The ultimate guide to mindfulness meditation cushions, benches and more.

The ultimate guide to mindfulness meditation cushions, benches and more.


“When we take the one seat on our meditation cushion we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things: sorrows, loneliness, shame, desire, regret, frustration, happiness.”

Jack Kornfield

Is a meditation cushion something for me?

So, you have been practicing mindfulness meditation (or another form of meditation) for a while now and you have seen all these people with their meditation cushions and you wonder whether you should also get one. After all, they look pretty professional when they meditate. Surely the cushion has something to do with this.

Of course, you know I’m only joking. Even I, who have been meditating since more than 10 years, once in a while in a chair. So why then buy a meditation cushion or bench?

In my opinion, there are a couple of excellent reasons to get a cushion.

When I meditate in a chair, I oftentimes do not notice that my back start to sloughs, or that I loose focus.

The first one is that when you meditate in a chair, you tend to get a little too comfortable. This is a problem as it tends to hide the fact that you are getting drowsy. Oftentimes when I meditate when I am a bit tired, I get drowsy without me knowing so (I guess you also get the same experience once in a while).

When I am meditating on a cushion, the first thing I notice is that my back is starting to slouch. That, for me, is the signal that I am losing focus and I need to get it back. When I am sitting with my back pressed against the back of the chair, I lose this direct feedback and it takes a while longer for me to notice that I have drifted away.

So what?

Now, you might rightfully remark that you can easily sit at the tip of the chair and not lean against the back. That indeed is a valid point.

So, my second argument is that there is not always a chair available when you go practice mindfulness meditation with a group of people. Although meditation looks like a solitary endeavor, I have always felt the strength of the group. I have no reasonable explanation for this, but my meditation seems to get stronger when doing it together with people.

In these places, usually, there are not a lot of chairs. So you either sit on the ground (and we will see later why that is less than optimal) or you bring you meditation cushion. Well, I bring my cushion.

And at home?

So, if I always meditate at home, I do not need a cushion? Well, yes, I agree. Except for argument number two to have one: it can act as a reminder or trigger.

Your meditation room should be like a sacred space. It needs to remind you to calm down. It has a function much like a children’s bedtime story: get the mind ready for the task at hand.

Traditional meditation advice states to always meditate in the same place at the same time. In the modern mindfulness movement (of which I am a part and big proponent) this aspect is not emphasized. The only aspect that is still kept, is the sound of the tingsha bell at the beginning of the mindfulness session. I understand this, but unfortunately, something got lost.

What go lost is the fact that regularity tends to better prepare the mind for what it is about to do. It is the same as reading a bedtime story to your kids: it signals their brains that is time to go to sleep. So, having a dedicated tool for you meditation, your cushion or bench, signals to our brain that we will enter the practice and so the mind starts to prepare itself for this. That is why I only use my cushion for meditation. I never use it for anything else.

Maybe let me add as a small aside that indeed, the fact that all the great meditators use a cushion or bench has somehow ingrained our brains with the notion that cushions are somehow more ‘professional’. Although using a cushion does not make you a better meditator at all.

So, it is like tricking your mind to think that it should rise to this level (or can rise to a higher level) by using a cushion. Isn’t psychology a beautiful thing?

What are my options when buying a meditation cushion or bench?

So, you have decided that you wanted a cushion or a bench.

What are your options?

There are a few broad categories. Either you go for a round cushion, a half moon cushion, a flat cushion or a bench. Traditionally, a round or half moon meditation cushion is called a zafu, a flat one is called a zabuton, and a bench is called a seiza bench.

Let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of these categories before exploring actual items that are commonly for sale.

But before we start, you should also reflect on how often you will use your cushion or bench. If you sit only for 10 minutes a day the choice is not so relevant and you can take whatever you fancy at the moment.

But, maybe one day, you might want to go on a longer retreat. On these retreats, you can meditate up to 8 hours per day, of which 4 hours are sitting meditation. At that moment, the choice you have made will be important.

Most people on retreat do have pain from the long sits. And it usually start at day 2.

Meditation for long hours at a stretch needs you to adjust your posture to be able to take the heat.

Incidentally, my experience with this is that most people, including myself, start to have problems way earlier than day two. Namely after the third or fourth sitting period. You then start to hear people move around and try to find a better position. And most of them eventually find their improved position.

That being said, it is well worth it. Retreat is a truly transformative experience that I recommend everybody. The discomfort on retreat is not all that different from the one you experience when you go skiing for a week after having spent 11 months working at a desk :-).

Types of Cushions

1) The Zabuton

A Zabuton is just a square flat cushion that mostly serves to protect your knees when they touch the ground. It is usually used in conjunction with a zafu

First off, let’s look at a zabuton or a flat meditation cushion. This mat is good for people who are comfortable sitting on the floor and who want to delimit their sitting space.

However, I think this kind of mat is more suited for eastern people as they are more flexible and used to sitting on the ground. What I see often in people sitting on this kind of cushion is that their knees are too high.

This is the position you will sit in when your legs aren’t flexible enough. It means the position is not relaxing. Some kind of tension remains. In itself this is not a problem but if you go and sit for longer stretches, like on a retreat, you will feel the difference. Usually, the zabuton is used as a mat to put on your zafu. In that case it helps when you put your knees on the ground since it is not so hard as the floor. That is also how I use it.

2) The seiza meditation bench

A traditional Japanese meditation bench

Next up is the seiza meditation bench. It is called like that because seiza is one of the traditional sitting postures used in zen meditation (see picture).

