I’m often asked by students, what the secret is, to meditation and it usually makes me think how nice it would be to just say ‘do this’ and it will magically happen. This perception that meditation is something that you just decide to do is an interesting enigma since after time a skilled practitioner, not necessarily a yogi, can simply choose to move to the state of mind required. For most of us however some groundwork is necessary.
For me the physicality of asana followed by conscious breath control (pranayama) is my groundwork. I have also had moments of serenity whilst practising Tai Chi and even simply sitting down watching the world go by without comment or inner dialogue. Simply accepting the moment as it unfolds.
What does it feel like? And how do I know I’m meditating and not simply very relaxed?
It feels like I want to smile, that I have total awareness of everything yet nothing. Little or no inner dialogue is demanding my attention and I am very content. Sometimes the moment is fleeting, sometimes it remains. I’m not in some kind of trance, if anything my senses are heightened. And yes I am very relaxed.
The yoga texts describe many approaches to Dhyana but one concept is constant ‘the stilling of the mind’. Different schools approach this in different ways. Patanjali suggests a toolbox of approaches in his 8 limb system. The tantric schools focus both on asana and on cleansing techniques or Kriya . Some schools use sound, some chanting. There are so many more.
The bottom line is to seek out and try these for yourself, if the first one you try doesn’t work go look for another.
I’ve been thinking recently about how accessible this type of breathing is to students and what approaches might be useful to, for want of a better phrase, “get it”! So without waxing lyrical about how any particular yoga style or guru approaches the practice, here’s what works for me.
First I take a moment to settle into a posture, for example standing in Tadasana or one maybe of the meditative sitting poses such as Sukhasana (simple cross legged position). The focus here is to think about aligning the spine drawing upwards but balanced with ease (so not rigid). Next start to connect with an unhurried natural (tidal) breath and start to gently lengthen the back of the neck so that the chin eases down a little.
Since Ujjayii pranayama is focussed on controlling the flow of air around the epiglottis, now become aware of where you notice movement when you swallow. Keeping the back of the neck long draw this area inwards to create a snoring sound. If you actually make a snoring sound that’s great because all we need to do now is to lift away a little. The sound you make is key and it’s worth experimenting, so when you sound a bit like Darth Vader with asthma, you really are getting it.
Another approach is to imagine that you are making the long Haaaa sound both on the in and out breath. Or perhaps picture the sound and feeling you might have if you were trying to steam up a mirror.
When you do ‘get it’, it is both an empowering technique to use in vinyasa style yoga and for me, more importantly it’s a road to meditation.
Practicing does help and if you attend my classes please feel free to talk to me in class where I’ll happily go through things with you.
I often find, both when teaching and in my own practice, that actively trying to come to a moment of quiet or stillness is one of those paradoxes that says, the harder you try the less likely you are to succeed. I also often find that stillness can be found in the simplest poses or hatha yoga practices, for example looking at simply standing in Tadasana (Mountain pose). At one level we might examine the physicality of standing upright, stacking the spine, drawing in the bandas and becoming tall. Another layer then invites us to think about sukha/sthira (ease/firmness) and about the balance between letting the weight of the body release whilst lifting upwards to the sky. This enquiry then turns to the question of how we are breathing at that moment and how that breath compare to when we started? The triangle of Mind/Body and Breath then starts to connect and we move from one to the other. At some point the lines between the three start to blur and for me this when stillness becomes a possibility.
I had a student recently ask how she could learn to relax and I guess it’s easy to assume that this is something that is second nature to yogis. Of course, we never find ourselves grinding our teeth or laying awake at night with insomnia! Yeah sure. The question did however make me think about what helps, and for me it came down to one main thing; breathing. This is because the flow of breath i.e prana is so intrinsically linked to what Patanjali calls ‘Vritti’ or fluctuations of the mind. And this really is a case of taking my own medicine. So my suggestion is this : get off the bed and lie on the floor and work through either a tense and relax sequence linked to the inhale/exhale. Or look at one the many counting sequences with the aim of increasing the exhale (rechaka) breath. This awareness and control is sometime called ratio breathing and is very effective. For example, start by counting how long it takes to breath in, let’s say it take a count of 6, then without holding the breath, match this with the exhalation. Next increase the exhale duration by a count of two for six rounds. Then depending how you feel add another 2 counts to the exhalation. Let me know how you get on.
Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) and Yoga
As the summer holidays come to an end and yoga classes return to normal I find myself reflecting on how the changing seasons affect our daily lives and indeed practice. For me as a long term sufferer of SAD or ‘Seasonal Affected Disorder’, the approaching shorter days fills me with some trepidation. This is when I really appreciate the difference that regular yoga makes, even if it is only for brief intervals of time. As I often say to the classes; rather 20 minutes yoga daily than a couple of hours once a week. This regularity is what the great yoga teacher Sri TKV Desikachar calls the rhythm of his practice. Sri Patabhijois says something similar which is often quoted..’Practice, practice practice and all is coming’.
What that practice consists of, is of course entirely personal and could range from Surya Namaskara to simply moving through the ‘calming breath’ sequence. I am always happy to suggest a home practice if required.