Yoga meditation & how to do it

November 29, 2015

Yoga is more than a system of exercise and relaxation. I do not think it would be unfair to describe yoga as a wisdom tradition that has, not the body, but the mind and its relationship with pure consciousness as a main concern. One of the principal texts on yoga is Patañjali’s Yogasūtra – some would argue it is the seminal text on Yoga. The Yogasūtra sets out how, through meditative practices, it is possible to attain the goal of yoga: the perfect ‘pacification, concentration and complete focus of the mind’s fluctuating activities’ - citta-vṛtti-nirodha [1] -  which brings us knowledge of our inner most conscious self (purūṣa) [1a]. It has to be said that Patañjali’s manual for meditative practice is hard to understand for a variety of reasons, including its laconic style, which is rich in technical language, and its presumption that the reader already knows a lot about yoga and the other philosophical schools of Indian thought.

 

While yogāsana (the practice of yoga postures, often on a mat and these days in a classroom setting) is very popular in the West, yoga meditation or yoga mindfulness is less so. This is odd, because yoga is so obviously about meditation and mindfulness. Your regular yoga class, I would venture to say, does not have much time or space for sitting and meditating. Many yoga teachers I meet tell me that while they are keen to meditate they are far from comfortable with yoga as meditation. This is not surprising given the emphasis placed on mastering only postures by so many yoga teacher-training courses. My own experience is not so very different, although over my 20-years of yoga study and practice I find myself increasingly drawn to purer forms of meditative practice. The yoga classes I lead are meditative in nature, even the ones where yoga postures form the main activity, but I hesitate to describe myself as a meditation or yoga pundit! Nonetheless, I hope that I can make some meaningful suggestions to those of you wanting to have a go at meditating.

 

So, what is yoga meditation? I can’t give you the long answer to this question, but one short and probably imprecise answer is that (roughly speaking) by fixing or binding the mind onto one thing we can bring peace, stability and clarity to the mind and by meditating remove the interruptions (antarāya) to the goal of yoga described above [2]. There are many different Sanskrit words that could be used to mean ‘meditate’ or ‘contemplate’ and perhaps dhyāna is the most common. Dhyāna is ‘when awareness flows evenly toward the point of attention’ [3]. However, for the purposes of this article, I am going to avoid using dhyāna or other terms for meditation, because they have their own specialist meanings, albeit all fitting under the broad umbrella terms of contemplation or meditation. In English, the term ‘contemplate' means something like ‘look attentively or thoughtfully for a long time’ and comes from Latin contemplat- ‘surveyed, observed’, from the verb contemplari, based on templum ‘physical place for observation’. The term ‘meditate’ means something like ‘focusing one’s mind for a period of time’ or ‘to think deeply about something’. Our English word is derived from the Latin verb meditari, from a base meaning ‘measure’. For me, yoga meditation encompasses both meanings and yet is different becasue of the ultimate goal of yoga, as I hope you will see when/if you get to the end of this piece.

 

What can we expect when we try to meditate? Well, for one thing, it is hard. Indeed, it is very hard to do. In the same way that we can’t expect, knowing little about music save what we have heard, to sit in front of a piano and immediately play Brahms’ Waltz in A Flat. We have to practise under the guidance of a teacher. Our first few months of practice will feel hopeless. When we try, we rarely feel like we are actually meditating or making any progress at all. Give up then? No. I assure you meditating is worthwhile.

 

What I found helpful was changing my initial goal from wanting to do or master meditation to focusing on getting the habit of trying and accepting what happens for what it is, neither liking nor disliking the results of my repeated attempts to practise.  This is actually what Patañjali tells to do: abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṁ tat-nirodhaḥ (mastery comes from practice together with dispassion). This is so important I need to say it again: the first steps to success with meditation is to recognise that it is hard and that you must practise and keep practising without regard to how badly your attempts at mediating might be. So what if you didn’t do well at meditating? The important thing is that you made the time and you put in some effort into your meditation practice and that you sustained that effort of a period of time. Eventually you will notice the difference the continual practising makes to your life. This approach is true for the ballet dancer, chess player, footballer, cook or the violinist as much as it is for the yoga practitioner.

 

Can I meditate while driving my car? Definitely not! However, we do need a comfortable seat and a good place to sit. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is great if we can do it, but so few of us in the West can for any length of time. Meditating is hard, a little like marathon running is to those not used to it, so why make it harder by sitting in an uncomfortable āsana (this Sanskrit word can mean both seat and sitting posture) while trying to meditate? Would our marathon runner place a small stone in his running shoes before a race? He would do the opposite and ensure that his shoes gave him the most comfortable and pain free support possible. We should, therefore, avoid placing our bodies into a disagreeable position; we don’t want the body to be a source distraction. That won’t do at all! Patañjali is helpful here. He tells us that the way we sit should have the qualities of both steadiness and ease (sthira-sukham) and he means that not just for the body, but also for the mind, which should retain its awareness and be unstressed [4].

 

One’s head should be above the spine. This sounds silly, but I once attended a meditation class where someone tried meditating lying down; within minutes she was asleep and snoring for almost an hour. She never returned to try again! The Bhagavad Gita suggests that we should direct the mind to a single object while ‘holding the body, head and neck erect, motionless and steady’ [5]. A chair can be a very suitable seat for meditation, as can kneeling on the floor, sitting on a zafu or a meditation stool or in a more traditional cross-legged posture, like siddhāsana. There are walking meditations, of course, but that’s another story.

