The fundamental element of yoga
Often people assume that yoga is a combination of postures with funny animal names, namely the asanas. That is indeed a part of what yoga is but in reality it goes way beyond the physical element. Pantajali, one of the most important contributers on the philosophy of yoga, defines yoga as : “ the inhibition of the constantly changing thought patterns”. In other words yoga is quietening of the mind.
In this definition, there is absolutely no mention of the body. When doing yoga, we learn that mind and body are connected. Our body is the container for our soul and it is therefore important to take care of it, however it is not the defining element of the practice. What we are trying to achieve is not to have a nice body to look at or to show off, we want to realize our true nature through the stillness of meditation.
What is meditation ?
“The thing about meditation is: You become more and more you.” David Lynch
Patanjali defines meditation (dhyâna) as follows : “the uninterrupted flow of consciousness towards an object”. In other words the mind is focused on an object (ex : the rhythm of the breath, a mantra, the sky, the ocean, a visualisation, the chakras…) and it is not being disturbed by thoughts. This does not mean that thoughts entirely disappear, they might still be active in the background, but they are no longer the focal point of our attention. When we meditate thoughts stop to matter.
In the meditative state the ego disappear, we are left alone with our true self, free of judgment, free of our past and free of our worries. When nothing is left but inner peace, we can see the true beauty of what lies in front of us. When practicing meditation regularly, we come to realize that we have an infinite source of serenity inside of us into which we can tap at all time and we ultimately become stronger and less affected by what happens around us.
The meditative state of the asana practice
Mind and body are seen as one entity in yoga. We all know that our mental state and emotions affect our biological functions. Anxiety will cause stomach pain, digestive trouble, sleeping problems. Joy lowers our heart rate and blood pressure. When we are sad we will produce tears. Anger will increase our heart rate, contract our muscles… This is why the physical practice matters if we want to access the mind. The asanas will bring balance to our physical body and ease up our entry into meditation.
While practicing the asanas we need to be very concentrated in order to coordinate our movements, our breath and maintain our balance. Concentration (drâranâ) is the first step of meditation. Although the mind is not entirely quiet when we practice the asanas, we could call this state a pre-meditative state, a state of high concentration. On top of preparing the body in order to stay seated with a straight spine, it is as well a good mental preparation for meditation.
How to practice meditation ?
Patanjali recommends a comfortable and stable posture. In general we adopt a cross-legged position right on the floor or on a meditation cushion, however this position is not available for everybody or might not be comfortable for everybody. Whichever position you decide to adopt should allow you to have a straight spine. If your spine is rounded, you will eventually experience strong muscle pain and you will no longer be able to stay focused on your object of choice.
If you the crossed legged position is not adapted to your body, you may simply sit on a chair, with the feet fully planted on the floor and a straight back. Wether on the ground or on a chair, your palms can be resting on your knees, facing the sky or adopting the mudra (hand gesture) of your choice for symbolic and energical purposes. Your eyes may be opened if your point of focus is located in the outside world or closed if you look inwards.
It is possible to meditate in shavasana (the corp pose), but it is generally not recommended to meditate laying down, as you might fall asleep. It is not rare to hear someone snoring at the end of a yoga class, when the students adopt the corpse pose. When we fall asleep the awareness disappear completely and we become passive, yet the excercice of meditation is an active process where the awareness is fully engaged.
The benefits according to science
A number of scientifical researches have been studying the effects of meditation on our health and many more researches are still ongoing. Meditation has shown to decrease the production of the cortisol hormone responsible for stress, especially to people suffering of high levels of stress, and along with a cutback of the physical symptoms linked to stress.
It as shown to be effective in reducing the impact of anxiety disorders such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid behaviour and panic attacks. And the effects of meditation seem to positively impact individuals on the long term.
Meditation has as well been a successful tool to fight addictions, by redirecting the attention, increasing the willpower and excerce a greater control over emotional impulses, which tend to be at the origin of the triggers of addictive behaviours.
Other researches suggest a positive affect on the attention span, by increasing the strength and endurance of the attention and that even after a short period of meditation practice.
Intergrating meditation to your daily routine
In order to be able to fully enjoy the wonderful effects of meditation it is important to make it a regular practice. Although it might seem like a simple thing to do, it might be quite strenuous, especially for beginners. Instead of meditating for a long time sporadically, you should definitely opt for shorter daily sessions.
You may start meditating for 2 or 3 minutes a day and increase this slowly according to your progresses. Set yourself achievable goals, in order to not get frustrated. A good advice that I can give you is to be non-judgmental. Do not try to achieve nirvana, in fact do not try to achieve anything at all, just focus on an object and let the thoughts come and go as they please. Everytime thoughts get you out of your point of focus and you realize it, recenter your awareness to your object.
You might not fully grasp what you are doing at first, but slowly it will start making sense, you will get more comfortable with it and you will stop asking yourself questions. You will just notice the benefits and meditation will become a part of your life, something you can hold onto at all time, in any given situation.
You can practice at home on your own. If you live in Berlin, and look for a good place to get introduced to it is by someone, my weekly class in Friedrichshain is always a good place to start. More infos here.