How to Meditate in a Chair
Good posture is the key to good meditation, but you don't have to tie your legs in knots. By using a tilted chair you can achieve the tall straight posture of meditation with ease and comfort. It takes a bit to learn, but i swear it's worth it. It can change your life.
Find a quiet, private place. Wear comfortable clothing, something that doesn't feel tight anywhere. You need a chair with a padded seat. If the seat isn't well padded, place a folded towel on top. Tilt the chair somewhat forwards. Just place something under the back legs that lifts them up about 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm). The seat of the chair should be at an angle of about 10 to 15 degrees. How much the chair should be tilted depends on what angle is most comfortable for you - if you have trouble touching your toes, probably having the back legs lifted more will be better. If there is nothing handy to lift the legs, you can actually just balance the chair on it's front legs. It is easy to do, but makes your legs a little tense, and tension impedes meditation more than anything else.
By sitting on a chair with a tilted seat like this, your pelvis is tilted forwards into a position similar to how it is when you are standing, and that makes it far easier to sit up straight, which is the point. The key to good meditation is a straight spine. But not a stiff straight spine, a relaxed straight spine that naturally stretches your overworked neck and back, opens up your chest for easy deep breathing, and allows your mind to untense and open up just like your body has. So, i am going to explain this carefully, because if you get how to sit this way, you are set.
Your spine is much deeper inside your torso than most people think, deep enough to act like a sort of tent-pole to support the rest of your torso. All you need to do is balance your spine so it carries the whole weight of your torso. When your spine is centred like this it sits you up tall, and your muscles only need to work just a little bit to keep your spine balanced. Usually when we sit, we are leaning back, so it will take some time to learn to sit this way and it will feel odd at first. It isn't how we usually carry our spine when we are standing either, partly because we tend to have bad posture, and partly because moving around requires that we hold ourselves a little differently.
So sit down on your tilted chair, and starting from your bottom, stack up the vertebrae in your spine, like a child stacking blocks or trying to balance a stick on her finger, until even your head is balanced on your spinal column and you feel no effort is required to hold your torso up. (A small amount of effort is in fact required, but with the right posture, it is so small and evenly distributed you don't notice it.) There are some things you can do to help you find the right position:
- There are two bony bits in your butt, that exist to help you sit. (Seriously.) They are the two spots that hurt if you sit for a long time on a hard chair, the knobby bits you can feel if you put your hands under your butt while seated and squirm it around. Center your weight over these two bony spots.
- Relax your arms and legs. They don't need to be in any special position, just as long as they are relaxed and don't interfere with balancing your torso. If the seat of your chair is low for you, either tuck your lower legs a bit under the chair or stretch them out, because if your knees are too high that will tend to tilt your pelvis back from its proper position. As for your hands, i usually put my hands on my thighs near the hips, so that my upper arms are aligned with my torso. That seems to help relax my shoulders. While you are adjusting your posture, you may find it helpful to let your arms hang at your sides - the hanging weight helps reveal where things are out of alignment. Once you are done with that rest your arms however is comfortable.
- Close your eyes. This helps you focus on what is happening with your body. It also helps you to relax.
- Try to balance your whole torso such that you don't need to work to hold it up. This position is very different from how people usually sit. Click or tap the boxes in the image below to read about the differences.
Typical sitting posture vs. meditation posture
Tap or click the boxes to see explanations
Print version here
- Relax everything, and keep searching for things that aren't relaxed. When you find them, (and you will), relax them. You may find that you can't relax them unless you adjust your posture so that you are better aligned, and that place doesn't need to work any more. This commonly happens with muscles near your spine. You may also notice that you are twisted a little and need to straighten out. Little muscles in your face often keep getting tense, too.
- If your posture is good, you will almost certainly feel a stretch on the back of your neck, and possibly in your shoulders. Just relax. The stretch is healthy, and hopefully it will feel that way. If the stretch is so pronounced that it is painful, don't let it make the whole thing unpleasant. Adjust your position slightly so the pain isn't a big deal, and work on stretching and relaxing that area when you aren't meditating.
