The Benefits to Meditation Cushions and Yoga Mats
If you want to learn meditation, it might be useful to get a comfortable meditation cushion instead of just a pillow. Some people use Japanese meditation benches, or cushions called zafu.
The first meditation cushion I ever received was from a Chinese friend. This meditation cushion was actually a mat made of woven grass and was extremely rare. You just can't buy these meditation cushions today because the mats are hand-woven. The monks in ancient China used to carry this grass meditation mat on their back and if it started to rain, they simply placed it over their heads and used it as a type of hat. If the ground was wet or dewy, they would also just put the meditation cushion on the ground and sit cross-legged while remaining dry.
Unfortunately, it could not be used as a yoga exercise mat and frankly, sitting on it hurt because it was scratchy!
As to yoga mats, I've done yoga on wooden floors and on rugs, and let me tell you that a comfortable yoga mat is well worth it. Buying one of those inexpensive yoga mats is something to consider if you want a good gripping surface for your practice. Yoga mats are portable, make great gifts (especially when given along with yoga videos) and some are even quite stylish. But don't use them for meditation. For meditation you need to cushion your bottom. If you want to use a yoga mat to sit on, just make sure you also bring a pillow.
Let me tell you two stories about meditation cushions, often called zafus in Japanese....
One famous Zen master wore out seven or eight meditation cushions in his life. That's how much sitting practice you have to do to reach the Tao. Ouch, that must have hurt his behind if his meditation cushion was not comfortable. Considering the fact that the Zen master would continue wearing patch-clothed robes until they were in tatters, he must REALLY have worn things out.
Remember, these old time masters didn't have any special meditation furniture, so-to-speak. They just had a wooden floor (if in a monastery), their meditation seat and that's about it. Maybe they'd have some incense in the background, and a gong to mark the beginning or end of the meditation session. Often, in the Zen monasteries, there would be a wooden fish that you'd strike with a mallet...the reason for the fish being that wish sleep with their eyes open and similarly, you should meditate and stay awake.
Another meditation mat story concerns Milarepa. When his best student Gampopa was leaving him, Milarepa called Gampopa back to reveal one last lesson. Then he lifted up his robe and showed the calluses on his buttocks that he had formed because of all his sitting practice. That guy definitely should have used a good meditation cushion!
So do yourself a favor. If you don't want to discourage yourself from meditation, do everything possible to make it a routine, a habit, and make it comfortable. When sitting in meditation or doing yoga, buy a comfortable meditation cushion!
Remember in meditation to also cover your knees with a towel or place a towel over your neck, too.
You don't have to sit cross-legged when you meditate, but eventually that's the best form of sitting meditation practice. And if your legs hurt, remember that it takes some time to get over it but when the chi (qi) finally does goes through your legs it will extend your life. So that's another reason to practice sitting meditation (and yoga, too). I don't care if it's Zen meditation, Buddhist meditation, japa mantra practice, vipassana or whatever, make sure you are comfortable so that you can forget your body.
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This stuff is so good I'm sure they'll take it off the market. Get it! ... I'll tell you more later.
Good luck on your sitting practice, but remember there are all sorts of meditation techniques. Whatever you do, may your sitting be as comfortable as possible so that you continue the practice! Cushions, pillows, towels, mats, whatever -- make sure you arrange things to keep up the spiritual practice because without it, there's no progress.
As to yoga mats, remember that you want to be able to grab the floor with your feet (those yoga socks you see are good for this too), and you want the mat to be portable, colorful if you like (I always like a bit of style), and thick enough that it cushions your feet. "Try them out before you buy" is the best piece of advice anyone can give.
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