Living with Harmony ~ A Blog for your Mind & Body

Breathing Meditations

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation Bench,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on March 28, 2011

To practice meditation you don’t need any props, but if you find yourself meditating frequently you may find that meditation cushions or benches will make you more comfortable.  You could sit cross-legged on a zabuton cushion to cushion your sit bones and ankles, or you might prefer sitting higher on a meditation bench or a zafu so that your knees rest at or below hip level.  Our meditation bench and zafus also make it easier for you to sit erect.  No matter what, though, beginning simple breathing meditations will help bring some peace and calm into our otherwise busy lifestyles.

Breathing Meditations

by HowToMeditate.Org

Generally, the purpose of breathing meditation is to calm the mind and develop inner peace. We can use breathing meditations alone or as a preliminary practice to reduce our distractions before engaging in a Lamrim meditation

A Simple Breathing Meditation

The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.

Benefits of Meditation

If we practice patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.

Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions.

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.


Zafus by Bean Products : Buying Guide

Posted in Company News,How-To,Meditation,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on November 29, 2010

We currently carry a large selection of Zafus by Bean Products. Each Zafu is customizable as to what type of shape, cover, and stuffing you would like. These Zafus are then made upon your order and shipped directly to you. Because they are customized for you, they can take a little longer to receive then pre-made meditation cushions.

First, consider the shape you would like. Zafus are available in Round or Crescent shapes. The choice is a personal decision, but some may find that the short crescent shape offers some extra support to the upper thighs. I consider Bean’s Crescent Zafus a “short Crescent”, because there are other zafus on the market that are more of a longer V-shape design. We will be adding some of these in the near future, so please check back again soon.

Crescent Zafus by Bean

Crescent Zafus by Bean

Second, you can choose which stuffing you’d like. Bean offers Buckwheat Hulls or Kapok.  Both will shape to your body.  Since Kapok is a very light fibrous material the Zafu stuffed with Kapok is noticeably lighter than the Zafu stuffed with the Buckwheat hulls.  This could be important to those who will be carrying their Zafu to different locations.

All of the Zafus offer a convenient hidden zipper.  The zipper offers two benefits:

  • You can adjust the height and density by removing/adding more stuffing to suit your liking.  Our recommendation is to store any stuffing removed in case you wish to add it back in at a future time.
  • You can remove the stuffing in order to wash the outer cover.  There is no inner liner, so the stuffing will need to be poured into a bucket or container (as in the Buckwheat), or you’ll need to pull out the Kapok (which is a very fine and light fiber, so it’ll need to be carefully bagged).  After washing the cover, just pour or stuff the contents back into the Zafu.
Buckwheat Zafu

Buckwheat Zafu

Kapok Zafu

Kapok Zafu

And finally, you can choose your cover. You can choose from regular cotton, organic cotton, or hemp. Color selections vary, too.

So no more need to shop around looking for that “perfect” zafu – customize your own! Visit our Meditation Section to start creating your personal Zafu.

A Guided Meditation with an Anusara Yogi

Posted in How-To,Meditation,Yoga,Yoga Blanket,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on November 22, 2010

Before listening and watching the following 8+ minute video, find a quiet spot to sit comfortably with an erect spine. This video is by an English Anusara yogi and would be a beautiful Savasana meditation to do as well at the end of your yoga practice.

If you will be sitting cross-legged on the floor or earth, and if your knees are higher than your hips, Bridget suggests tucking a blanket under both of your knees to allow you to fully and deeply relax your inner thighs during this meditation practice. Another option would be to sit higher. How high would depend on how high your knees are – you may just need to sit on a yoga blanket, or your may prefer to sit on a Zafu. We offer a large selection of Zafus: round or crescent-shaped; regular cotton covers or organic; and cotton, buckwheat or kapok stuffing.

Choosing a Meditation Cushion: Buckwheat or Kapok?

Posted in How-To,Meditation,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on September 27, 2010

Both Buckwheat and Kapok make for great cushion-fill, but how do you choose which is best for you?  Hopefully the following information will make your decision a little easier.