- With a bit of practice, the right posture is easy and comfortable, and is marvelously conducive to the relaxed, open alertness of meditation. You almost feel like you are floating.
Finding this position will take time, and then you will constantly refine it. You are learning to balance in a way you haven't before, it's a bit of a skill. Finding the position is almost a meditation in and of itself - as your awareness of your body increases, you will notice where you could be more relaxed or better aligned, and make adjustments. For now though, find an approximate posture that seems good enough, and then forget about it. Spend maybe a couple of minutes, and then let it go. As you meditate on your breathing you will almost certainly notice tension or mis-alignment. When you do, adjust your posture or relax the area as needed.
You may find it hard to tell where the tension is really coming from. You might try to adjust and feel it doesn't go away, or only moves around. This is normal at first. The most common reason is that the tension is originating below the point you feel it in - muscles in your low back are working because your pelvis isn't rolled far enough forward for it to stay upright by itself, for instance. Check your posture from your bottom up to see if you can find the place that is out of position. If you can't feel it, continue meditating and a moment will come when you sense where it is and can realign and relax better. This is the benefit of relaxing as best you can and meditating instead of struggling too long to get the posture right - the less you are consciously thinking about it, the better chance your body has to pass the message to your conscious mind to relax here, align there. Your body knows. You walk without thinking, right? Your body knows all kinds of things like that, you just need to relax your mind enough to sense what it is saying. But if the issue persists, it would also be good to check that your chair is tilted at the right angle for you. Try tilting it forward a little more and see if that helps. Having a tilt that is a little steeper than ideal doesn't make much difference, but if the angle is too shallow, you have to tense your low back to keep your torso up.
There are many stretches and exercises that help to overcome the aches that most people have at first when meditating. Sometimes doing a few before you start reduces this, or you can focus on the exercises for deeper stretches by doing them at a separate time. If the stretch when meditating in your neck and shoulders is really painful, soften up the area by heating it thoroughly before stretching. Stretch in the shower after letting the hot water run over your neck and shoulders for a few minutes, or put heat packs behind your neck for a few minutes before stretching. And take your time with the stretches - it will help you more to stretch lightly for a full minute a few times than to stretch hard enough that it hurts, meaning you do it less time and don't relax. Pain means tiny bits of damage at the microscopic level, damage means repairs, repairs to muscles make them shorter, not longer. Also, if you are relaxed when you stretch you are training your brain to keep tension in the muscles being stretched at a lower level. By contrast, if stretching hurts your brain will tend to maintain tension there as a defensive reaction. These are basic principles long recognized in yoga. The simple, quick routine below covers all the key areas that usually get sore. Many other exercises can easily be found online, YouTube is a good place. Look for simple stretches for the neck, back, and hips, and light strengthening exercises for the low back. (The low back strength exercises are really to make you more aware of that part of you, because it is your base when sitting, and you are almost certainly accustomed to slumping it into a really unhealthy shape. The strengthening is just a plus, which is good because it is commonly very weak.)
Meditate on your Breathing
Once you have found a decent posture, focus on your breathing. Just observe it. As with your posture, when you notice tension in your breathing, relax it as best you can. However, be aware that how you breathe is a matter of deep-seated habit. Don't let the effort to relax become a source of tension in itself. It is valuable to be aware of tension in your breathing, but if tension is to relax, and natural breathing be restored, your conscious mind must not interfere.
There is a whole area of your brain that specializes in the task of breathing. If you try to correct your breathing consciously, you just interfere with that area. In fact, the tension in your breathing exists because of your mind's past interference there when trying to handle stress - the fight-or-flight response does that. Your breathing won't return to its ideal state until that stress-response pattern, written into your neurons, dissolves. If you try to relax that tension consciously, not only will you not be able to, you will add new tension. That special brain area in charge of breathing knows exactly how much air you need, and is constantly adjusting to the ever-changing environment within you and without you, to keep oxygen levels in the best place. Your job is to get out of its way and let it work.
