The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices (much like the term sports) that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force (qi, ki, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness.
Various meditative postures have been used in meditation. Sitting, supine, and standing postures are used. The bodily positions applied during Yoga are found at the Wikipedia page Asana. Most well known in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as well as in their modern forms, are the full-lotus, half-lotus, Burmese, and kneeling positions. Meditation can also be practiced while walking, such as kinhin, or doing simple repetitive tasks, as in Zen samu, or work which encourages mindfulness.
Cross legged sitting helps create a stable base for meditation. Several seated asanas are practiced such as full-lotus, half-lotus, easy crossed legs, or siddhasana ("perfect pose"). Sitting on the heels is possible, among other positions. Seated meditation cushions are often used to help extend meditative time and serve to elevate the hips and spine into proper alignment.
Sitting cross-legged (or upon one's knees) for extended periods when one is not sufficiently limber, can result in a range of ergonomic complaints called "meditator's knee". These are common and may be endured for long periods of time in extensive meditation retreats, however caution is often advised, and the guidance of an instructor or 'guru' is often sought extensively.
In the full-lotus, half-lotus and Burmese positions, used in Buddhism and Hinduism, it is often said that the spinal column must be kept "straight," that is, the individual should sit erect but relaxed, by balancing the torso such that the spinal column supports it in a natural way. One should feel comfortable and rest in a simple and unstrained way.
Sitting on a cushion that elevates the pelvis as high as or higher than the knees and then slightly rolling the pelvis forward makes it easier to keep the spine upright. It is said in multiple traditions that the chin should be slightly tucked in, the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, lips lightly pressed together shoulders back.
Those traditions related to kundalini yoga, take a less formal approach. While the basic practice in these traditions is also to sit still quietly in a traditional posture, they emphasize the possibility of kriyas – spontaneous yogic postures, changes in breathing patterns or emotional states, or perhaps repetitive physical movements such as swaying, etc., which may naturally arise as the practitioner sits in meditation, and which should not be resisted but rather allowed to express themselves to enhance the natural flow of energy through the body. This is said to help purify the nadis and ultimately deepen one's meditative practice.
Cross-legged postures, especially those such as the full-lotus, may be difficult due to a lack of familiarization. Most Westerners are not used to sitting in cross-legged positions for extended periods of time. For this reason Westerners are often advised to use a chair or a bench until they are ready for the traditional cross-legged positions. Yoga and stretching also are applicable as a means of developing the flexibility needed for the cross-legged postures.
If practiced routinely and done correctly, full-lotus is easy to maintain for long periods of time without discomfort, as muscular effort is used only keep the spine balanced, and not to support the weight of the torso. Often this posture is explained as a way of encouraging the circulation of what some call "spiritual energy," the "vital breath", the "life force" (Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Latin spiritus) or the Kundalini. It is said that one's meditation will not be as good if one's posture is not so good.
In various traditions people meditate by sitting on a chair, flat-footed and without back support (as in New Thought); sitting on a stool (as in Orthodox Christianity); or walking (in Therevada Buddhism); or walking in mindfulness, which is known as kinhin (in Zen Buddhism).
Hand gestures and position
Various hand-gestures or mudras may be prescribed in meditation. In Vajrayana Buddhism mudras carry symbolic meaning. According to Yogic philosophy the mudras affect consciousness, mood and energy.
For instance in Buddhist meditation the hands are often held with the right resting atop the left and thumbs touching. Some traditions hold say that each finger is associated with a different sensitivity and that the finger endings, lock into mudras, create subtle energy shifts due to these different energy circuit connections. Pressing on finger endings also stimulates brain sections relating to different qualities – which a practitioner may want to enhance through meditation to invoke specific effects or changes. Other traditions hold that the right on top of left symbolizes the state of samsara while many common depictions of The Buddha have that he holds his left on top of right, due to his enlightenment.
Eye focus and gaze
In some schools such as Zen, the eyes are half-closed and half-open, looking slightly downward. In others such as Brahma Kumaris, the eyes are kept fully open. In other traditions the eyelids are kept 1/10 or barely open depending on what drishti the meditation instructs. Drishti refers to eye focus in kundalini yoga and means "vision" or "insight" in Sanskrit. Pictures of saints in meditation may reflect different eye postures, and different meditations may call for staring into a saint's eyes, a candle flame, or some other object of focus, which is known as trataka meditation.
In Sufism, meditating (muraqaba) with the eyes closed is called Varood and keeping them open is known as Shahood or Fa'tha.
Often such details are shared by more than one religion, even in cases where mutual influence seems unlikely. One example is "navel-gazing," which is apparently attested to within Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Chinese qigong practice. Another is the practice of focusing on the breath, found in Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and numerous Indic traditions.
For more information on Meditation see:
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article "Meditation", which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.