long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Meditation, e.g. meditation postures, developing a regular sitting practice, skillfully relating to difficulties and hindrances, etc.

long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Sati1 » Sun Aug 10, 2014 6:56 am

Hello,

Does anybody have any thoughts as to whether the practice of sitting cross-legged on a cushion every day for an hour or more causes damage to the back or the neck on the long-run (decades)? I started my sitting practice about 1.5 years ago, am currently 33 years old, and have a healthy back. I am wondering if it wouldn't be a good idea to develop the meditation habit in a posture that preserves back and neck health for as long as possible.

With metta,
Sati1
London, UK

----
"I do not perceive even one other thing, o monks, that when developed and cultivated entails such great happiness as the mind" (AN 1.10, transl. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
"So this spiritual life, monks, does not have gain, honor, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of moral discipline for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakable liberation of mind that is the goal of this spiritual life, its heartwood, and its end," (MN 29, transl. Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi)
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby mikenz66 » Sun Aug 10, 2014 7:58 am

There are valid concerns about sitting in a position you are not accustomed to without adequate preparation. I wouldn't be worried about back and neck if you have a reasonable posture. Sitting up straight shouldn't hurt anything. Where I would be careful is the joints in the legs, particularly knees. If your hips are not flexible enough then it's easy to damage the knees, and I know a few older western monks who have commented on that. Especially if they had to sit long hours on concrete floors without a cushion...

Remember that until recently sitting on the ground was something people in Asia just did much of the time. So it was just the natural and comfortable posture for them, just as much as sitting on a chair is for a westerner (or younger Asian...). One of the motivations I had to learn to sit on the floor effectively was a practical concern, so that I didn't have problems in Thailand having dinner around a floor mat. The need for that is rapidly shrinking, but the point is, I think, not to think of the sitting posture as something mystical you just use for meditation, but something that should be comfortable for doing anything. If it's not, then there's a problem. In my view, it's easier to figure out what you need to do to be comfortable if you spend some time just using the sitting position as an everyday thing. Try sitting to eat, to read, to etc. Trying to figure out the posture and the meditation at the same time is much more difficult.

:anjali:
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Goofaholix » Sun Aug 10, 2014 8:27 am

It strengthens your back, unless you have an unbalanced posture that strains it unecessarily.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Zom » Sun Aug 10, 2014 8:59 am

I have problems with my back because of long periods of meditation for many years. At the present time I can't seat at all if I'm not leaning on something with my back - pain arises almost immediately. I also heard from some long-term meditators that they have aches in the back too. Buddha had pain in his back also (several cases in the suttas). However, 1 hour per day is not enough, I think, to damage your back. Some 4-5 hours a day - yes.

Doing physical exercises and yoga helps a lot, btw. I would strongly recommend to do it at least every day that you meditate, this can probably preserve healthy back.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Mkoll » Sun Aug 10, 2014 11:41 am

mikenz66 wrote:Where I would be careful is the joints in the legs, particularly knees. If your hips are not flexible enough then it's easy to damage the knees, and I know a few older western monks who have commented on that. Especially if they had to sit long hours on concrete floors without a cushion...

Yep. It took me about a month to damage my knees because of overzealous meditation sitting quarter or half-lotus combined with inflexible hips and knees that were already in poor shape from an old injury. This isn't to dissuade anyone from sitting on the floor: I think I just had a bad combination of factors that lead to such a quick injury. My point is to be careful because knee pain is slow to go away and sometimes it never does. I've still got mine.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby m0rl0ck » Sun Aug 10, 2014 5:26 pm

Goofaholix wrote:It strengthens your back, unless you have an unbalanced posture that strains it unecessarily.


That has been my experience as well. If you build up to longer sitting periods by degrees and do some light yoga semi regularly your back will be strong and flexible.

EDIT: by "longer" sitting periods i meant 45 minutes to an hour.
"When you meditate, don't send your mind outside. Don't fasten onto any knowledge at all. Whatever knowledge you've gained from books or teachers, don't bring it in to complicate things. Cut away all preoccupations, and then as you meditate let all your knowledge come from what's going on in the mind. When the mind is quiet, you'll know it for yourself. But you have to keep meditating a lot. When the time comes for things to develop, they'll develop on their own. Whatever you know, have it come from your own mind.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Sati1 » Sun Aug 10, 2014 6:58 pm

Hi,

Thank you all for your responses. It's good to hear that sitting can actually strengthen the back, but also important to know that it can hurt it as well. My sits are almost always between 30 and 45 minutes long, sitting cross-legged with a gentle quarter-lotus. I don't think that the knees are being overstretched, but I do sometimes notice my back turn left or bend forward (usually when concentration increases). I then gently return to a straight upright position.