I'm going to explain how natural breathing works, though, so you at least have a basis of comparison. That will help you focus your mind on where breathing properly occurs, and distinguish between what is a tension pattern, and what is healthy. Just remember that habitual breathing patterns change very slowly. Don't get discouraged. All improvements in how you breathe have a broad positive impact on your body, even if the changes are small. Also, observing the tension within you is a big part of observing yourself, there is much to be learned there.
Relaxed, healthy breathing is centred on your diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a flat layer of muscle connected to the bottom of your ribcage. It separates your chest from your abdomen, the only things that go through it are your esophagus and a couple of blood vessels. When it is relaxed, it rises under your lungs in an inverted bowl shape. When it is flexed, it flattens out and pushes out the bottom of your ribcage, and this draws air into your lungs. If you use other muscles to breathe, such as by expanding your belly or inflating your chest, you don't flex your diaphragm completely, and your lungs fill less despite greater muscular effort being used. If you hold still your chest or abdomen when you breathe, the muscles that are holding the one place still restrict space, and work directly against the muscles working elsewhere to draw in air.
When you breathe with your diaphragm, the bottom of your ribs lift and spread as it flexes, and the chest and abdomen expand passively as you inhale. To exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, the ribs fall, and the chest and abdomen deflate. Feel the sensation of your diaphragm working by trying to push out just the bottom of your ribcage with an inhale. Keep everything else still so you can feel it more distinctly. Try that a few times, then return to normal breathing. Once you know what your diaphragm feels like working inside you, you can observe that feeling as you meditate. It is the core of your breathing. If you meditate regularly, how you breathe now will slowly return to the innate way of breathing we were born with, centred on that feeling of your diaphragm flexing and relaxing, your torso passively inflating and deflating as air moves in and out. You only need to observe, that's all.
If you find you get drowsy, it may help to leave your eyes somewhat open, instead of closed. Relax them so your gaze is lowered and your eyelids droop. If that doesn't help, meditating may have just made you aware that you are tired and ought to sleep. Take a nap and try meditating afterwards, or look for another time to meditate when you are more rested.
And there you go. Easy meditation. Okay, so it does involve some work. You might find it boring, you might find that suddenly a ticking clock or something dripping drives you nuts. Maybe something that was bothering you before will start playing over and over in your head. All these things are the foibles of the mind. Your brain at this stage is like a car at a stoplight. It keeps chugging away, even though it isn't doing anything in particular. Unlike a car, the more you notice this about your brain, the more you settle it down, so the poor thing can rest. It's like listening to a stressed friend. If you just let them get it all off their chest, then they relax. Once they are relaxed, you are very likely to learn something new about your friend - they will have an insight about the problems they were telling you that is fresh, or they will genuinely be themselves, because it's a moment of trust, and you'll see a facet of them you hadn't before. It's exactly the same with your own mind while meditating. It's amazing how much we don't know about ourselves.
When you notice that you are thinking about other things and not observing your breathing, refocus on your breath. Observing your breathing anchors you in the most fundamental part of yourself. Noticing all the other activity in your mind from this point allows you to see it from a viewpoint that is somehow independent from that activity. And the adventure begins...
Work a little bit at a time on meditating, for as long as seems right to you each time. It will take quite a bit of practice before you are able to quickly find that easy, balanced posture that allows you to meditate happily. Until you reach that point, pushing yourself to meditate too long will lead to aches and pains in your back, neck, and head stemming from the places you haven't learned to relax yet. That is unpleasant and discourages you from trying again. There's no need for that. Just work a bit at a time, long enough that you feel you are getting some practice, but not so long that you get achy. How long that is is your call. What you are doing, is so that you learn about yourself. Learning to feel when something is enough is an integral part of that, so let your body and feelings guide you. Stop when you feel you have practised enough, don't set an alarm for some number of minutes. How are you to know how many minutes to set it for? This is something you can't know, each person and each day is different. If it is enough, but not too much, you will be inclined (more or less) to do it again within the next few days, so that's one guide. Afterwards, noting how long you meditated for can be useful. If you have found the right balance between making an effort and maintaining relaxation, the average time you meditate for will slowly stretch out by itself, because you will just want to do more. Noting how this happens is very encouraging. If it doesn't happen, something is interfering. Ask yourself what that might be and focus on making it better. For instance, maybe you need to stretch more so your back or your neck relax more when you are meditating. Maybe a different time of day would suit you better for sitting. Doing meditation regularly will develop it far more rapidly - better to do a little bit, every day or a few times a week, than do a lot and get discouraged and leave it for a week, or two, or more.
