It happens at about 20 minutes every time lately... either in half lotus (a traditional position that I would like to honor), or with one leg laying in front of the other, or Indian style... doesn't matter, my left leg goes numb. Sitting up in a chair doesn't seem conducive to a meditative state, and laying down I just fall asleep. I'd really like to do some intensive and very long blocks of meditation (advice on this would be appreciated also) but I'm not sure how to approach this severe distraction and get past it.
I feel your pain! That was a huge problem for me for years! There is a cure, thankfully. There is some trial and error involved, but if you persist, you'll figure it out. First, some background. What you are experiencing usually has to do with how your butt is making contact with the cushion. There is a big nerve center in either of your two butt cheeks. They are located just slightly below where the bone pokes out. When you press on that place for long periods of time, it causes the "pins and needles" feeling. In fact, your entire leg will usually go numb first - the tingly feeling is the nerve "waking" back up.
There are a couple of ways to overcome this problem. The take away from any of these methods is that you want to take pressure off that area:
One way people do it is by using a higher cushion. The idea here is that if you are off the ground a bit more, you are less likely to sink back and onto that nerve center. You also create a natural incline with your legs. Your thighs slope up to meet your hips. Of course, while this will help relieve the nerve pressure in your butt, it will also eventually result in knee pain as your legs are taking more of your weight. I tried this for a while by stacking two cushions sort of like this -> o\ (if that graphic makes any sense).
Another way is to lean back a bit. Actually, you should be doing this anyway (it helps eliminate back pain as you are less likely to lean forward). Leaning back helps shift the weight more onto your coccyx. You are going to feel a little weird at first - almost like you are falling backwards. I think this is because there is a tendency for your chin to raise. Just make sure you are keeping your neck straight.
The method that worked for me had to do with how I was setting up on the cushion. A lot of people plop down right in the middle of the zafu. This is a bad idea. You are throwing all of your weight down right on those nerves. Personally, I set up right at the very edge of the zafu with just my coccyx coming down on the cushion. Those bothersome nerve centers don't even make contact with the cushion at all. I also incorporate points 1 & 2. My cushion is a little higher (maybe about five inches) and I do lean back just a bit to keep my weight coming straight down into the cushion.
Hope this helps! I know how annoying it can be!!!
Short answer: try a seiza bench.
Long answer: I have tried many approaches myself. I used to practice zazen long time ago, pushing my body to be able to sit properly -- lotus position was no less than a dream. It was very unpleasant, often painful (It is frustrating to realize that, in a way, I didn't actually do much zazen at all during these years, struggling as I was with my body).
Yeas later I started studying the suttas and it became much easier to learn how to evaluate approaches, build some sense of what was important to preserve and what was worth exploring. One "A-ha" moment was learning about hindrances and realizing it is asking too much to want to overcome them (or nurture concentration to investigate them) while at the same time practicing in a way that makes them deliberately stronger.
After that, I also became thirsty for long periods of meditation. I kept trying using different supports to sit with legs crossed, but nothing helped: I faced numbness at 20min, too. I heard eating banana was suppose to help, but in any case, at 45-60 min, my back was in pain.
Then I tried a few times laying down -- not easy. At some point I meditated for a month in a chair. There was some effort in parts of my legs to keep my body stable, but these were very focused and not as intense as cross legged. I could sit for 1h before starting to feel tired. However, the experience was pleasant, and I wasn't exhausted as I used to be cross legged, which means I could do many 1h sessions in a single day, with small intervals. This is when I had major progress for the first time in years.
But still I wasn't satisfied: after a while, the small tensions in my leg became an impediment, and I wanted to be able to explore longer "blocks" of sessions. Then, I remembered the seiza benches in a sesshin I participated, got myself one, and became extremely grateful for the existence of such thing. No numbdness, no pain, no great discomfort. Just work to be done.
Attached is a non-exhaustive chart of traditional sitting postures for meditation. (There are others.) In the early Buddhist text suttas, the Buddha recommended meditation while sitting, walking, or lying down.
While various teachers have emphasized or de emphasized the importance of posture (especially spine alignment, or comfortability to maintain for extended periods), the postures of meditation are merely trying to provide the body with what is needed and healthy for the actual work of meditation: concentration and insight.
As described in the early suttas, meditation practice follows (and then accompanies) development in practice in right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. It's a gradual path of training; for mind but also the body you use. May you act as a kind and patient teacher and friend rather than a bully or torturer for your body, mind, and life!
What I learned at a Vipassana meditation retreat: we were instructed to meditate for at least an hour without moving. The pain does get intense but you simply watch it happen. It ebbs and flows and insight can come from realizing that it is temporary. You can allow it to happen and be with it and it will go away. Seriously. What I was amazed to find out was how much the intensity of the pain was connected to what was bubbling up in my consciousness!
If the numbing becomes intense. Keep looking at the intense pain (dividing and dissecting) for a while also keeping you mind intensely on your breath and the sensations below your nose and above your upper lip (philtrum) or columella or subnasal or nasal base or nasal tip. Philtrum is the most recommended as per experience. (Also see Keep You Mind on the Spot by Webu Sayadaw) This stirs up energy which can help dissolve the pain faster.
Some traditions do not advice to stay in one place for long time but nevertheless if it is unbearable the best way for it to pass fast is to keep your attention at it for longer until the pain dissolves away. Keep in mind that trying to dissolve it away may make subtle attachment / aversion to the pain. Be mindful of this. Also you might create new conditioning / fabrication in the process which will delay your progress. In may be the reason why it is not advisable. You have to within the possibility of creating new conditioning with the set back due to having to move and loose concentration in this case. Since you cannot objectively measure either you should do it only for intense paints which you cannot beare. Also try to develop equanimity towards the pain in the process.
