My first yoga teachers simply didn’t teach seated meditation. But that didn’t bother me. I was restless when I entered class, and always fiending for a good, hard sweat. I liked pushing my body, but the thought of being still for any lengthy period of time only agitated me. I would sit quietly and still in places that forced me to: airplanes, cubicles, cramped buses, and vaccination clinics where someone was sticking a needle in my arm to ward off some disease I might contract in some developing country. But why would I sit in silence voluntarily?
Then, when I started dealing with a particularly difficult situation in my life, one yoga teacher suggested I go on a silent meditation retreat for seven days and just sit with the thing that was troubling me. The idea sounded absurd and torturous to me, but I was ready to try anything to relieve myself of the suffering I was feeling. I found a retreat center in Northern Thailand, booked a ticket, and did a retreat up in the mountains. I sat, I walked, I sat. At moments, I almost lost my mind. But I stuck with it and I left the retreat with an unusual perspective: Every raindrop suddenly seemed like a tiny miracle, and I felt connected to every impossibly green leaf on every tree. My senses were sharper, and my heart more open. It seemed that, while I was sitting all week in the temple and in my little hut, life had given birth to itself. The week that followed was one of the brightest and clearest of my life.
I slowly started to incorporate seated meditation into my daily routine and now, five years later, I feel like my yoga practice isn’t complete if I don’t sit at all. Meditation, for me, has a lot of the same benefits as asana: Mainly, it makes me feel more grounded and loving toward the world. And yet, meditation plays a different role for me, as well; it is a laboratory in which I can work with my mind and my emotions, and sometimes receive important insight.
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what was your most profound meditation experience? Do you feel that meditation is an integral part of yoga? Should yoga teachers be leading students through more meditation, or should it be seen as a separate practice to be taken up on one’s own?
Share your opinions with us!
I went to an amazing workshop this past weekend exploring what neuroscience is learning about the benefits of meditation. The short answer is that meditation–whether focused on an object such as breath or a mantra or a visualization or objectless–actually changes the way our brains work. It changes the engagement of the amygdala (the flight-or-fight response) when something surprises us, it makes us better able to focus on tasks, it increases our ability to express empathy and compassion, and it has a real benefit in the way we conceptualize our “self” so it can be useful in reducing social anxiety and depression.
Being the western, goal-oriented person that I am 🙂 knowing all of this has helped me recommit to sitting and “doing nothing” every day. I have always seen a difference in my ability to concentrate and to maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of life’s ups and downs on the days I meditate compared to those I do not. Now I know its not just all in my mind!
Meditation is something that comes and goes in my life. Its like an old friend that always calls or visits at just the right time. I have found times in my life when I didn’t need to sit at all and I have found times where all I want to do is sit. Often, I let the need lead.
When I connect deeply at the Source within myself there is a knowing that becomes more and more clear. I feel that this knowing is cultivated through meditation. As I practice listening to this knowing, mediation in the form of sitting becomes less and less something I need. The knowing becomes the meditation. I walk it, talk it, sleep it, sing it, dance it…I LIVE mediation when the knowing inside becomes clear. I feel that the discipline of sitting is the first step to developing that knowing. I’ve had those moments, lasting months at a time sometimes, where I’ve felt that I am existing as a living breathing meditation.
I’ve had those moments where I cannot hear more then I need mention also ;~). In those moments, when I feel as if I cannot move past some struggle, when the monkey mind grinds and grinds at a thought that I know the mind cannot answer, I will sit. I will sit always in the moments between the actions of daily life. I breathe into my heart, into my deep knowing place. AND I chant. I’ve been chanting a lot lately.
In this last few weeks that I have been regularly meditating, chanting and all around refusing to let my mind mash that thought one more time, knowing it doesn’t have a sound answer, I have found the Truth in this moment for this struggle. I’m back in my centered place. Still, I sit. Now though I am sitting in gratitude for the gift of sitting. I am paying respect to the knowing inside that guides me to Truth. My Truth.
I’m sure that at some point I will not need to meditate as often as I am now and I know myself well enough to not push it when the time comes to stop. Fidgeting on a sheepskin is not my thang.
In every moment that I am willing to give up thoughts that the mind will come up with an answer and I allow myself to take a seat, I find that when I am clear I walk further and further in my shoes AS a meditation. Needing to sit less and live the mediation more.
For that I am grateful.
Thanks for the lovely responses. At Bhakti Fest last weekend, I took a class with a teacher who said that one should never sit in meditation just to meditate. He said we should only do asana and then, if the urge to meditate arises after doing asana, we should sit, but only then. I have heard this teaching before and find that it is a very yogic teaching as the Buddhist traditions often focus on sitting for long periods of time with no asana preparation at all. I am of both minds. I do find that the spontaneous meditation that arises out of a balanced asana practice is the most clear and peaceful meditation I experience, even when that state of clear consciousness only lasts for a few minutes. That being said, I find sitting in meditation when my mind is busier and my body more stiff to be useful in a different way. It teaches me that moment to moment awareness that Juliann was referring to – the one that eventually becomes incorporated into every aspect of life. So, while I rarely sit for very long periods, I do find that sitting both after and separate from an asana practice serves my practice of awareness.
