Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Posture matters

Fisherman's Bicycle
Fisherman's Bicycle, Tyre, Lebanon, 2003

Sometimes cycling feels really good. The limits fade. The bike is a part of me, and I'm part of the road I'm spooling up; the blood rushes around inside me; the breath through me, the wind around me, and it's all one, connected whole. That usually happens a few minutes before I run out of steam and end up looking up at a hill going "Uh-oh, that looks... steep."

The bike makes a big difference. If you're on a heavy, clunky, poorly maintained machine that forces you to sit too straight or too high or too low or too cramped, it's almost impossible to get that feeling of flow and connection; instead, you're just fighting the damn bike and pedaling doggedly on. It's still good exercise, for sure, and if you then switch to a really good bike that's perfectly fitted for you, you'll appreciate it all the more.

However, if your only cycling experience is from one of those Dutch things where you sit up straight as a ramrod while cranking majestically along at low cadence, you will have no idea about what it can be like. You need a bike with the saddle at the same height, or a bit higher, than the handlebars, and that's mechanically together enough not to start wobbling on a fast downhill, or flexing if you crank it. Only that way will you be using your entire body to cycle, rather than just your thighs. That's just physics and physiology.
I honestly can't understand how a people that cycles as much as the Dutch choose to inflict those horrors on themselves. They seem otherwise such sensible people. Then again, they also came up with clogs. I wonder if they also run the marathon in them?
It takes a bit of time to get used to riding a bike with drop handlebars and proper, deep posture. Not all that much, and the biggest obstacle is usually the unfounded fear of flipping over the handlebars while braking, and the belief that arching the back while cycling is painful or uncomfortable. It isn't: in fact, having bumps in the road transmitted directly up your spinal column when cycling upright is far less comfortable. There will be some adjustment pains—specifically, a deeper posture will use upper-body muscles that you might have neglected, which means that they will be sore and tired before you get used to it. Gym and stretching helps.

Upgrading the bike itself is easy. If you have the money, all you have to do is get yourself to a competent bike store that caters to enthusiast cyclists, and ask them to fit and sell you one. If you don't, you can do a bit of research on the Internet and then buy a nice 1970's or 1980's vintage racing bike off the Internet for a hundred smackers or so, and then adjust it yourself. It'll be exactly as nice a ride; the gears will just be a bit fiddlier and it'll be a bit heavier, which you can easily compensate for by taking a dump before going on a ride.
My favorite ride is a fixed-gear I built around a 1950's racing frame. It's much slower than a modern road bike, of which I have two, but it's even more fun to ride. Good bikes don't have to cost much. Seriously.
Meditation is like cycling in more ways than you might think. However, upgrading the bike is a bit trickier. That's because your posture is the bike.

I've been working on my sitting posture for about a year now. I have been making slow progress in upgrading it. Some of that progress is chronicled on this blog. The results of the progress keep surprising me.

Most of the time, I sit in quarter-lotus. That's because I have to warm up and stretch in order to get into half-lotus, and I can only get into half-lotus on one side; I'm still working on the other one. In the mornings and often at the zendo, I sit in seiza, because it takes some time to coax my legs into any of the cross-legged positions, and the bells and clappers at the zendo don't give me that time. It also takes me some time to get out of the cross-legged positions, which is inconvenient at the zendo. That means I encounter these different postures quite a lot, and in different combinations.

Sitting in seiza—on my knees, with my weight supported on the cushion, stood on its side, between my legs—is like riding a Dutch bike. It's easy to get into it, but it's very hard to go fast or get fully into it, as it were. I have a hard time finding the proper balance for my spine, and tend to either fall into a slouch or try to flex my lumbar curve too much. I often get drowsy or drift into a reverie, especially if switching to seiza from a cross-legged position due to pain. However, I can only manage all-day zazen in seiza, and a pretty high seiza at that. I've also noticed that learning to sit in the cross-legged positions has helped me resolve some of the problems with seiza; I get a feel for where the spine should be, so I can put it there, even if the posture itself doesn't tell me.