Some related answers:
I would suggest attending a 10 day Vipassana course run by SN Goenka. You can find one in most countries around the world. It will help you to understand the pain you are experiencing at a very deep level. Before attending the course I had the same problem with leg numbness and back pain. In fact I was frightened that I was doing damage to my body. After the 10 days however, I can sit for periods of 1 hour with no problem. Even if my legs go to sleep I can observe the sensations objectively rather than attaching to the unpleasantness. If you have the time I would highly recommend doing it. Otherwise, I agree with some of the other folks.. try and sit closer to the coccyx on a higher cushion. Or perhaps try a kneeling aid. May you be well and happy.
You would be best answered by your own meditation teacher, with instructions from the style that you practice. Personally I practice Chan, and we are taught that:
- Lotus is best, then half-lotus, then any posture
- Lotus is best because it enables you to build concentration much faster
- Do the best posture possible, and endure the pain. The more you endure, the more concentration you build
- Personally I found that the numbness eventually goes away (starts happening later and later then goes away for good). The reason for pain/numbness is that the posture builds a lot of energy that will push your leg blockages, thus causing pain. When the blockage is cleared, no more pain.
It took me a year practicing half-lotus daily to do full-lotus, and another year to do full-lotus reasonably. It's totally worth it. With Chan, the more you endure, the more you understand.
This is a major problem of most of the people practicing meditation. There are many ways to avoid this problem.
2) adjust your sitting posture.
3) adjust your sitting height using additional cushion.
But this is what i feel as assisting yourself. The solution to it is your mind`s concentration. when your leg starts to feel numb, your leg sends a signal to your brain about the pain. but if you increase your concentration, your brain will be busy and focused to feel the sensations of other part.it will not notice the numbness. This i what i experienced on the last day of my 10 day course.
When i sat for meditating after 20 mins my legs started to become numb. but i concentrated my mind so hard on other part, i never realized and felt the pain. i sat for 1 hr and after 1 hr i got up without any ticking sensation. the solution lies in our mind. i mind is so powerful that if we concentrate very hard on one thing it will not notice other things.
This i again experienced during watching a short film at dhammagiri on the last day. i purposely focused my entire concentration on the film. even after 1 hr i didnt realised the numbness of my leg.
To conclude, if you increase your concentration you will overcome this problem. and this is what we learn in meditation, focused, aware and equanimous mind.
The best advice I have ever read about this is in a book by Ngyakpa Chogam called Journey into Vastness. He advises that the sitting should be such that the knees fall below the level of the pelvis. I can sit in this way on a rock in perfect comfort for up to two hours, but one must find the exactly "sweet spot" where one is balanced on the coccyx in order to avoid any numbness in the legs.
There is an amazing stretch called the Lotus Lunge, sometimes called Pigeon, and it is probably the best stretch for getting deeper into your seated lotus.
Kudos on wanting to honor the most excellent way to sit (imho)
Its important to keep your head neck and trunk in a straight line during meditation.The position of you upper extremities and lower extremities is not the Important thing.Once you truly get into meditative state you will not feel the pain and numbness in your body...over a long period of sustained practice, you will learn to be in meditative state for longer hours without knowing any pain....
Doing stretching exercises and other physical exercises will help you to get used to the postures with certain ease.
Lotus posture(Padmasana) and Adept posture(Siddhasana) are the postures used by great yogis, However, all the other postures are equally good as long as the head, neck, and trunk are held in a straight line and if you are doing the meditation right.
I've written a number of articles on the topic here: http://lucid24.org/misc/qigor/eight-pieces/flt/index.html
includes videos of helpful stretches. note that this resource helps all sitting postures, not just for full lotus.
Had exact same problem first 3 years of meditation, 20 minutes then leg going numb and it's painful/uncomfortable causing me to stop.
It seemed painful af.
Eventually i just decided to sit through it and see what happens because i figured it's probably not deadly or anything that is going to permanently ruin my leg.
I did satipatthana establishments and took note of my reactions, thoughts, feelings & perceptions as the numbing occurred. It was full panic for some 30 seconds but it subsided.
After that i was able to sit without moving for hours and the leg still always became numb, sometimes 2-3 times during a single sitting but it didn't bother me nearly as much. Id say it's the same sensation but i tolerate it easily and it was mostly mental aversion that was the issue.
Sometimes i barely notice it happening. Overcoming this was definitely a milestone and something that was very important.
Otherwise sitting on a soft cushion more or less solves this for me by prevention.
I'm just shaking my head. Tradition goes too far with this sitting cross legged thing.
Excruciating Sitting Zazen is for people that want to take the long way around to Zen. Some people have circulatory problems and whine their leg falls asleep its a sign of trouble. You should not IGNORE it in the sake of aesthetic values lol.
Alan Watts is considered a great man to teach Zen and he said there was no absolute need for sitting lotus. I think Lotus is great because its very easy to forget yourself in that balanced position, however, it isn't for everyone. Asian people and healthy people take to it easier.
To act like some part of Zen is denied to you because you cant sit lotus or full lotus is stinking of religion.
If you want to meditate, meditate. If your legs hurt too much, don't ignore them.
I challenge any man to tell me I am not a practitioner of zen because i dont sit for extended periods of time in a certain position.
Watts said when a cat is tired of sitting it gets up and walks away. And so he did. And the eastern teachers of Buddhism/Zen have never forgiven him for it. Saying he failed a koan.
Even buddhism is stinking with pride apparently