Meditation brings great benefits. If you find it interesting, find a group you can work with to develop it further.
Getting in the groove
If you develop your meditation to the point where you are doing it daily and each time finding a peaceful, light feeling, you will notice a series of accompanying changes in your life. You will be calmer, more grounded. You will find it far easier to handle stressful situations. You will think clearly and act with confidence and conviction. Your feelings about things that have troubled you, even all your life, will change. New thoughts and new feelings will come, that provide a broader horizon and greater scope for action in your life. You will have greater energy, tolerate pain, fatigue, and loss with more equanimity, and connect more to the people around you and the things you care about. In short, it's awesome.
The road to the time when you feel such benefits will have its curves, bumps, and potholes. Depending on what is going on for you overall, it could be long or short. I have represented meditation as a pretty straightforward process, and it is. What isn't straightforward is all the things that hold you back from sitting down to meditate. In my case, i have stopped doing meditation and then eventually started again four or five times, sometimes with years in between. The first couple of times i stopped had largely to do with pushing myself to do meditation only in a quarter lotus posture - which isn't nearly as hard as full lotus but still feels like knives in your knees for most people if you do it for more than a few minutes, and very badly affected the rest of my posture. Truly i beseech you, don't ever use such a posture unless you can do so pain-free and with a relaxed, balanced torso for long periods of time. You would be doing far more damage than good. Far more. All the times i quit meditation also had a lot to do with fatigue. I have a chronic condition that way. I would try to sit down and find i just couldn't concentrate at all, i would just be overcome with sleepiness. My mind was in a constant fog riddled with self-loathing and whispering fears. Really my meditation takes wing when i manage to put my health in order enough to reach the plateau where it is possible. For me it takes a very careful diet and frequent deconstruction of my daily life, whenever something sends me back into the fog and i have to figure out what it was and what to do. For you it will be a different set of issues, but it will be something.
You are an extremely complicated thing, an astonishing assemblage of matter that defies all efforts at comprehension. Your continued existence depends on billions of precise chemical reactions occuring in your body correctly every second. You are deeply integrated into a vast complex of life spanning a whole planet, what your role in that system truly is cannot be known or even summarized by you or anyone else. All your actions since birth have rippled through the web of life around you, leading to changes which led to other changes and then on to more changes you are completely unaware of. As said in the Desiderata, you are a child of the universe, no less than the moon and stars. You have a right to be here. What i'm getting at is, to take care of this incredible thing that is you requires a multi-pronged approach. If you find that you just can't work on meditation effectively despite wanting to, chances are you need to work first on one or more of these things: diet, exercise, relaxation.
Which to work on, how much, and in what way is a personal journey. On diet, my advice is read about Weston Price and his work with primitive peoples around the globe to learn what diet really sustains human beings best. For me, the diet books of Dr. Cate Shanahan were a turning point. You might do better on something a bit different, but i think comparing what a diet recommends to what you find in Weston Price's survey of the diets of non-industrialized peoples will tell you whether it is a generally sound diet. I found exercise exhausting until i got my diet in order, you may find instead that exercise lifts your mood enough that you can put up with diet changes. Once i was able to exercise, i found the key was warming up properly and finding the right pace. If i putter at first with some light exercise, soon i find myself naturally wanting to do something more strenuous. Instead of feeling arduous, it feels healthy and useful. Letting that process happen naturally has made exercise an engaging challenge instead of a unpleasant chore. In the case of diet as well, making it an experience that feels like doing something for yourself, not to yourself, i believe is the key. So, try adding something to your diet before taking something away. Find the format that is most comfortable for you - my intake of raw vegetables didn't go up until i started liquifying them in the blender and drinking them as a thick shake, now i quite enjoy that and it fills me up for hours, too. When you tackle a hard part, remember if you can do it for a month, it can suddenly become much easier, even feel natural. That's what drastically cutting sugar was like for me. If something doesn't work, try something else, look for the right fit.
