by Michael W. Taft
Does anything in the world feel as good as yoga class? Think about the slow, deliberate way you get worked into a posture, adjustment by adjustment, through a brand of practical magic—like cooking a meal or assembling a car engine—that is so deliciously irresistible. There is a kind of inevitability to the miracle, the way water molecules, heated sufficiently, suddenly let go of their liquid expression and rise into the air as steam. Step by step the mundane awareness—of the aching body, the rainy morning, the sniffles, the quotidian list of tasks—is heated, stretched, melted, transformed until, voilà!, it becomes the transcendent. Performing this transmutation together as a team with twenty or thirty other dedicated souls, each pursuing their own daily expression of physical excellence and mental peace, uplifts the experience even more. No matter how cynical and shabby you may feel on the way into class, you will always feel amazing walking out. One of the only things that typically and reliably does this as well, for me anyway, is my daily meditation.
The beautiful and surprising thing is that they don’t have to be practiced separately. Meditation and yoga are two great things that go great together. They might seem like opposites at first—yoga is about moving the body and meditation is about sitting stone still. But the truth is that there is a very direct and ancient connection between the two, which we can see in a text from India called the Yoga Sutras (Yoga Verses). This compilation of almost 200 verses by the author Patanjali offers the reader an entire path to enlightenment consisting of eight steps.
It’s in these eight steps that the intimate and original connection between yoga and meditation is revealed. The first two steps concern living a decent and healthy life. The next three are: asana, pranayama, and pratyahara, (postures, breath control, and sense withdrawal). Postures, of course, refer to the postures of yoga, that you do in every class. In a very good class, yoga teachers will also sometimes demonstrate breath control and sense withdrawal. These same three steps are being practiced at your local yoga studio.
The next three steps, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi (steady concentration, meditation, and oneness), describe the stages of meditation. These three are being practiced at your local meditation center. But, according to Patanjali, these steps shouldn’t be separate—they belong with the others as part of one system. Yoga is not only a great way to stay in shape; it’s also part of an ancient system for meditation. The two things have always gone together. It’s only in the modern world that the two have been separated. And yoga doesn’t only lead to better meditation, meditating leads to better yoga.
That brings us to the point of this article: the ways that mindfulness meditation can enhance your yoga practice. Not only will it make your yoga better, but it will make you feel fabulous while doing so. Here are four of them:
1. Tuning into the Breath—When you move your body in a yoga class, often the teacher is telling you how to breathe on each move: inhale for cobra posture, exhale for standing forward bend, and so on. For any position that expands your chest or body, you inhale. For any position that contracts, or twists, your chest or body, you exhale. Attuning your body and your breathing like this not only feels good, but it’s helping you to breath more deeply and fully, which is good for you. But there’s much more you can do with the breathing, which will really revolutionize your yoga practice and how you feel when you do it.
One of the first practices you might learn in mindfulness is to meditate on breathing. You focus your attention on the body sensations associated with the breath. The feel of the air entering your nostrils, for example, or the sensation of the diaphragm lowering on the in-breath, or the expansion in your kidney region. The sensations go on.
This meditation that you do while sitting still becomes even more significant when you do it in action during a yoga class. As you move into a posture and breathe with the movement, meditate on the body sensations of breathing. For example, when you raise up your arms and inhale, focus on the body sensations of the expansion of the ribcage with the inhale. When you bend over to touch the floor, focus on the body sensations of the diaphragm lifting up with the exhalation, and so on. Doing this simple practice brings your mind into careful alignment with the body. Don’t just breathe in and out: feel the inhalation and exhalation in your body. Linking your awareness to the breathing part of your practice is extremely soothing to the mind, and also helps you to move more slowly and more carefully, which is good in yoga.
2. Attention to the Body—Focusing on breathing is a good beginning, but why stop there? As long as you’re paying close attention to body sensations, you might as well go further with it. Have you been in the kind of yoga class where the teacher really focuses on proper alignment? Often they will say things like, “scoop your tailbone, rotate your thighs inward, ground into all four corners of your feet,” and other very specific directions. I love this kind of class because it not only keeps you from getting injured from doing the postures incorrectly, but it helps you to get the maximum benefit out of each class.
