A Complete Guide To Zafu Cushions, Buckwheat Hulls, and Proper Seating

Whether you're a newbie who is just getting started with mediation or a seasoned pro that's been mediating for years, meditation cushions are a great way to get comfortable as you practice your journey towards awareness. Our goal today is to introduce to you the Zafu cushion, with its history, construction, and benefits!

Zafu Cushion Background

Originally from Japan, the zafu cushion is a round cushion with gathered sides. Typically used as a meditation cushion, they are often used as regular cushions as well in order to provide additional support and comfort to any seating arrangement. In English, Zafu is interpreted as a “sewn seat,” but in Japanese the meaning is entirely different. Za describes a seat, while fu is the soft and fluffy fibers of disintegrated reed mace seeds found inside the cushion. The words zazen (seated meditation) and zabuton (Japanese rectangular cushion for sitting or kneeling) are closely related. However, westerners refer to zafus as meditation cushions, and zabuton is the cushioned mat on which a zafu rests.

Reed mace, the original stuffing for zafu cushions, is a tall marsh shrub with cylinder-shaped seeds which burst when they become matured, shedding enormous amounts of down. Modern zafus contain stuffing made from buckwheat hull or organic kapok. Buckwheat is a grain producing plant that originated in China and was later brought by Europeans to North America. Kapok is the seed pod fluff of the Ceiba tree, which is found in rainforests.

Uses & Construction of a Zafu Cushion

A zafu cushion may be used for meditation, yoga, or even home décor. The design of a zafu and the filling allow for maximum comfort when sitting for long periods, by distributing the weight from the high-pressure zones (spine, sacrum) to the rest of the buttocks and hips. When properly positioned, it raises the user’s hips and effectively helps them to settle into a comfortable cross-legged position. The small and round form factor of a zafu allows it to be placed on most chairs and stools and enhances comfort by improving posture.

Zafu Cushion 18"

Pure Chakra - 18" Zafu Cushions

Zafu cushions come in two standard sizes, a 14” and 18” diameter. To truly get the most out of the cushion, in terms of comfort and positioning, an 18” diameter cushion is recommended. Zafu cushions come in two pieces, an outer cover and inner cover. The outer cover is normally produced from jute, cotton, or polyester and is generally more durable than the inner cover. The inner cover is usually made of polyester or cotton. Some cushions may have a handle for transportation as well. The inner fabric houses the buckwheat hulls or kapok filling. When a cushion needs to be washed, the inner filled cushion may be removed allowing for easy cleaning of the outer shell.

Inner Cover Of Zafu Cushion

Inner Cover of a Zafu Cushion

Zafu Cushion Fill: Buckwheat Hulls

Buckwheat hulls are the outer shell of the buckwheat seed. Even though it lacks the downy softness of a kapok zafu, the buckwheat filled zafu offers vital spinal support as the buckwheat shifts away from high pressure areas to low pressure areas, distributing the pressure of the lower body. Some describe the feeling of a buckwheat filled zafu as sitting on a mound of sand. Buckwheat cushions help align the pelvis, back, neck, and head, which is why buckwheat cushions and pillows are frequently recommended by chiropractors to help reduce neck pain and migraines. Additionally, buckwheat filled zafus do not loose their desired shape or require fluffing up.

Backwheat Filled Zafu Cushion

Buckwheat Hull Filled Zafu Cushion

Buckwheat zafu cushions are also much heavier than kapok and make a slight ruffling sound when a user move about. Buckwheat hulls do break down with time and do need to be replaced. The frequency the buckwheat needs to be replaced depends on how frequent the cushion is used. If used daily for extended periods of time, the hulls should be replaced about every year.

Zafu Cushion Fill: Kapok

On the other hand, a kapok cushions are fluffier and softer than buckwheat hull zafu cushions. Even though kapok cushions usually flatten with time, users can quickly plump them up by squeezing or fluffing them. The material is very lightweight and easily transportable. Eventually, however the fibers start to compress, similar to worn out pillow. This leaves some areas feeling more clumped up than others. Additionally, a kapok zafu cushion is spongy but firm and can be inconsistent and wobbly if it is used as a seat cushion.

Therefore, when choosing a zafu cushion, definitely consider the advantages and disadvantages of the type of filling used to meet your needs. Although both fillings provide effective support, some prefer the softer kapok filling to the more contoured fit of buckwheat hulls.

Physics of a Zafu Cushion

The curved edges of a zafu cushion allow a user’s legs to drop off the edges so the knees are lower than the hips. This position makes it easier for the user’s spine to maintain its natural curves. The curved edges of the cushion also keeps the thighs from pressing into the cushion’s edge. To maximize comfort and stability of the zafu, a zabuton may be placed under the zafu. A zabuton is typically 30” by 28” and allows the user’s knees to drop onto the zabuton, further elevating the pelvis in the process.

A zafu can be either round or crescent-shaped, but each performs the key function of raising the pelvis above the user’s knees. The traditional zafu makes sure the pelvis tilts forward, preserving the spine’s natural curve and allowing the knees to face downward. The user can hereafter select the best position to place their legs and allow the knees to support the body’s weight in a tripod. On the other hand, a crescent zafu cushion enables you to support your weight from both the base of your seat and knees as well as through your hips.

Proper Positioning When Using A Zafu Cushion

The traditional pose for Zen meditation is by sitting on the zafu cushion with legs crossed in the Lotus position. The Lotus position is best during mediation, but can be tricky for beginners or people who are physically challenged. In such a case, users can try the half lotus, quarter lotus, or Burmese position. In the Lotus position, the spine must be upright with no support, and the hands placed on the thighs to create the right posture. The theory behind this pose is that when a person sits without supporting their spine, they will be motivated to become more alert and energized. If a user finds it challenging to sit in this position, their meditation session may prove difficult. This is because the spine has four natural curves that are normally in a neutral position so that they can hold themselves up with minimal effort. Hence, changing the curves’ natural position creates a feeling of discomfort and the effort to sit up straight will exhaust the user’s energy. Zafu cushions therefore allow the user’s pelvis to tilt forward so that the sacrum is in its neutral position, thus allowing the rest of the curves of the spine to be aligned as they are supposed to.

Therefore, although a user can change this position as they desire, the best method is to use the prescribed zen position so as to gain the most benefits from the exercise. Before and after a zen meditation session, practitioners usually perform a gassho bow to their zafu, to their teacher and to other practitioners in the group. Many meditation services handle zafu cushions with care  when walking to a meditation hall to show respect to the cushion.

A Message From Pure Chakra

We hope you found this article informative. Daily meditation is a big part of our lives and our goal is to encourage others to participate in this rewarding and relaxing art. If you are looking for a Zafu cushion, be sure to check out our site at www.purechakra.com. We offer custom made 18” Zafu cushions that are made fro jute and filled with buckwheat hulls. 


Author: John Pham

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