Relaxation is a special case. If you are so wound up you can't stay still to meditate, or good posture is accompanied by painful stretches or aching muscles, loosening up is what will help. Diet and exercise is changing habits, relaxation is relearning something you have forgotten. I never struggled with that, but maybe that is because i had been going to massage therapy school for months before i first tried meditation. That process involved getting a massage and giving a massage five days a week, which calms you down pretty quickly. If you have the option, start getting regular massages. The most calming and relaxing thing in the world is physical contact with another person, it's hard-wired into us. Marriages will survive so-so sex, but not a lack of affection. If you are in a romance, make sure the cuddle factor is optimal. If it isn't you really need to ponder why - are you too stressed, is your partner too stressed? One or the other is true, or both, and if it isn't remedied there are clouds for you on the horizon, my friend. If that storm has not struck yet, you need to start hugging now. Do whatever it takes. (Incidentally, improved sex will likely result down the road.) Not in a relationship? Yeah, that sucks, doesn't it. Pets can be quite helpful. Your prescription might be 20 minutes daily of petting your cat or dog - proper petting, not just lazy scratching behind ears, because the more your pet relaxes, the more you relax. If your pet doesn't fall asleep, you need to work on it.
A few other things can induce relaxation through the imitation of human contact - hot baths through their warmth and the pressure of the water on the skin, hammocks through their rocking motion, which recalls the womb and time spent being carried as a child. If you go the long hot bath route, go all out. Get a little inflatable pillow for your head, get bubble bath - the bubbles are insulation so the water stays hot, and they form a psychological 'blanket' too. Get scented oils and put a few drops in the bath - the relaxing effect of a pleasant smell is much greater than generally thought. Regular hammock naps are also a sound option. The thing is the rocking is important. Seriously, someone needs to come up with an automated hammock-rocking gizmo. Another approach is to look at how you sleep. Make sure your bed is truly comfortable. Try cocooning up in your blankets, to get the enveloping warmth and soft pressure of being held. Hey, it works - you relax, and that is very useful in finding a way to share real cuddling with someone you care about.
Some progressive relaxation techniques are useful especially if done regularly. Quality here is the key. This link is to an old progressive relaxation video by Jane Fonda on YouTube - remember her fitness videos? (Please ignore the jarring 3 second ad at the beginning.) The technique she goes over is a classic of yoga, and her calm rich voice narrates soothingly. The video is a little over 10 minutes - it really shouldn't take any more than that. After that you should be enjoying the resulting relaxation to take a solid nap or go to sleep quickly at night. The many, many recorded 'guided meditations' floating around are about as effective as elevator music, if elevator music was recorded in one take in someone's spare time on second-hand equipment. Don't bother with them. Go through the technique explained in the Fonda video each night as you go to sleep and it will help you more than any amount of listening to wind chimes, whale sounds, or waves on the beach.
If you have cultivated a meditation practise and are seeing results, it is possible the most noticeable result will be that you feel somewhat disoriented or upset. Meditation very effectively brings into the foreground issues we had previously pushed out of our minds. When you become more aware, things that need to be dealt with come up first. In other ways you will feel better, and be better able to deal with your issue, but still, it's a drag. You have several options. It is likely you will have trouble putting your finger on exactly what your feelings are about, in which case talking with a trained professional is better than just talking it out with a trusted friend. In such a case find one you are comfortable with and try a few sessions. Working with a meditation group can also be very helpful. They will know exactly what you are talking about, although their ability to help you process it and move on is limited to their personal wisdom - they are not trained to help people heal emotionally. Make sure you are comfortable with whatever group you choose, check several before deciding. And don't underestimate your closest friends. At least try to talk to them first. That's what friendships are for. You may find it is enough. If you aren't sure what to do, you could also stop meditating and go back to ignoring the issue meditation made you aware of. I say that only to point out that it is in fact a positive development, you just need to find the way to take the step that resolves it. Such work always rewards you with a fuller life.
