* The main types of sitting cushions are zafus, benches, and half moons
* There are different heights and firmnesses of cushions, and different ways to sit, based on body type
* It is helpful to try out different kinds of cushions before buying one
For many people establishing a meditation practice, buying a sitting cushion of one’s own is a big moment. Many people find that there is something special about having their own cushion – a cushion to sit on daily at home and to bring to classes and retreats, a cushion to be loved and supported by and to love and care for.
The most common meditation cushions in America are the circular Japanese style cushion called a “zafu”. The look of this cushion will be instantly familiar to many people, even if they don’t have a meditation practice or know what they are called.
Zafus typically are sold stuffed with kapok (a kind of cotton batting) inside, which usually makes them firmer, or with buckwheat hulls, which usually makes them have more give. Zafus can be stuffed more or less full (which makes them more or less firm), and can be selected in different heights. And, although most zafus come in single plain colors, with some searching you can find ones covered in beautiful embroidery and other patterns.The vast majority of meditators who sit on zafus place them flat and sit in some variation of cross legged. Zafus can also be turned on their edge, and sat on “horse and rider” style. This is known as “seiza” in Japanese, and a firmer zafu is preferable for this style of sitting.
If a person’s sitting cushion is too low, the sitting bones, pelvis, and lumbar (low back) will often push back, and the upper body will slump forward. On the other hand, a cushion that is too high will cause the pelvis to shift too far forward, and create swayback in lumbar (low back). So, it is in generally advisable for a new meditation sitter to engage in trial and error experimentation to find something that feels comfortable and appropriate for their body – to try different types of cushions, different heights, and different firmnesses, as well as trying sitting forward and back on a cushion, and trying different sitting postures. This is why, before ordering a cushion off of the internet, it can often be helpful to go to a large meditation center or a store that sells meditation supplies, and try out various cushions and see what feels right.
Many people find it helpful to purchase and use relatively small cushions that are known as “support cushions”. These cushions are usually square, but are sometimes rectangular or triangular. They are often placed flat under a zafu so as to elevate it, or under one or both knees to decrease the severity of angles pulling on lower joints. The way I most often use a support cushion, however, is to place it only under the rear of a zafu, so as to angle the zafu down (which angles my pelvis down, and makes it easier for my back to be extended and straight).
In American Buddhist circles, the second most popular sitting “cushion”, second to zafus, are often meditation benches. Meditators usually sit on benches in the same seiza/kneeling position that people do on a zafu on its side. There are various options available for meditation benches: padded or plain wooden seats, folding legs (for easy storage and transport) or fixed legs (for greater stability), wooden legs that go outside the human legs or a wooden column that goes between the human legs, and different heights of benches. Experimenting with heights before purchasing can be helpful because, although sitting on a bench for long periods of time feels comfortable for many people, also, if a bench is too high, it tends to put too much weight off the butt and too much onto the knees. Similarly, if the bench is too low, the patella tendon pulling on the lower knees at a sharp angle can eventually lead to pain.
Meditation benches can be especially comfortable and useful for people with tight hips and hamstrings, for whom sitting crosslegged for long periods of time is painful. One thing to watch out for however when sitting on a bench (and also sitting seiza on a zafu) is a stretch on the ankles at an angle that they are not used to. So, often, when I have sat on a bench, I have moved it to the back of the large underlying cushion (the “zabuton”), so that my feet hang off the edge, so that the angle of my ankles is easier to bear.
More importantly, sitting benches and sitting seiza can be difficult for people with knee injuries. Stretching the quadriceps/patella tendon before sitting can however help to make bench meditating easier for one’s knees.
Another popular option that one sees in meditation center are so called “half moon cushions”/”crescent cushions”. These, in the abstract, seem perfect. One improvement is that they are often angled down, which helps angle the pelvis downward, which in turn helps the lower back extend at an ideal angle out from the pelvis. The crescent cushions also have wings to support the back of the thighs as they angle down, which helps eliminate the “drop off the cliff” that people sitting on zafus sometimes have and that causes to a loss of blood circulation in the legs. My own experience, however, is that I’ve never felt that comfortable on crescent cushions. Gaining height by putting a square support cushion or two under the crescent cushion seems to make them feel somewhat better for my body, but still not ideally.
People who sit in Tibetan/Vajrayana traditions often sit on square cushions. These are usually maroon or scarlet with yellow, traditional Vajrayana colors. I don’t know much about these cushion, except that, when I have sat on them, they feel pretty similar to a zafu.
My cushion that I have been sitting on for the past five years is the most comfortable that I have ever sat on, and I’ve only seen one other meditator sitting on one. This cushion is the “Bodhi Seat” (all buckwheat hulls – like mine), the “Cloud Zafu” (all memory foam), or the “Mountain Seat” cushion (half and half) sold by the online store affiliated with John Daido Loori Roshi’s Mountain and Rivers Zen Order’s New York monastery. It is a cylindrical shaped cushion that is about twice as high as a zafu, and tends to angle down when sat on. As I said, I find it remarkably comfortable to sit on for long sitting periods, and remarkably adaptable to my body.
[Links accurate as of 2014 – may not be accurate anymore]
In the San Francisco Bay Area, meditation cushions and benches are available for purchase in person at the San Francisco Zen Center City Center in Hayes Valley in the City, Rainbow Grocery in the Mission, and the East West Bookstore in Mountain View.
Here are some mail order places, the first four of which I have ordered from and had good experiences with: