Seven Reasons You WANT a Yoga/Meditation Bench
I’m going to an Ipsalu festival in early October. There, I’ll have a few minutes to talk about the bench, it’s importance for posture, and the importance of posture for an energy-flow practice. Of course, there are other ways to sit…
You can sit on the floor, if you’re limber enough. You can even have a great energy-flow/meditation practice that way — although it make take quite a few years before it becomes possible. Or you can sit on the edge of a futon, or on an Ottoman. All of those options work, and what I have to say apples to all of them. But if you’re interested in meditation, and particularly energy-flow meditation, you’ll want to understand the seven things that make a meditation bench (or its equivalent) ideal for such practices.
Necessity is a mother! In my case, a bad knee made it all but impossible to meditate comfortably on the floor, and I didn’t want to be forever limited to a chair. I found the solution on the edge of my futon. The mattress happened to be pulled back from the frame in just the right way to get my good leg into the perfect position. I searched high and low for a bench with the right dimensions to work on the other leg, but couldn’t find one. So I resolved to build one, and the meditation bench was born!
Here are the seven reasons you want a meditation bench:
1. You can sit COMFORTABLY.
The bench automatically aligns your spine, so you sit straighter. The slope produced by the seat cushion encourages the pelvic tilt that is so necessary for good posture — but the bench itself is flat, so your feet don’t slide off when you tuck them in.
(That spine alignment is important for a couple of reasons. We’ll go into them in a moment, in items #2 & #3.)
Unlike a chair, a meditation bench produces that tilt even with both feet on the floor. And unlike sitting on the floor, you don’t need the flexibility of a yoga master to get comfortable.
Of course, you can also be comfortable lying down. But then you’ll go to sleep — right at the point that you are so deeply relaxed that a peak meditation experience can occur!
2. ALIGNING YOUR SPINE allows ENERGY to FLOW.
Energy Flow is the rarely-discussed secret of meditation. Energy flowing in the spine makes you unbelievably happy. It makes your meditations joyful, ecstatic, and blissful — orgasmic, even.
The standard image is that of a straight or bent hose. I don’t think it’s really like that, though. I suspect it has something to do with magnetic interference, where the tiny bursts of electrical energy in one part of the body create a “electromagnetic impedance”, or something of the sort, in other parts that are nearby when the spine is bent. Or maybe the electrons that are released jump to nearby cells that are squished in, instead of moving up the ladder. Or maybe it is simply that a hunched spine produces large bodily sensations that drown out the more subtle sensations of moving energy. (One fine day, we need research in this area!)
3. You can sit LONGER, without DISTRACTION.
When your back hurts, it’s a pretty hard sensation to ignore. Eliminating that pain helps you sit for long enough to experience the joy the energy flows bring, and (eventually) experience a connection with something far greater than yourself — the energy that flows through the universe. (Star Wars called it “The Force”, and that’s not a terribly bad name for it!)
4. You can sit more EASILY.
The cushion on a meditation bench is at the height of a chair. So it’s easy to get up and down. But it’s wide enough and deep enough to sit with both legs crossed. Or you can sit with one leg up — a position most anyone can manage (although a little work might be needed, at first). The beauty of it is that you get the same spine alignment as someone who has spent decades getting comfortable on the floor.
And you probably didn’t know that sitting that way is actually an all-but-lost Ancient Tradition!, as shown in Shiva’s picture, below.
Even a very advanced yoga teacher from India tried the bench and remarked, “Hey! That’s comfortable”. His surprise was evident. So even yoga teachers have lost the knowledge of just how comfortable it can be to sit with one leg tucked in!
5. You have more VARIETY.
On a chair, you typically have one way to sit. Maybe a couple, if you’re small. A bench gives you literally dozens of ways to sit. So you don’t have to stop meditating when your legs become uncomfortable. You can easily change to a different position, and continue meditating.
6. You can expand your LOCATION FLEXIBILITY.
Sitting in a chair might work for your practice today. Of course, you have to sit at the very edge to get the pelvic tilt you need for a straight spine. But more to the point, meditating in a chair doesn’t help you progress to more advanced cross-legged positions. Those positions let you sit comfortably in nature — next to a stream, or pond, or waterfall, for example. Heck, if you’re advanced enough, you can sit comfortably on a rock. That kind of capability makes it possible to meditate anywhere, at the exact moment that your surroundings are inspiring you to do so.
7. You’ll be able to do BENCH YOGA.
One fine day, God willing, you’ll be able to take a Bench Yoga class at a studio near you. That kind of yoga is one that anyone can do. (For every one person doing yoga, there are four who have said they would like to. So yoga studios have a darn good reason for promoting such programs.) At the same time, those classes will help you develop the posture, sitting flexibility, and internal energy-flow practices you need to get the most out of your energy-flow meditations. Or you can get my Bench Yoga book and work in your own home. (One day, there will be videos. I swear!)
My contributions to the art of Yoga with respect to posture are: 1) An easier version of Pigeon Pose that gives you the hip flexibility you need to get the critical pelvic tilt — a tilt that straightens your spine, and eliminates the tendency to fall over backward; 2) An understanding of why Cobra Pose “done right” teaches you not to push upward with the arms — because it strengthens the middle back in a way that is necessary to maintain your posture(!); 3) An even-more-effective isometric exercise to strengthen that area — one that releases a powerful energy flow in the process (like the other isometrics, isotonics, and asanas in my practice); and finally, 4) The use of breath and isotonics to make asanas both more effective and more energy-productive, while at the same creating a practice that (because of the bench) anyone can do.
Asanas, Energy Flow, and Meditation
I’ll finish by relaying an injunction Yogananda gave to his yoga students. (You may know Yogananda as the author of Autobiography of Yogi. If you don’t, read his book! You’ll thank me.) His admonition: “Spend as much time meditating after an asana as you spent in the asana.”
That is one powerful admonition. When you do it, you will find that each asana produces an internal energy flow! Western “gymnastic” yoga tends to move from asana to asana. That kind of practice is great for the body, and you feel good afterward, but it misses the oh-so-powerful, and at the same time oh-so-subtle, but mostly oh-so-enjoyable sensations the asanas produce.
In short, following Yogananda’s injunction allows you to experience true energy-flow meditations, in short bursts — for as long as you are “in the moment”. (As my pranayama guru Swami Asanganand said, when your mind starts thinking, that’s the time to move to the next practice!)
Making benches available to yoga students will let them take a break whenever they need to or are inspired to. In the process, they may well discover those energy flows — even if they have yet to develop the flexibility required to sit comfortably on the floor.
Eric Armstrong is the author of Bench Yoga (volume 1 of the Subtle Energy Yoga series) and the creator of the “Instant Alignment” Yoga Meditation Bench. A former volleyball coach, martial arts instructor, and “internal yoga” practitioner, Eric Armstrong has spent 30 years studying the internal energy arts, with practices as varied as Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga, Ananda Raja Yoga, traditional Kriya yoga, Bihar Raja Yoga, Taiji, and Korean Jung SuWon. He works to convey his deep understanding of the subject in a series of workshops, online articles, and in his books, available in print and eBook form at Amazon, or wholesale from Ingram.