
- Shoulder, arm and wrist pain
- Skin irritation and itching
If the knee is off the ground and unsupported then the weight of the leg can torgue the knee causing pain. Knee pain when sitting will often lead to involuntary contraction in the thigh muscles as the body attempts to protect the knee by resisting any twisting force. This muscular tension can show itself as soreness where the knee meets the ‘Quads’ Quadriceps femoris muscles.
Rolled blankets, foam wedges, or hull cushions placed under the knees can potentially reduce torquing of the knee. The effects of using these supports will only likely be felt after sitting for more than half an hour. Be sure that seat cushion is sufficiently high so that the knees are lower than the hips.
Where no support is provided under the lower leg significant twisting force can be concentrated on the ankle when it is placed up on the thigh in a lotus posture. Insufficient or inferior mat padding will allow ankles to ‘bottom out’ through the padding causing concentrated pressure resulting in pain and numbness.
Soft foam wedges provide an excellent means of distributing pressure evenly to the lower leg and away from the more render ankle joint.
Upper front leg (Quads) pain
When a cushion is too low and the knees are higher or level with the hips the pelvis will naturally till backward pushing the lower back out. In an effort to maintain an upright posture, the ‘Quads’ Quadriceps femoris muscles
are often encaged to rotate the pelvis forward. After prolonged sitting the tops of the legs can become fatigued and painful when used to correct a pelvis misalignment caused from a cushion that is too low.
Place folded blanket(s) or flat raiser mat(s) under cushion to raise height of hips. Wedging your support higher at the back with a wedge or more folded blankets can also help rotate the pelvis forward making it easier to maintain an upright spine without strain.
Concentrated pressure where the buttocks meets the rear thigh can pinch the Sciatic nerve
leading to the loss of sensation in the legs. Intense pins and needles may follow after pressure is released as nerve begins to fire again.
Use an ergonomic meditation cushion
that provides a conduit for the Sciatic nerve
at the top of the thigh. Traditional round cushions cut across this area of the body concentrating pressure on the nerve.
Concentrated pressure on side of the ankle can pinch the Superficial Peroneal nerve
leading to the loss of sensation in the feet. Pins and needles and intense sensations may follow after pressure is released as nerve begins to fire again.
Insufficient mat padding or slippery fabrics used to cover supports causing meditator to gradually slide forward off support.
A mat is not only for cushioning the knees and ankles, but it provides an essential means of anchoring the meditator in place assuming the knees are correctly positioned below the level of the hips. Choose supports that are covered with a slightly textured fabric avoiding silky or slippery contact surfaces.
Use a ergonomic meditation cushion
with recesses for the Sit bones so weight is displayed to the more robust outer areas of the buttocks. A support that spreads some of the weight to the rear thighs will provide even more relief to painful buttocks.
Back fatigue and pain
Strong muscular effort in the back, legs and or abdomen to maintain an erect spine
Insufficient height of cushion relative to position of knees resulting in a backward tilting pelvis.
The pelvis is the foundation of the spine and should be naturally tilting slightly forward during meditation so the spine remains upright with minimal effort. If the knees are higher or level with the height of the hips use a raiser or folded blankets to elevate your cushion. Knees should be 2 to 4 inches lower than the hips. Always determine the height of your cushion by observing the relationship of your hips to knees rather than the cushion to the floor. This may mean elevating a cushion several inches for those with little hip mobility who want to sit in a cross legged posture. Products are available that provide support to the lumber, but these will diminish the development of a healthy amount of core strength and can place prolonged pressure on the kidneys. They can be safely used for short sitting periods, but should not become a substitute a optimal knee to hip relationship.
Lack of restful stability
Loss of good posture over time, intermittent motion and wobbling
Support compressing over time or is too bouncy.
An ergonomically designed hull filled cushion provides optimal body conformity and firmness without losing height over time. A 2 inch maximum thick firm foam mat provides optimal cushioning for ankles without allowing cushion to sink or bounce. A thick cotton wadding mat is also a good solution, but may not be as forgiving on the ankles or knees during very long periods of sitting in burmese or lotus posures.
Shoulder, arm or wrist pain
Tension between shoulder blades, fatigue in arms and or sore wrists
Little or no support for hands and or wrists.
A hull filled hand support ot folded blanket placed in the lap not only supports the weight of the lower arms, but also prevents hands sliding away from the abdomen. For some it may be optimal to provide support to both the hands and wrists during prolonged sitting and for this a longer loosely filled hull support is best.
Skin irritation and itching
When sitting for long periods the breathability of both the support fabric and stuffing can become an issue especially in warm environments.
Avoid cushions with synthetic covers. Spelt hull filled cushions provide optimal breathability and capacity to regulate humidity in contact areas.