Meditation cushions are designed to aid sitting meditation practice. The type of meditation cushion one chooses determines the sitting pose. It is important to know how to use a meditation cushion in order to reap the cushion's full benefit. A meditation cushion helps to establish a comfortable sitting pose and to keep the spine aligned in a healthy way. Posture is a key factor in sitting meditation. Contemporary meditation cushions have ancestors as far back as ancient China, when monks carried rolled straw mats on their backs.
Although the current incarnations of meditation cushions and supplies were unknown to early Buddhist monks, legends chronicle the concept of and the need for meditation cushions and mats. Tibetan and Zen Buddhism offer insights into the discomforts of sitting meditation. In anecdotal cases in which a monk used a cushion, the cushion was worn and tattered before it was replaced. Tibetan Buddhist legend tells a tale of a monk who developed sitting callouses. In some Zen monasteries, monks practice Zazen (sitting meditation) on hard floors and are challenged to stay conscious.
Sitting meditation is a focused practice that continues for a life time. It is wise, therefore, to accommodate sitting practice for the most practical comfort. Although the quest for enlightenment and Buddhahood ought not to be overly luxurious, that search can be hampered by misalignment of or injury to the spine or deep discomfort that distracts from sitting practice. It is a further consideration that energy must be allowed free circulation throughout the body during meditation. A proper meditation cushion allows these physical as well as spiritual dynamics to happen.
Meditation cushions provide support so that the body can achieve optimum posture and spinal alignment. Basically, a meditation cushion configures the spine according to the sitting posture of lotus, half-lotus or a kneeling posture. The practitioner learns to tuck in her lower back and to keep the spine in a straight line. Curving out the upper back and gently tucking in the neck, with the head held as if balancing a book on top of the head, allows for the best posture. Spinal stress is minimized and one's sitting sessions are more effective, reducing potential physical harm. Ultimately, the key factor is to create the best physical condition so that the path to Nirvana is as unhindered as possible.
Select and use a meditation cushion according to the intended type of sitting or kneeling meditation. A Zafu is a round, puffy cushion that is best suited for lotus or half-lotus sitting practice. Sit on the forward edge of the Zafu, which allows one's legs to be comfortably placed and encourages the spine into its best alignment. Some practitioners prefer a Cosmic Cushion, which is a horseshoe-shaped cushion, supporting thighs and leaving a comfort zone for feet and ankles against the body. Ancillary support cushions are available for minor physical twinges and adjustments. A Zabuton meditation cushion is rectangular and less full than a Zafu. Intermediate practitioners tend toward Zabutons. Some place a Gomden on the Zabuton, which cushions and supports ankles and feet. Zabutons can be used without Gomdens.
A person of average height generally will use a Zafu meditation cushion, whereas people who have flexibility issues and/or are taller tend to prefer Cosmic Cushions. Zabutons provide additional cushioned support. In addition to Zafus, Zabutons, Cosmic Cushions and Gomdens, Yoga Bolsters also are used for kneeling meditation. Keep a variety of meditation cushions for different practices and positions---sitting, kneeling and lying.