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Thread: Sitting tips for extremely unflexible people?

  1. #1

    Sitting tips for extremely unflexible people?

    When I signed up for this forum I decided to start sitting zazen. Problem is: I can't! I really try to sit in the burmese position, but I cannot get my knees to touch the ground and it feels anything but stable. It feels like all my weight rests on my ankles. I tried stacking pillows and towels under the zafu in order to raise the height, but that did not help enough either.

    I don't have any medical condition, I am not overweight or old, so I don't see why I shouldn't be able to sit in this position.

    I tried some stretching exercises I found here and will continue to do them (except the last one, which is impossible for me). I am hesitant to try yoga lessons because many yoga positions are not well suited for women and put too much stress on a woman's organs. I am willing to go to a yoga center and discuss the possibilities if it is necessary though.

    Any other ideas?


  2. #2
    Hi Helena,

    One of the few limitations of Treeleaf is that I cannot see your sitting position (unless we consult with a camera on your computer). I would continue to aim for the Burmese Postition, a little bit more each day, until the muscles stretch. It is important that the knees (both) rest flat on the ground and that the position is comfortable. In the way that I teach, the spine should rest about in the center of the Zafu (or slightly in front of the center point), the chin should be slightly pulled in (like a soldier at attention, put with no tension or stiffness), the back should be straight (as if a string were running from the top of your head to the ceiling and ever so slightly tugging your head up to the roof ... just ever so slightly). Eyes should be 1/3 or 2/3 open. Mouth closed, tongue resting on the roof of the mouth.

    Maybe other folks around here could offer other points or guidance. I might combine all the good points into our "Official How to Zazen".

    Getting guidance from a yoga instructor might be a good idea, if they teach Burmese (you should do that, then maybe try later to work up to Lotus) and if they let you bring your Zafu (and not sit with your backside on the floor... that is not good).

    In the meantime, you might also switch around between Burmese and Seiza.

    Here is some more information. Ignore the advise about breathing, and just breath normally (but as if from below the diaphragm, as if the breath were originating about an inch below the belly button.

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. #3
    Sorry, no actual solution here but lots of sympathy as I (male, 43) suffer from the same problem (which does not change in the least over time). Since I abhor Seiza (kneeling) posture I simply stuff small firm buckwheat cushions under my knees which allows a stable and erect posture. The only problem is: it makes my leg (only the right) fall asleep badly which is fine at home but an absolute no-no in the zendo.

    Good luck!


  4. #4
    Hi Helena. I had the same problem before. You might want to tuck your foot in more. Don't try to put your feet too far in front of you. You can try putting your backfoot (inner foot) right up against your upper thigh, really tuck it. Then wait until the muscles loosen a bit. Keep the extra cushion too.

    Hope that helps.

    Gassho Will

  5. #5
    I'm really inflexible myself, I had the same problem too but have been working through it. I usually sit Burmese now, and am trying at half lotus, which I can get into. It took me nearly two years to work up to where I am. In addition I took Kripalu Yoga classes for about five months, really helped.

    So long story short it takes a ton of work, sorry I don't have any easy answers. Wish I did because I always, always prefer to take the path of least resistance.

  6. #6

    sitting posture

    Hello Helena:

    Just a bit further down under the topic "Sitting Posture" you'll find quite a few suggestions regarding sitting.

    I have knees which subluxate/dislocate rather easily, and have had a knee go off tract getting up from sitting, or getting in to sitting position--so I sit with small pillows under my knees. For me, this allows me to have stable contact with the floor
    via the pillows, and permits me to have a solid 3 point position (while my feet are in contact with the floor, the active contact is the buttocks right beneath the base of the spine and the two knees.

    It is well worth reading more about the postural aspects of zazen. Sitting correctly really does make a difference.

    Good luck.


  7. #7
    Hi Helena:

    Good for you, getting right down to it. You have my sympathy on the inflexibility, I'm about as flexible as Pinocchio before he became a real boy. When I started I could sit Burmese (or as Brad has called it, "Half-assed Lotus)" but Half Lotus was out of the question. A couple of years (of weekly sitting) later I have days where I can do a half-hour in Half Lotus and I have days where I switch to Burmese fifteen minutes in.