Hi Karen (& everyone), thanks for inviting me to comment. It’s a great topic.
I think there are two big aspects to this question about the relationship between yoga and meditation. There’s a historical answer, talking about what “yoga” has been in the past, and the roots of our modern practices. And there’s a practical, current answer, about the needs and intentions of each of us as living, individual yogis. I’d like to offer a little about each.
When the word “yoga” first appears in the Upanishads, somewhere around 500+ BCE, it refers to sense-restraint: tuning out the objects of the various physical senses in order to stop grasping at them and allow the mind to settle into a deep, focused concentration. Yogis who have explored the “8 Limbs of Yoga” (in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra) will recognize these as limbs 5 and 6: pratyahara and dharana.
For the first 1000+ years of its development, “yoga” referred only to what we would now call “meditation”. Yoga was a radical practice because it enabled the practitioner to find the Truth through their own experience rather than through the teachings of the Brahmin priests or the formalized ritual of fire sacrifice. The yogi uncovered the Truth by settling the mind in a very still, radiant place (Samadhi) through long-term focus on a single object (like the breath, an element, a mantra, or an image), and experiencing the profound dissolution of the limited personality that naturally results. This is the process described in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (with the object being Krishna himself), by the Buddha, and is by far the most common yogic method throughout Indian history.
Physical postures, beyond the cross-leg seated variations useful for meditation, entered the repertoire of yogis when Hatha Yoga appeared as an offshoot of Tantra, somewhere around the 8th century. The goal of Hatha Yoga was to prepare the body for energetic awakening, and thus increase the yogi’s chance of succeeding at Raja Yoga, or meditation (see Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.1-2). Originally, Hatha Yoga consisted of 6 shatkarmas, or physical purifications. We still do a few of them: neti (nasal cleansing), nauli (abdominal churning), and kapalabhati (the version that is a pranayama: skull-shining breath). The Pradipika only lists a few physical postures, again mostly meditation postures. The profusion of physical practices that we do today in yoga class were largely developed in the 1920’s in Mysore, India, and included substantial influence from British calisthenics and popular acrobatic tricks. This physical practice was woven through with teachings from both Patañjali and later Tantric lineages, and modern yoga was born.
So the historical answer to the relationship is that “yoga” IS meditation, and has referred mostly to meditative practices up until very recently. Even the traditions most dedicated to asana generally concur that yoga practice should include at least some meditation, and over time will lean more and more toward it.
Practically speaking though, here we are, a culture with rampant stress and crazy mind states, disconnected from physicality, natural energetic movement and cycles, and many of us find it nearly impossible to sit still for even a few minutes. The ancient descriptions of a still, radiant mind are as far away from our daily experience as the stars. So we find this practice where we breathe and sweat and move a LOT, and when we lie down at the end in savasana, we’re actually able to relax a little. We let go a little. And many people report that the most peaceful moments in their life are in this resting pose after a vigorous yoga class. Are we somehow off track? Not doing “yoga”, and instead just fooling ourselves into thinking that our favorite exercise is somehow a spiritual practice, a “meditation in movement”?
The Buddha uses a word, “kusala”, that translates as Skillful Means. It says that different practices are useful for different people at different times. For many of us, it’s clear that vigorous asana is one of the only ways we can connect to a stiller mind, a more easeful heart. So we do it! We have good instincts, and they’ve led us to a practice we can actually DO, and receive very deep, wonderful benefit from.
As yoga practice deepens, many people find that the moments of stillness, either in the middle of asana class, or in savasana, or at moments during our day where we get quiet and present, become delicious, and we want more. As yoga helps our bodies open and relax the constant tension we have been holding, sitting still does become easier and more desirable. You might find yourself drawn to sit longer at the end of practice, or to go to a meditation group, or on a week of silent retreat, as many yogis do. The benefits of sustained meditation practice are vast, and the same as the yogis of the past always sought, and found: peace and radiant clarity in the heart-mind, energetic wakefulness in the body, and deep freedom from stress and suffering, beyond anything we can imagine.
In the West, our insatiable appetite to digest and assimilate the best of what the whole world has ever invented has led to places like the Bay Area, where we have access to every kind of spiritual practice that has ever worked to free people from sorrow. This access is leading to intersections that haven’t happened in hundreds of years (like between Classical Buddhism, Hatha Yoga, and Himalayan Tantra), and many of us are taking this blending for granted. I personally have engaged in practices of every major Hindu and Buddhist lineage, alongside loving Sufi poetry, the Christian Desert Fathers, South and North American Indigenous Ritual, and several modern modalities that also touch on spirit in profound ways. And many people I know are like this. This is who we are! The challenge for us is to be clear about what we’re doing and why. Our needs will shift and evolve over a lifetime of sincere inner work, and if we are deepening in the practices and traditions that move us, talking with our teachers and being honest with ourselves, the way forward will be clear.
Thank you, Sean. This is such a rich and wonderful response.