What does it mean
I have seen the effects of meditation on over a hundred different people. What happens to a person who meditates regularly is very consistent. That can only mean one thing - humans have evolved to meditate. It isn't meant to be an arcane pursuit for a handful of adepts. We once did it naturally, it was normal - nay, essential - human behaviour. Only things of central importance get incorporated into the brains of a species. Only behaviour that is physically part of our brains causes exactly the same result in anyone who regularly engages in it. Think about that for a while.
If meditation was once a natural activity, why did we stop? If it isn't something we once did naturally, what is it in our brains that we are exploiting to get the dramatic results of meditation?
To someone who doesn't have extensive experience with meditation, this may seem like maybe an interesting question, but not an important one. To me, it is extremely compelling. I know i've already gone on about how wonderful meditation is, but really, if you knew how much of a difference it can make in your life, you'd find this important too. People who go to meditation retreats like the ones i used to attend are willing to put up with the considerable pain of traditional sitting positions many hours a day for a week, even go with very little sleep in order to maximize the time spent meditating. That's because afterwards, you feel great. I mean man, you just feel simultaneously high on life and totally together and focussed for like a month afterwards. Longer if you've really gotten the hang of it. The first few days after a retreat are just a ridiculously positive experience. The hardest thing is to integrate the heightened awareness and connectedness you have into your way of interacting with the world. That's why it fades unless you are a true master. (Which isn't to say that masters are super-human. They have flaws like anyone else. They aren't enlightened - they've had enlightenment experiences. That makes a difference but it is not a cure-all.) Then you start telling everyone around you how great meditation is, and they nod and smile, go on about their life and take no further interest. Some don't believe you, some think it's too difficult and they can't do it.
Anyone can do it. Everyone is meant to do it. It can be hard to get started, but no harder than getting started with an exercise program or a new diet. For most people, i think it is easier than making those other changes - if you don't make it hard by forcing your legs into stressful positions and tacking on the other baggage that always accumulates in old traditions. Let that go, and you can do it.
During all of recorded history, meditation has languished because of our compulsion to turn away from direct spiritual experience in favor of the dictates of a priesthood and a church, the better to endure a world full of violence and hardship. We couldn't bear to feel so much pain. We had no desire to feel more aware and connected. With religious codes, we didn't need to think about it. By not meditating, we could blunt feeling it. I guess that was necessary. Even just 200 years ago nobody made it through life without taking blows and striking others, pain had to simply be endured, work was heavy and often dangerous, most couples lost at least one child, everyone knew that crops could fail, disease could come, a stroke of misfortune such as a fire or flood could take away everything, and there was no remedy. The farther back in history you look the more pain filled the average human life. But times have changed. As they have changed, we have softened and opened up, lost our fear, and discovered a hankering for a more vivid life. In the case of Europeans, first we began to question our image of god, creating many churches and many ways to worship. Then we questioned authority, demanding to participate in decision-making. Soon we were openly wondering if god exists at all. As the dangers we once faced were defeated one after the other, demons fell with them - classism, racism, sexism, sex taboos. We have come a long way. But change has now accelerated, and how we change with it is therefore going to accelerate too.
Meditation's time has come. One way or another, it is going to become common - the way it must have been in some misty dawn of our species that we don't remember. Normal. I invite you to be ahead of the curve and start doing it now, the better to enjoy the great changes coming our way. There is no other tool so well adapted to helping our minds encompass the flood of new ideas and experiences now upon us, and to do so with poise and clarity. Sit down and meditate as often as you can, and enjoy the future.
Notes Concerning Meditation Styles
This meditation technique is a slight variation on how i was taught to meditate at the Toronto Zen Centre, and later at the Rochester Zen Center. In both these places you can also meditate in a chair. They put a special cushion on it so your hips are angled properly. Many other meditation centres these days have chairs, too.