From your descriptions, Zom and M0rl0ck, it seems like with sits of an hour-or-so or less, the strengthening of the back predominates, whereas with sits of many hours the damage becomes significant. That would also explain why Buddha experienced back pain (sometimes sitting for days at a time).

I don't do yoga, but I do stretch the back and legs every morning for about 10-15 minutes. I don't do any abs or back muscle training.

mikenz66, as you suggest, I have started to do other activites on the cushion as well, especially eating and reading.

Many thanks :namaste: ,
Sati1
London, UK

----
"I do not perceive even one other thing, o monks, that when developed and cultivated entails such great happiness as the mind" (AN 1.10, transl. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
"So this spiritual life, monks, does not have gain, honor, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of moral discipline for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakable liberation of mind that is the goal of this spiritual life, its heartwood, and its end," (MN 29, transl. Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi)
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby atipattoh » Tue Aug 12, 2014 7:09 am

Half lotus is a bad posture, in handling pain, I change to Myanmar style or probably is called quarter-lotus? I presume is both foot on the floor, some call Myanmar style; or in Chinese, direct translation would be scattered?

Balancing and natural are the key words.

If the shoulder tension occurs frequently, and elbow is already away from body, and spinal already straight, there is one more location one might want to scan. The Leg may appear to be balance, possibility is the one that is external is slightly ‘floating’; the flesh is not resting on the floor so not able to help in sharing the weight. This could be the cause for the leaning to the side. If this is the case, even though the tension of the shoulder is released, it will come back very soon. Try to scan the muscle of the external leg, release the tension, relax it. If the tension comes back soon also, slowly switch leg; but maintain knowing your object (mindful).
Floating leg also cause another problem. The location of concern is the pressing point of the triangular pelvic bone that causes pain; normally happen when sitting for 1~2 hours per session and 5~6 sessions in a day. Once continue for more than a week, it will be difficult to sit more than 20 minutes without changing leg; that’s what happen to me. Direct solution is mindfully switches to standing meditation for a while than mindfully back to sitting.
Long term solution, what I would suggest is (there is only 1 that I’m aware of at the moment); Butterfly!
I prefer to put my buttock on an inch height small piece of cushion, place the foot facing each other close to the private part, on the floor. Both hand pressing down the knee on the floor a few times and rest; repeat a few times. Try that a few sessions, morning and night; and when it is more comfortable, maintain butterfly posture and try to lean forward to the front until the body down touches the floor flat and hand straight forward on the floor; hold your breath for a few counts that is comfortable. Repeat a few times.
If you do this down to the floor part of stretching exercise, don’t forget to stand up straight, slowly raise your hand straight up then bend your body backward. Reverse that action until your hand is straight down and relax.
May need to do this simple yoga for quite some time before both legs can be able to be flat on the floor; after that there will be less localized pelvic bone pressing point, stable, so spinal can maintain straight longer period. There will be no tension on the leg that reflected on the shoulder muscle tension.

Neck pain at the back is mostly one sided. Afaik, the root cause is not physical; rather mental. Both side back pain can be both, physical and mental. Physical is straight forward, you can see that some meditator purposely bend their head downward slightly. With that ‘intention’ in the consciousness, unknowingly, he will slowly bend down the head further especially if he is ‘concentrating’. Another mentality issue I encounter at a retreat that I joined, I noticed a sitter even bend his head almost 90 degree. I advised him not to do that; ‘I can follow the breath better’ that was the answer. This part is physical inflicted but the root cause is mentality.
The second root cause is strong viriya, when the consciousness concentrates; focus onto the breath especially when it is on one sided nostril hole. One can not avoid this problem if he continues to use senses to meditate. Concentrate and focus is wrong, resulted in strong viriya; has complication and side effects. One of it is the one sided pain on the back of the neck, like the nerve being prick and pull by a needle.