    A few of the people I sit with are Yoga instructors, and have shown me some hip-opening stretches that really help. One person I sit with uses cushions under her knees and an elevated zafu. I tried that once and it's pretty comfy. I really recommend regular hip-opening stretches, because if your hips are tight you can end up twisting your knees and doing some serious damage. But don't let it get you down, we all come to this practice as we are. As the great Zen philosopher Donald Rumsfeld said, "You go to zazen with the flexibility you have, not the flexibility you might want, or wish to have, at a later time." Do what you can, now, and tomorrow will take care of itself. Get some stretching advice from a Yoga instructor, you don't have to do poses if you're not comfortable with that.

    Sitting is not the hardest thing about this practice, for me. Sitting /regularly/ is the hardest thing about this practice. If you have the discipline to sit every day, you're already most of the way there (hurray for you!). Just take care of your knees and keep at it. Flexibility will come in time.

    Wishing you the best,


  8. #8
    Thank you so much for your help!
    It is already good to know that I am not the only person who struggles with this. I tried again just now, with your tips, and it went better already! It helped much to tuck my inner foot in (thanks Will!). I also made a thicker "zabuton" and I made an entire tower of cushions, which I'm sure is not ideal, but does help for now (my daughter has been in heaven for the last few days, with all the cushions all over the place )

    I always hear about sore knees and hips, but do other people have sore ankles, or does that mean that I am doing something wrong?

  9. #9
    You mean like twisted-sore or rather pressed-sore? I only feel my ankles
    - when they carry too much wheigt due to knees lacking firm ground contact,
    - when the Zabuton (padded mat under the legs) is too soft to cushion a hard floor.

    A (useless) "indian style" position with crossed rather than parallel lower legs also puts stress on the ankles.

    BTW: Solved the persistent "sleeping right leg problem" today simply by switching inner and outer leg duh! :roll:



  10. #10

    and I made an entire tower of cushions, which I'm sure is not ideal, but does help for now (my daughter has been in heaven for the last few days, with all the cushions all over the place )
    Haha :lol: You'll find eventually it will get easier. By the way be careful with bouncing leg stretches. I heard they actually weaken your tendans.

    I get sore ankles sometimes. If it gets too bad just adjust your sitting position ie. switch legs. However, if you find your switching your position every 2 minutes, then it's time to practice. That's usually just over thinking.


    Solved the persistent "sleeping right leg problem" today simply by switching inner and outer leg duh!
    Haha :lol:

  11. #11
    I can also relate, Helena. I am 40 and not very flexible, but even in my best shape in my 20's I never was. As was said here, I'm sure you'll get more and more used to sitting as your practice progresses. I have, even through the aching back and numb legs.

    That said, the Burmese posture is just right for me. I have no aspirations towards "working up" to half or full lotus, or taking any type of yoga class. But that's just me. You have to find what works best for you.

    Proud-Burmese-Posture-Sitting Keith

  12. #12
    Thanks again!
    I used to have weak ankles, but I also used to be overweight, so I don't know if my ankles were just weak, or always under a lot of pressure. I used to have sore ankles while sitting on a seiza bench as well. That said, I do think the weight is not enough on my knees yet. I thought the soft zabuton helped, but maybe not.

    Thanks for the warning not to overdo the stretches. I know that that overdoing anything can worsen the exact condition you are trying to improve, but this was a good reminder.

  13. #13
    You could also try practicing your posture while reading or watching television to help to teach your body to be used to sitting in that fashion.


  14. #14
    You could also try practicing your posture while reading or watching television to help to teach your body to be used to sitting in that fashion.

    Amen Brother R!!

    I do the same thing and it helps quite a bit. At night when I read to the kids or when watching TV I will either stretch a little or sit in half lotus. I can really tell a difference now.

    Every little bit helps (with emphasis on the word little). Patience . . .


  15. #15
    On the topics of sitting and soreness...

    Seemingly regardless of position, I often find that at least one of my legs falls asleep. It happens at home occasionally, which isn't really a big deal, but it always seems to happen when I sit with others. This generally slows me down in standing to begin walking meditation between periods of zazen.

    Anyone have solutions for this problem? It doesn't seem to happen as much at home, maybe it's the difference in the zafu I sit on?


  16. #16
    Hi Ryan,

    I often find that something (my speedo underwear usually ... just kidding, about the speedos) is pinching the top of my thigh. So, loose fitting pants and undershorts are a help. Also, in the worst case, slightly shifting the trunk seems to allow blood flow to the legs.

    Sitting on a too soft Zabuton also seems to have an effect on circulation.

    Other folks have similar or different experiences?

    Gassho, Jundo

  17. #17
    I find that if I do not sit at the very edge of my Zafu, I loose circulation and get the sleeping foot Zazen. And that often leads to numb foot Zazen, which could, and has in turn lead to funny walk kinhin.