Sitting in the Burmese position—like cross-legged, except the legs are one in front of the other rather than crossed—is a bit better, sort of like riding a decent mountain bike, only with knobbly tires. There, my main problem is the angle of my hips. I usually have to put something under the zafu so that it tilts forward. That tends to make me slide forward onto my legs. My back is better, but my legs end up squeezed or cramped in some weird position, and while it ought to be less taxing than quarter-lotus, it isn't, really. So I don't use it much; mostly just during teishos when I know I can switch positions once it gets too uncomfortable.

The quarter-lotus—with one foot resting on the calf of the other leg—is my default posture at home. Again, I usually tilt the zafu a bit to get my hips in a better position. Here, the spine balances rather nicely, and the legs stay put. Unfortunately, I can only manage two sessions in a row in quarter-lotus; after that, my hips and legs get rather sore. The quarter-lotus is like a real bike with drop handlebars, even if it's one that's not quite perfectly adjusted and has maybe the tires a little flat.

If I've warmed up and stretched properly, I can get into half-lotus. I'm working on making that my default posture, but I still have some way to go—my current objective is to be able to get into it on both sides. It's been rather rewarding, though—the adjustment pains with this posture have receded much faster than I expected. The posture itself feels really "right" in a way that none of the others do: I get a much better feel for where my spine should be, I move around less, both my upper body and my legs feel much more relaxed, and it's far easier to maintain focus. Interestingly, it's also no more difficult to get out of than from quarter-lotus, and my legs are no more sore afterwards. I'm pretty sure that once I adjust more to it, it'll be more comfortable than any of the other positions, because of the lower muscle tension needed to maintain it.

Posture matters, in cycling and in meditation. It is possible to meditate lying down or sitting on a chair, just like it is possible to ride your late grandmother's rusty, heavy, un-maintained bike with half-inflated tires and no lube on the chain. However, it's not much fun, you will have a flat or a broken chain or some other nasty surprises on the road, and if you're counting on getting somewhere, it'll be very slow going. If you cycle more than an occasional trip of a couple of miles, you really should get a proper bike.

Finally, a note on pain. Adjustment always involves some pain. Physical adjustment, such as upgrading your posture, involves some physical pain. However, pain can mean a number of different things. Sometimes pain just means that your body is adjusting. I've been told that sometimes it's your ego resisting change. However, sometimes pain means that you're doing something wrong, and if you continue, you risk breaking something.

I think you should be particularly careful about your knees. Some people are lucky enough to have strong knees. Others, not so much. It is possible to permanently damage your knees by trying to get to a sitting position of which you're not yet capable. To get into cross-legged positions, the stretching and rotation should be at your hips, not at the knees. The knee is a hinge and is only meant to bend in one direction. The hip is a ball and socket joint, and bends and rotates in any direction. If your knees hurt, it means that your hips aren't flexing enough, and the solution is to stretch your hips. Sticking with the position will certainly do that, but you also risk damage to your knees. In my opinion, that's a risk that's not worth taking. So if the knees hurt, find some stretches that rotate the hips, do those for a while, and then try again. Just like when you're upgrading to a deeper cycling posture, you should take the time to practice proper braking technique, so you won't go over the handlebars in an emergency. If you do intensive meditation practice, there will be pain enough in areas where it doesn't mean that you're about to bust something, whether you're looking for it or not.

Certain Zen teachers—Brad Warner and his teacher, Nishijima Roshi, for example—go as far as to say that it isn't zazen if you're not in half-lotus. I find that attitude unnecessarily categorical and discouraging, because it's all too easy to read it as "if you can't get into half-lotus, forget it, you plebe." It certainly isn't my experience—I am riding my bike, whether I'm on Grandma's old clunker or the nice fixed-gear I built specifically for myself. If, like me, you start out with Grandma's hand-me-down, upgrading the bike isn't easy, and it takes time, effort, and persistence. However, that process is very good practice in its own right. In fact, one of the things that keeps me going is the progress in posture practice that I'm making. It's nice to notice that I'm now doing something daily that felt like a real ordeal, or downright impossible, six months ago.

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