 

Having sat down to meditate, we need to think about the type of object most suitable for us, having due regard to our circumstances and needs. This is where a teacher is of great importance. Because we develop an intimidate relationship with the object upon which we meditate, we must choose something conducive to success in yoga. Yoga should bring peace, stability, total awareness and clarity to the mind and therefore the object we select for the mind to ‘look’ at should have some of those qualities too. Natural objects that hold no special significance for us, like a seashell, leaf, twig, pinecone and so on, are generally satisfactory objects, at least to begin with. We should avoid objects with strong associations.

 

I have found that learning to look at this object without engaging my analytical mind is the better approach to meditating in the manner I describe here. In other words, meditation of this type should be a wordless activity that does not use language to mediate the experience. This is one reason why meditating is so hard. We want to use language to think and we want to do so all the time. We have an inner ‘voice’ that we use to describe, criticise, think, solve problems, and tell stories about what we are seeing. We don’t want to use this natural functionality of our minds while doing this sort of meditation. Even in those meditation practices that use sound (mantra) I have found that listening to the mantra without the aid of language more useful. Lawrence LeShan gives this useful tip: look at your chosen object as if you were feeling it. He suggests this experiment to make the technique clearer:

 

Take a part of your sleeve or the cloth covering your thigh. Stroke it with your hand, “feel” it. Do this for half a minute [or so]. Then look at it for the same amount of time. Really look at it, learn it by eye. For most people there is a real difference between the two perceptions. With the visual sense, you tend to use words to describe the sensation, to translate the experience into language. With the tactile sense, you tend to accept the experience on a nonverbal level. [6]

 

As I said earlier, meditation is not easy. Notwithstanding this fact, we can cut ourselves some slack in a number of ways:

 

  • Firstly, accept the fact that our minds will wander away from the object of our meditation. This is perfectly natural and to be frank, our minds were born with a propensity to be distracted and they have had a lifetime of doing just that! So we can be gentle with ourselves. Every time we notice that our minds have become side tracked with something it thinks is more interesting than really noticing our meditation object, all we have to do is turn back to perceiving wordlessly our seashell, twig, pinecone etc. We need to learn the art of choosing whether to follow our thoughts or feelings, and we can do this whenever we notice that we are drifting off by simply and lovingly saying to our distracting thoughts and feelings: ‘Not now, later. I’ll be with you later.’

  • Secondly, we can approach meditation with a sense of humour. We know we are going to get distracted. Why not chuckle silently to ourselves as if we have just seen the antics of a lovable, innocent but cheeky child? Smiling to ourselves we return for the 84th time to the object of our meditative practice, without worrying or getting upset about the continual interruptions we cause ourselves in the attempt to meditate [6].

  • Thirdly, we also need to keep alert to the process of meditating. It is so easy for the mind to become dull and bored by the activity of sitting and looking at our chosen object. Let’s console ourselves with this thought: we might think this is unique to meditating, but actually our minds do this all the time. We take the beauty that surrounds us for granted, not giving a thought to the beautifully crafted granite wall or the majestic tree opposite our homes, or the magnificence of small flowers that survive invisible among the cracks in the concert or the majesty of the ever-changing sky and sea. We see these things everyday, yet the mind fails time and again to find them interesting or worthy of attention. ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ says the mind, ignoring the fact that each moment is unique. I find it helps to pretend that I am seeing the object of my meditation for the first time, even though I’ve been trying hard to notice, really notice, my seashell everyday for the last 6 weeks. My mental alertness returns when I imagine that this is the first time I have noticed the meditational object, even if it is only for a brief instance. In that instance, a wordless connection is made between mind and object. But never mind that the link breaks more easily than a cobweb in a football match. We’ll break the link as soon as we notice that we made the link: ‘Wow, I think I’m meditating!’ exclaims our excited minds and poof goes the link. Smile, we knew it was going to happen, and we get back to the business of trying and trying again.

And we keep trying to meditate this way, every day, if we can, for about 10 minutes to start with and with the same object for 6 to 8 weeks. After this time we could try another object or extending the time of our meditation by five minutes. Then, a few more weeks later we can make another change, gradually building up the time we spend practising meditation. Generally, meditating between 10 and 30 minutes a day is enough, particularly when we have full time worldly commitments. To get to this stage in meditation requires a lot of practice and that is why the most important thing we can do is to get into the habit of making the time and putting in the effort to practise. Practise (without being influenced by what might result from practising) is the only key you need. Practise is perfect, in this case, rather than practise makes perfect!

 

Wishing you all the best for your meditation practice!

 

Michael

 

Michael Wegerer practises, studies and teaches in the yoga tradition of T Krishnamachrya and TKV Desikachar.

 

References:

 

[1] Moors, Frans, 2012, Liberating Isolation: The Yogasūtra of Patañjali, Media Garuda: India; Yogasūtra I.2

[1a] ibid. Yogasūtra I.3

[2] ibid. Yogasūtra I.30ff

[3] Shearer, Alistair, 1982, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Rider: London; Yogasūtra III.2

[4] Moors, Frans, 2012, Liberating Isolation: The Yogasūtra of Patañjali, Media Garuda: India; Yogasūtra II.46

[5] Sargeant, Winthrop, 1994, The Bhagavad Gītā, State University of New York Press (VI.12-13)

[6] LeShan, Lawence, 1974, How to Meditate, Bantam Books / Little, Brown & Company: USA (p.52-60)

 

© Michael Wegerer 2015

 

 

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