As for what is the correct way of meditation on knowing the breath, I’m afraid not much I could share, it is better to refer to your meditation teacher; apology for that!

Above pain, I personally had encountered. One more pain experience to share; presumably externally inflicted: mosquito bite!
When in deep ‘concentration’, all of a sudden, a mosquito bites right on the back of my neck. It was very very painful like a big needle poking my neck. Ignore it and I continue ‘to concentrate’ on the breath. 1 hour after the session; I touch that spot with my hand and to my surprise, there was a small piece of hard particle which is actually a blackhead exit from a blocked pore. Yet the tension on the neck was not being felt due to pain threshold built up or mental choice of isolation attention; despite the fact that tremendous tension has already built up slowly to the extend that blackhead can be forced out on its own. Imagine what kind of strength was that and yet no tension was felt prior to the ‘poking’ moment.

Has anyone compress his neck while meditation and yet during sitting he does not felt the pain at all? That happen once and I found difficulty to eat, and was unable to utter voice for 2 days; cause by a single sitting. So don't built up threshold, bad, bad very bad!

:anjali:
Last edited by atipattoh on Tue Aug 12, 2014 11:05 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Sweet_Nothing » Tue Aug 12, 2014 9:10 am

Hi,

Whatever feels right for you in terms of posture is probably right for you.

The key is to keep the back straight and not develop a tendency to lean or slouch the back when it feels uncomfortable. Instead, try to utilize some kind of back support while keeping it straight.

I feel that sitting cross legged is more suited to meditation than sitting on a chair. I also feel that half lotus improves concentration, and full lotus does this even more but it is really not necessary to force yourself into uncomfortable postures.

Sitting on a mat in cross legged position (even for more than an hour) will not cause any long term discomfort by itself, but it might rather improve your health by reducing stress and promoting relaxation. You might also use some pads or small cushions for knee support.

My 2 cents.
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby meindzai » Tue Aug 12, 2014 3:03 pm

Now that I think about it, I have never had back problems since I've been "a sitter."

I also do some yoga and occasionally other forms of exercise, which also help. I've always been pretty big on having a good posture, especially as I started out in zen, where they emphasize this a lot more. The most important thing I've found is not just to "sit up straight" but to make sure the back has a natural, gentle, concave "curve" to it.

As far as knees go, it's usually tight hips that are a problem, and there's plenty of yogic ways to stretch those. But I find that if my meditation posture is very relaxed, and if I "breathe into" the tense muscles to release tension, I don't have a problem.

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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby atipattoh » Wed Aug 13, 2014 2:08 pm

This half spinal twist yoga good for meditator.
Finally found male image, suitable for posting here.

http://www.yogapoint.com/asana/matsyendrasana.html

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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby Sati1 » Tue Aug 19, 2014 2:04 pm

Dear Sweet Nothing, meindzai and atipattoh,

Many thanks for your comments and for the advice on better sitting. Thanks also for the link to the streching pose. It is a relief to learn that a posture that feels painful is not necessarily damaging for the back.

With metta,
Sati1
London, UK

----
"I do not perceive even one other thing, o monks, that when developed and cultivated entails such great happiness as the mind" (AN 1.10, transl. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
"So this spiritual life, monks, does not have gain, honor, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of moral discipline for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakable liberation of mind that is the goal of this spiritual life, its heartwood, and its end," (MN 29, transl. Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi)
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Re: long-term effects of sitting meditation on back health?

Postby philosopher » Sun Aug 24, 2014 4:07 pm

I believe it would be far better for long term health, and also to develop agility in the practice, to use all postures for meditation. Sitting may not be damaging if done absolutely correctly but it is also not as profitable for the body (and mind) as many other possible positions for meditation, including many from yoga that are used specifically for pranayama and meditation. For whatever reason I notice that these are not well known among most Buddhist meditators. In any case, I personally avoid sitting for extended periods of time as much as possible.

Btw, damage to the knees is also a real possibility if the knees, too, are not in perfect alignment and if supports are not used to create proper alignment if there is any existing injury or abnormality.

If you're interested in checking whether your sitting posture is healthy for your back and knees I suggest taking an Iyengar yoga class or checking with an Iyengar yoga teacher.

Hope this helps and may you enjoy many years of good health.

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