Pain and Numbness in Meditation
We explore the symptoms and causes, and make some suggestions.
I typically practice at a local mediation (sic) center where the longest we will currently sit is 1 hr. I have not been able to find a sitting position that is comfortable.
I usually experience some degree of pain in my knees and legs and/or my legs will fall asleep in a short period of time.
I use the center’s cushions and the most common combination I use would be two zen-style zafus and zabuton sitting with one foot in front of the other, ankles crossed (with each foot under a leg). Other sitting techniques I have tried are: one zen-style zafu and zabuton but I feel I sit too low and my knees sit up in the air. I have also tried using a bench but find my legs tend to fall asleep. I am 5’9″ and less flexible.
Hi Jill, Thanks for the details. It helps to understand where you are having difficulties. This is normal for most people.
PLEASE NOTE: None of this is to be taken as medical advice, of course. We think a good physiotherapist is worth their weight in gold, from our experience!
SYMPTOMS and causes
Pain in the knees or legs is not a good sign (pain is the body’s alarm signal), so that needs to be looked at to see why.
The knee joint joins the thigh with the leg and consists of two articulations: one between the femur and tibia (tibiofemoral joint), and one between the femur and patella (patellofemoral joint).
 It is the largest joint in the human body.
 The knee is a modified hinge joint, which permits flexion and extension as well as slight internal and external rotation.
The knee joint is vulnerable to injury and to the development of osteoarthritis.
Like a hinge, our knees are primarily designed to bend backwards and forwards. The various ligaments surrounding the knee joint offer stability by limiting movements. A common injury is the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) – it is often torn during twisting or bending of the knee. Other ligaments like the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) can be injured as a result of forced trauma to the ligament. The LCL (lateral collateral ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament) protect the knee from sideways motions.
I’ve had knee issues (ACL and MCL on the same knee – unrelated to meditation sitting) and it does take awhile to resolve them, with therapy. So it’s important to make sure you are not twisting the knees in any way. Although it can rotate slightly, it’s very vulnerable to injury.
Individuals with hip and/or knee replacements will know their limitations!
Obviously we don’t recommend lotus postures because of the risks of damage to the knees.
Numbness is ok, provided it goes away after you sit. It’s not comfortable, though, and you need to be careful not to stand up if your foot or leg is numb as you could fall over and hurt yourself. Gently massage the leg or foot until normal feeling returns, and then gently and carefully stand up.
We know senior zen practitioners who have numbness at every sitting.
Temporary numbness is usually caused by compression of the nerves in the legs and/or buttocks. The sciatic nerve (wikipedia link) runs from the lower back vertebrae (sacrum) through the buttocks (pelvis) and down the legs. It’s a long nerve, the longest in the body.
Keeping this nerve from being compressed is what you can look at. It’s why we feel it’s important to sit forward on the cushion (and why we recommend a firm cushion). You don’t need to keep the muscles surrounding this nerve free from contact, but you want to avoid anything that pinches the area, or provides too much compression.
Since the sciatic nerve starts in the low back, it’s important not to round the low back, Having a cushion that is not high enough or sitting on it improperly can lead to low back pain and sciatic problems as well. Don’t ask how I know that!
OPTIMAL SITTING POSTURE
The optimal sitting position is grounded, with knees on the floor (or as close to the floor as possible, supported by small cushions if required), and with hips slightly higher than the knees. The back and neck should retain their natural curves. This can be accomplished in a cross-legged seated position on the ground, or kneeling on a bench, or even on a chair (with two feet grounded).
[For Jill] You’re tall at 5’9″, so I would probably suggest the Tibetan-Style™ cushion, as it gives a bit more height. Visually, it might be helpful to think of the Zen-Style™ zafu as an overflowing muffin top, whereas the Tibetan-Style™ cushion doesn’t flow over, it’s more vertical – without the expansion pleats. Or you might imagine a flexible hose versus a straight pipe.
We do, from time to time, offer some very small support cushions for the ankles (and knees), from surplus materials and filling. I think we’ll probably have some of them this season. I would recommend something to cushion your knees if they don’t comfortably meet the floor. This helps relieve muscle tension in the inner thighs, and allows you to relax properly. The size of the cushion will depend on how much gap there is when you sit in a cross-legged position.
Your meditation center may have some small pillows for this purpose that you could try.
Let us know if this was helpful!
Thank you, I found your response very helpful. I appreciate you taking the time to describe which symptoms are considered to be a normal part of practice and when it is important to consult a practitioner.
Like you, I am sure my knee issues stem from something unrelated to sitting and then sitting just aggravates them. I agree that I should have them looked at and will make an appointment to see a physiotherapist.
Thank you for clarifying which cushion I should try and for recommending a cushion for my knees, it is nice to have a thoughtful second opinion.
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