This fact in itself hints at who this tool is for. As zen is a Japanese form of meditation, and the Japanese are traditionally very rigorous and strict people, the seiza meditation bench is well suited for this kind of people.

This is mainly because once you sit on this bench, there is not a whole lot of room to wiggle. You sit and that is that. Very Japanese. Or Spartan if you like.

That being said, I tried it once and I must admit I liked it a lot. I must also admit that I am attracted by the beauty of the wood in some of these benches. But I will probably never buy one.

3) The Zafu

A traditional zafu.

No, I definitely prefer the zafu or meditation cushion.

They come in all kind of shapes and colors and heights.

I’ve seen some sites mention the color correspondences to emotional states, but I would just pick a color that you like. Once you close your eyes, you do not see it anyway.

So why do I prefer a zafu?

For starters, you can adopt different positions on it. You can either go with the seisa sit or you can sit in the more common crossed leg sit.

Nowadays, I rarely shift positions on a sit that is less than an hour, but it used to be different. And when I go on a retreat, you can rest assured that I will alter between the different positions.

Another advantage is that oftentimes the height of the zafu can be adapted.

Well, that is if you buy one that is filled with buckwheat hulls like the one I have. For me this was a great feature. The buckwheat hulls fill also allows you to shape your cushion to your liking during a sit.

Beautiful golden Zafu. Photo credits Crystal

At the start of each meditation, I tailor the cushion so that it feels right to me. Although I do not own one, I read that the other traditional filling for zafu, kapok which is a fluffy cotton-like material that comes from the Kapok trees of Asia, does not have this possibility. It seems to be a softer sit though.

And I do confirm that a buckwheat filling can be a bit on the harder side. My zabuton (flat cushion) has a traditional kapok filling though. And what I find there is that it tends to stick together, giving some spots with less and some spots with more filling. So I periodically need to rearrange it. For a zabuton I do not really care, but for a zafu, I’m really happy with my choice.

Now, as to the choice of the shape, square, circular or half moon, the jury is out. I guess it is personal preference. Again, I’d say the round version is more versatile. But that might be because I have owned one for so long and gotten used to it. I have thought about buying a half moon one as I guess it holds your lower back in place really well. But in the end, I did not do it since it would not allow me to shift positions when my legs start to hurt.

What can I buy?

So, you are convinced that you need meditation cushion and also have a good idea on what kind you want. Well, what is on the market today?

Some more things to consider

But before we look at some models, I’d like to share two more things I think might be important when buying your meditation cushion. First, your choice is kind of important as zafus and zabutons can be expensive, but most certainly are durable. I have my zafu for more than 7 years and I do not plan on replacing it any time soon. So, you should choose something you really like. Also, I made the mistake of not buying a zabuton of a matching color. At the time I bought my zafu, I did not even knew there was such a thing as a zabuton. If I had to redo it, I would buy a matching set right from the beginning.

Another important thing is that you should be able to clean you cushions. So you need to be able to remove the filling and put the cover into the washing machine. Luckily, mine is like that and I can clean when needed.

So, let us have a look at a selection of excellent models on amazon

What I like about the above product is that comes in a matching set. A zafu and a zabuton in matching colors. And there are a ton of colors to choose from. The other thing I like is that the filling is organic cotton. It’s not the fact that it is cotton that interests me, but rather the fact that it is organic. The downside is it’s a rather high price. But if you are looking for a meditation cushion that lasts for decades, I would not try to save a buck now. But I agree that you would need to be pretty convinced before buying this item.

This zabuton and zafu set is a similar option to the preceding but far less expensive. However, I think they are less nice looking. But hey, who am I to judge. The true disadvantage is that you cannot wash the cushions. And that is a real drawback of this kind of items. However, I think that you can wash little stains of the fabric. test

Meditation benches, like the ones above and on the left (just click the image to go to Amazon), also come in different varieties and colors and materials. Here are two models on amazon. The choice for a bench is far less difficult tha the one for a cushion though as there a not a lot of different parameters. It will be a bench on which you will have a seiza sit. If you go for this kind of item, I recommend that you take the one that is the most aesthetically pleasing to you. Pick the nicest wood or form.

At the right is one of the items I saw coming up when doing some research for this post. To be honest, I do not think this is a really good meditation cushion. First off, it looks like it takes a lot of space. And it does not look like it is very portable either. The other disadvantage is that you will start to lean against the back seat and thus having the same drawback as with a chair. I do think however that you will have excellent back support with this item.

I include this last item (see left) as I saw it come up on my searches and it somehow got my attention. This is not a traditional meditation cushion. It is a design item. I have to agree that I am fascinated by this kind of nice design. From the looks of it, it has good lower back support and also for the knees. It looks that this one is specially crafted for people that have problems putting their knees down to the ground. And that is a lot of people. As I am not one of them, I will not buy such a cushion. But, if you ever stop meditating, you can reuse this item in your salon. I think it is that stylish.

Of course, on Amazon, you can find plenty of other cushions. Just click here for a general search on their site.

Conclusions.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and that you learned a lot.

Remember that, in the end, choosing to buy a cushion or bench, which type you want, how you want to spend, has a lot of variables to it. I hope I have been able to shed some light on this.

Please leave a comment if you decide to buy one and let me know which one you chose and why.

Disclaimer: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means that, at no extra cost to you, purchases made through these links will make me earn a small amount of money. I use these to keep this blog alive.

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Featured image courtesy of Tamaki Sono

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