What is Buckwheat?

Buckwheat hulls are the by-product of buckwheat milling. Naturally pest and water resistant, our buckwheat hulls are a sustainable, pesticide free, hypoallergenic agricultural product.

Buckwheat hulls make a firm and body-fitting cushion. They stay in the shape you form and need.

Organic Buckwheat Hulls

What is Kapok?

Kapok is an all-natural fiber pulled from the seed pods of the kapok tree. A sustainable, completely natural and pesticide-free product sourced from South Pacific growers, Kapok is resilient, lightweight and water resistant, which means it also resists mold.

Kapok is also naturally hypo-allergenic: After harvest, our kapok is spun at a high rate of speed & air cleaned, leaving virtually no dust or pod debris. This makes kapok stuffing an excellent choice for environmentally sensitive individuals.

The drawback to kapok is that it is a natural buoyant hollow fiber. It is so light and fine that the fiber floats in the air and can make a mess when refilling pillows and cushions. It is advised to refill outside or in a space that is easy to clean. This may be necessary when you wish to wash the cushion/pillow cover.

Organic Kapok Filler

Comparing Buckwheat and Kapok Meditation Cushions:

  • Buckwheat Hulls make for a denser cushion, while Kapok is a bit fluffier
  • Both will conform to the body’s shape and support your weight without caving in
  • Buckwheat cushions tend to weigh more than a Kapok cushion (for example, our Kapok Crescent Zafu weighs approximately 28 oz versus a similar Buckwheat Crescent Zafu which weighs 69 oz)
  • Some may find that the Buckwheat provides a more stable and create a very grounding feeling
  • Both are environmentally friendly

The choice is yours.  We offer a variety of Zafu and Zabuton Meditation Cushions.  When choosing from our Zafus, you’ll also be able to select round or crescent-shaped; cotton or organic covers; preferred color; in addition to your fill preference.  Our cushions also have zippers giving you access to the fill so that you can empty the cushion when you wish to wash the cover or wish to adjust the density of the fill to best fit your comfort level.

Meditation: Sitting and Breathing

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation,Meditation Bench,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on July 5, 2010

As you may already know, we carry all of the meditation seating props you need to be comfortable.  At our store, you can find:

  • Zafus – small round or crescent shaped pillows to provide cushioning and support to maintain the correct alignment
  • Zabutons – large flat cushions that will soften any pressure on knees, ankles and feet
  • Benches – our current bamboo bench offers rounded feet to allow for all necessary adjustments to sit erect

Many of our items are available in a variety of colors, fabrics, and stuffing materials, allowing you to basically create a custom item that is perfect for you.

Here are some details on sitting in meditation and some proper breathing techniques:

Zen Meditation Instructions

~ from Zen Mountain Monastery in New York

Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions centrally as the very heart of the practice. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as the “meditation Buddhists.” Basically, zazen is the study of the self.

The great Master Dogen said,

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”

To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For two thousand five hundred years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, it takes doing in order for it to happen.

We tend to see body, breath, and mind separately, but in zazen they come together as one reality. The first thing to pay attention to is the position of the body in zazen. The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath. Throughout the years of the evolution of Buddhism, the most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen has been the pyramid structure of the seated Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is very stable. We use a zafu – a small pillow – to raise the behind just a little, so that the knees can touch the ground. With your bottom on the pillow and two knees touching the ground, you form a tripod base that gives three hundred and sixty-degree stability.

There are several different leg positions that are possible while seated this way. The first and simplest is the Burmese position, in which the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of exercise to be able to get the legs to drop that far. After awhile the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the zafu, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight – then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the zafu and your stomach pushing out a little, there will be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.

Burmese Position (front)

Burmese Position (front)

Burmese Position (side)

Burmese Position (side)

Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight.

Half Lotus (front)

Half Lotus (front)

Half Lotus (side)

Half Lotus (side)

By far the most stable of all the positions is the full lotus, where each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is perfectly symmetrical and very solid. Stability and efficiency are the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well. There is absolutely no esoteric significance to the different positions. What is most important in zazen is what you do with your mind, not what you do with your feet or legs.

Full Lotus (front)

Full Lotus (front)

Full Lotus (side)

Full Lotus (side)

There is also the seiza position. You can sit seiza without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.

Seiza (front)

Seiza (front)

Seiza (side)

Seiza (side)

Finally, it’s fine to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You can use the cushion, or zafu, the same way you would use it on the floor – sitting on the forward third of it. Alternatively, you can place the zafu at the small of the back. It’s very important to keep the spine straight with the lower part of the back curved. All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor are just as important when sitting in a chair.

Chair Position (front)

Chair Position (front)

Chair Position (side)

Chair Position (side)

The importance of keeping the back straight is to allow the diaphragm to move freely. The breathing you will be doing in zazen becomes very, very deep. Your abdomen will rise and fall much the same way an infant’s belly rises and falls. In general, as we mature, our breathing becomes restricted, and less and less complete. We tend to take shallow breaths in the upper part of the chest. Usually, we’ve got our belts on very tight or we wear tight clothing around the waist. As a result, deep, complete breathing rarely occurs. In zazen it is important to loosen up anything that is tight around the waist and to wear clothing that is non-binding. For instance, material should not gather behind the knees when you cross the legs, inhibiting circulation. Allow the diaphragm to move freely so that the breathing can be deep, easy, and natural. You don’t have to control it. You don’t have to make it happen. It will happen by itself if you assume the right posture and position your body properly.

Once you’ve positioned yourself, there are a few other things you can check on. The mouth is kept closed. Unless you have some kind of a nasal blockage, breathe through your nose. The tongue is pressed lightly against the upper palate. This reduces the need to salivate and swallow. The eyes are kept lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two or three feet in front of you. Your eyes will be mostly covered by your eyelids, which eliminates the necessity to blink repeatedly. The chin is slightly tucked in. Although zazen looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight. The nose is centered in line with the navel, the upper torso leaning neither forward nor back.

The hands are folded in the cosmic mudra. The dominant hand is held palm up holding the other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval, which can rest on the upturned soles of your feet if you’re sitting full lotus. If you’re sitting Burmese, the mudra can rest on your thighs. The cosmic mudra tends to turn your attention inward. There are many different ways of focusing the mind. There are visual images called mandalas that are used in some traditions as a point of concentration. There are mantras, or vocal images. There are different kinds of mudras used in various Eastern religions. In zazen, we focus on the breath. The breath is life. The word “spirit” means breath. The words “ki” in Japanese and “chi” in Chinese, meaning power or energy, both derive from breath. Breath is the vital force; it’s the central activity of our bodies. Mind and breath are one reality: when your mind is agitated your breath is agitated; when you’re nervous you breathe quickly and shallowly; when your mind is at rest the breath is deep, easy, and effortless.

It is important to center your attention in the hara. The hara is a place within the body, located two inches below the navel. It’s the physical and spiritual center of the body. Put your attention there; put your mind there. As you develop your zazen, you’ll become more aware of the hara as the center of your attentiveness.



Breathing in Zazen

Begin rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, hands are folded in the cosmic mudra, mouth is closed, tongue pressed on the upper palate. You’re breathing through the nose and you’re tasting the breath. Keep your attention on the hara and the breath. Imagine the breath coming down into the hara, the viscera, and returning from there. Make it part of the whole cycle of breathing.

We begin working on ourselves by counting the breath, counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander – if you become aware that what you’re doing is chasing thoughts – you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at one.

The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted off. Each time you return to the breath you are empowering yourself with the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there. That simple fact is extremely important. We call this power of concentration joriki. Joriki manifests itself in many ways. It’s the center of the martial and visual arts in Zen. In fact, it’s the source of all the activity of our lives.

When you’ve been practicing this process for a while, your awareness will sharpen. You’ll begin to notice things that were always there but escaped your attention. Because of the preoccupation with the internal dialogue, you were too full to be able to see what was happening around you. The process of zazen begins to open that up.