Most meditation groups have idiosyncracies to the way they meditate - hand positions, breathing styles, eyes open or closed - but there is broad agreement among meditation centres that the basis of meditation is the upright, balanced torso. I haven't seen anyplace where they really explain what that means, though. Usually they just recommend you sit up straight, or with a straight back. In most cases, what they mean is the posture i've described, the balanced torso. I guess they just find it hard to explain, and figure you'll get it yourself once you've been practising a while. There are some instructions i have seen (most of which are not associated with any established meditation centre or movement) that tell you to sit on a flat chair and maybe use it's back for support, or sit on the floor, or just relax in any passive position you find comfortable, and then concentrate in the way they recommend. I don't know why they advise that. Maybe they aren't aware of the balanced torso posture used in Buddhism and most branches of yoga. Trying to meditate without using this posture puts you at a big disadvantage. Details like your hand position are a matter of preference - i prefer to be as relaxed as possible, but others feel specific hand postures help you focus your mind. But poor spinal posture is a serious handicap.
If you are straining to keep your back straight, your focus will be characterized by strain. Meditation techniques that recommend stressful postures are mostly interested in willpower, to which enduring strain is conducive. Some recommend you keep one specific thought in your mind, others recommend you eliminate all thoughts. Only great willpower will allow you to do such things. Developing one's willpower is very useful, but it isn't open-ended. You will discover some things about yourself, but mostly you will learn a kind of discipline that puts your energy into certain parts of yourself, and turns away from the other parts. If that is what you are most interested in, meditation methods that use stressful postures will get you there. (You may think that the posture is easy at first, but do it for 20 minutes and you will think differently. Trust me.) However, even in the case of this narrower focus, the balanced torso posture is also a great tool. It is a posture that is extremely conducive to concentration, which can be used to develop willpower, if that is what you want.
If you relax in a passive position you find comfortable, your mind will wander. Meditation techniques that recommend this are mostly interested in deep relaxation, and they commonly recommend visualizations, mantras, or following the breathing. Relaxation based meditations like this are great for faith, both in yourself and the world. They mostly work at a subconscious level, because the conscious concentration you can maintain in this kind of position is light. The faith they engender is very useful, but it has little direction. Once you have that faith, you may still need to find the path that is right for you. The kind of light concentration that comes with passive relaxation meditations rarely leads to clarity about who you are and what you really want. At that point the balanced torso posture would serve you better. If you have really gotten the hang of the posture, it is very relaxed and relaxing, but you stay alert because of the slight effort and attention required to maintain the position. That alertness is what allows you to observe your mind. Although your concentration is focused on your breath (or perhaps on another exercise, if you have started working with a group), you can't help but notice the other stuff your brain is doing, and over time this provides enormous insight into who you are.
In regards to breathing styles, there isn't a great deal of variation on what is recommended, but some groups say you should breathe from your chest, while others say it should be from the stomach. Really, healthy breathing is with your diaphragm. Let it spread the bottom of your ribcage, and let your whole torso expand naturally. Breathe out by relaxing. There is excellent medical reason for saying this is the natural, healthy way to breathe. Places that recommend other ways of breathing may feel that it enhances concentration, and that may be true. Consciously breathing in a particular way will focus your attention on the activity. However, it is important to consider the side effects. You will be expending greater effort in breathing, and relaxing less. More than that, if you breathe in a deliberately altered way for even a few minutes, the change in the volume of air you are taking in is going to change your state of mind - few things alter the brain more readily than a change in oxygen and CO2 levels, even if the difference is slight. In that case, you aren't observing your mind, you are messing with it. Over time, that can disorient you, causing subjective impressions not based in fact. Breathing naturally, in accordance with what is healthy, stabilizes you. This is why you shouldn't try to control your breathing - other than relaxing it where you can do so easily. Let your body decide how much air it needs, it knows best. Your breathing will vary naturally. Just observe it all.