  18. #18
    Hi Ryan:

    I've found sitting forward on my zafu helps. Also, leaning forward a little seems to help. Elevating my butt by sitting on the side of my zafu, or sitting on two zafus, seems to do some good. And I occasionally wiggle my foot to see if it's falling asleep, and if it is, I switch which leg is up in Half-Lotus, or switch to Burmese.

    Avoiding zazen "because I don't want my leg to fall asleep" works too.


  19. #19
    yeah. Sit on the edge. Sitting back on the zafu supposedly cuts off the cirulation.


  20. #20
    Thanks everyone (Jundo, Jordan, Rob, Wil, and anyone I may have missed). Your suggestions may explain it. My zafu at home (where I have less trouble) is firmer and thicker than the ones I have encountered at sitting groups. It's easier to get the "edge" of it than the softer pillowy zafu I've encountered. Perhaps I'll BMOZ (bring my own zafu?) the next time I have an opportunity to sit with a group. I'll pay more attention to sitting at the edge at home and see if that helps.

    Thanks again everyone!

  21. #21
    Member Martin's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2007
    Wherever the next mediation is. Every now and then I make it back to Norfolk, England.
    Helena, All

    I've not much to add really save to say that, Helena, I am guessing that you may be doing exactly the right things and that (based on my own experience) you may need to give it time. Lots more time.

    I'm 47 now and started sitting a couple of years ago. Arthritis runs pretty badly in my family and I've had it in my knees since my mid thirties. At first I couldn't get my knees down flat and it felt exactly as you said, as if all the weight was going on my ankles.

    I had to make zafu higher, and put cushions under my knees to support them. Even then sitting Burmese was painful beyond a few minutes. But gradually I found that in the moment before I put the cushions under them, my knees seemed to be "dropping" more, so I was able to reduce the height of the cushion bit by bit, then to replace the cushions with towels, and eventually I found my knees were right down. But it took the best part of a year, so give it time.

    Now, I find sitting Burmese comfortable. No, really. I experiment from time to time with a half lotus, but don't know if I'll get there, and am not really terribly fussed. Though Burmese is still better with my left leg tucked in first than the right. What's that all about?



  22. #22
    Thank you Martin, your story is inspiring! I have time, that's no problem. At the moment I cannot imagine that my legs will ever bend that far.

  23. #23
    a couple of stretches that help for me:

    Split Stretch: While sitting, straddle your legs out as far on either side of you as possible. Bending from the waist, stretch your body over your left leg, move slowly to the center space between your legs, and then slowly over to your right leg.

    Dead Lifts: just a bar without weights or very little, knees slightly bent, back straight and slowly lower the bar below the knees and in a continuous motion and return to standing. Great for the lower back and a hamstring stretch.

    Prasarita Padottanasana: just found this site that describes it. Looks pretty decent.

    "Yep, dang ol speedos pinchin and what not and dat burn yoga lotus sits stings purty good but its peaceful I tell you what" - Boomhauer zen moment

  24. #24
    Hi Louis,
    The dead lifts without weight - for stretching only I suppose? Any thoughts about how deadlifts with substantial weights affect flexibility? Always negatively?
    O boy, imagine having to choose between muscle development and enlightenment :-)


  25. #25
    First, Mr.Walker, welcome to the community. When I worked for Citi, I spent a couple of weeks a year in Tokyo and truly loved it. I hope you enjoy your time there and with the leaf.

    I agree with your sentiment as to the value of this community, given our busy lives.

    I can't speak for the effects of lifting with large weights as I don't do it. Anecdotally, the guys with big guns at the gym don't look too flexible. Dead lifts done poorly are a good way to hurt yourself. So I focus on the stretch. A modest weight, done slowly (5 count down and 5 up) paying attention to form helps keep my lower back in shape and really stretches the hammys. The other exercise works the adductors. I also have dodgy knees and seated leg curls help with that.

  26. #26
    I should add that I feel quite sheepish offering my advice and defer to Jordan on these matters. I can speak with some authority when it comes to addressing the ailments of the over 40 crowd, and how to compensate for them. :wink:

  27. #27

  28. #28

  29. #29
    Louis, "large" weights... well, that's different for different people and what's difficult for me may be easy for you, who knows. And really, who cares...

    Jordan, thanks for the link. I'm not very flexible either but can it Burmese without problems, and after awhile in Burmese also quarter Lotus. I'll try some of these and then we'll see. Done carefully they should do no harm.

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