When you’re able to stay with the counting and repeatedly get to ten without any effort and without thoughts interfering, it’s time to begin counting every cycle of the breath. Inhalation and exhalation will count as one, the next inhalation and exhalation as two. This provides less feedback, but with time you will need less feedback.

Eventually, you’ll want to just follow the breath and abandon the counting altogether. Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let the breath breathe itself. That’s the beginning of the falling away of body and mind. It takes some time and you shouldn’t rush it; you shouldn’t move too fast from counting every breath to counting every other breath and on to following the breath. If you move ahead prematurely, you’ll end up not developing strong joriki. And it’s that power of concentration that ultimately leads to what we call samadhi, or single-pointedness of mind.

In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up, for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes, however, when you’re in a crisis or involved in something important in your life, you’ll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur. You let it go again but it comes back, you let it go and it still comes back. Sometimes that needs to happen. Don’t treat that as a failure; treat it as another way of practicing. This is the time to let the thought happen, engage it, let it run its full course. But watch it, be aware of it. Allow it to do what it’s got to do, let it exhaust itself. Then release it, let it go. Come back again to the breath. Start at one and continue the process. Don’t use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues that need to come up.

Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond – when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into many fragments.

Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don’t get in touch with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. In deep zazen, deep samadhi, a person breathes at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a person will breathe about fifteen breaths a minute – even when we’re relaxing, we don’t quite relax. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate, circulation, and metabolism slow down in deep zazen. The whole body comes to a point of stillness that it doesn’t reach even in deep sleep. This is a very important and very natural aspect of being human. It is not something particularly unusual. All creatures of the earth have learned this and practice this. It’s a very important part of being alive and staying alive: the ability to be completely awake.

Once the counting of the breath has been really learned, and concentration, true one-pointedness of mind, has developed, we usually go on to other practices such as koan study or shikantaza (“just sitting”). This progression should not be thought of in terms of “gain” or “promotion”; that would imply that counting the breath was just a preparation for the “real” thing. Each step is the real thing. Whatever our practice is, the important thing is to put ourselves into it completely. When counting the breath, we just count the breath.

It is also important to be patient and persistent, to not be constantly thinking of a goal, of how the sitting practice may help us. We just put ourselves into it and let go of our thoughts, opinions, positions – everything our minds hold onto. The human mind is basically free, not clinging. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really are.

How to Sit in Meditation

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation,Meditation Bench,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on December 7, 2009

On our Store Website, we offer answers to Frequently Asked Questions such as “How to Set Up Your Meditation Cushion”. I wanted to share that information with you here, as well.

When sitting in meditation, you should try to sit so that your thighs are sloped from hips to knees in order to tilt the pelvis forward. This position will support the lower back.

Using a Zafu – whether it is round or crescent-shaped – will cushion your sitting bones and raise the height of your hips to create this desired angle of your thighs.

A Crescent Zafu on a Zabuton

A Crescent Zafu on a Zabuton

A Round Zafu on a Zabuton

A Round Zafu on a Zabuton

Placing a Zabuton cushion under the Zafu will cushion your knees, ankles and tops of your feet. This will help release your body of any physical discomforts.

When using a Zafu, a person would sit cross-legged. There are several cross-legged positions to choose from, depending upon your personal flexibility. You could sit in full Lotus (each ankle rests on the opposite thigh), half Lotus (one ankle rests on opposite thigh), or Burmese style (feet are crossed, resting on floor, with one shin in front of the other).

A kneeling position is an alternative to the cross-legged meditation position. This is sometimes referred to as “seiza”. For this position, a bench is recommended. Or one could use blankets, cushions, or a yoga bolster between the calves and thighs to gain the proper height and slope of thighs.

Sitting with Zafu & Zabuton or a Bench & Zabuton

Sitting with Zafu & Zabuton or a Bench & Zabuton

You could also sit cross-legged with the meditation bench, if preferred.

A zabuton can be used with a meditation bench. Either folded in half (as seen in the picture above), or laid flat with bench on top.

Visit our Meditation Products Page to see our entire selection of zabutons, zafus, and meditation benches.

Want to read more on this topic?  See this article on How to Sit in Meditation by e-How.