Even better, this kind of attention to the body is tailor-made for mindfulness practice. If you have a meditation practice in which you spend a lot of time focusing on individual body parts or body sensations, then following the teacher’s directions in yoga is much easier, and tremendously effective. By directing your concentrated attention on the specific body part, you can bring it into perfect alignment, and help it to open and relax. When the instructor tells you to scoop your tailbone, for example, really concentrate on the sensations in your tailbone region. Let go of everything else, and just tune into those feelings. You may notice that you are seeing a picture of your tailbone region in your mind’s eye, but just let go of those images and come back to the raw physical sensation. Zoom in as closely as you can to the body part.
To make this even more intense, tune into the felt sense of how to do the posture correctly, and can feel the energy of the exercise flowing through you.
3. Clearing Your Mind—If you ate a delicious Indian meal of salad, sag paneer, and chana masala, your stomach would be pleasantly full. If someone then offered you another meal immediately, no matter how good it looked, you’d be unable to eat it because you were already full. There is only so much room in your stomach at any one time. The same is true of your mind. Attention is a limited resource, and there is only so much of it to go around. That may seem unfortunate until you realize that you can use this to your advantage.
Many people are disturbed by difficult, negative, or obsessive thinking, which can cause real trouble for your wellbeing. Such thoughts can increase stress, make you feel bad, and can even lead to depression. Meditating during your yoga practice can offer a real solution to this problem. By focusing as completely as possible on your body sensations, you allow in a tremendous amount of information that would normally be ignored. This influx of information not only tunes you into your body, but also fills the working memory you have available. That means that there’s little or no room left over in awareness to pay attention to difficult thoughts. Suppressing or stopping thinking is very difficult (and a bad idea besides), but filling awareness with something else—like the feeling of your body in triangle pose—is relatively easy to accomplish and feels just as good. It also establishes a positive feedback loop: the more you tune into your body, the better you feel; the better you feel, the more you tune into your body. Not only that, but filling your mind with awareness of body sensation will actually slow down and reduce the number of negative thoughts when you do come back to paying attention to your mental talk. It’s a win all the way around.
4. Flow— Another thing that you often hear in class is to “breathe into your spine,” or some other body part. Obviously, this instruction is metaphoric, since most of us do not have nostrils or lungs in our spine. Even as a metaphor, it’s a very useful instruction, because it encourages you to focus on that part of the body in a way that encourages it to relax and open. “Breathing into it,” is code language that actually means to feel the movement and energy in the area. It’s an invitation to really tune into the body sensations very closely, clearly, and continuously.
Related to breathing into a body part is meditating on Flow. Sensations are rarely static, stable, and unchanging. Flow is the sense of dynamic change, movement, or difference in any sensation over time. Flow can feel like buzzing or tingling, waves or undulations, or the sensation growing or shrinking. If the sensation is moving around, stops and starts, or expands or contracts, that’s Flow, too.
Flow is the feeling of what many people would call life energy or prana in the body, but when you meditate on it, you’re not trying to control or influence it in any way. Instead, you’re just trying to contact the dynamic sense of change and movement that is already present in the body. Practicing yoga—moving your body, stretching, breathing deeply, taking various postures—induces a sense of Flow in the body that is quite noticeable. The longer or harder your practice session is, or the deeper you go into breathing and posture, the more intense the sense of Flow you will detect. Several traditions (like Kundalini yoga or traditional Chinese medicine) believe that there are energy channels in the body, which lead like streams to the main energy channel or river in the spine. Whether these are physically real or not, it’s very easy to detect the subjective feeling these energy channels when meditating on Flow.
The main benefit of meditating on Flow during yoga is to feel the sense of the body changing from a solid, stiff, rigid mass into a gooey, supple, energetic, fluid wave. The sense of turning into a wave of moving energy is delicious, relaxing (even in power poses), and tends to open up the body to a level you may have never before experienced. It transforms a simple session of yoga into an ecstatic experience of being massaged by an inner fountain of energy that opens, cleanses, rejuvenates, relaxes, and enlivens your body and mind. If you’ve never experienced this before, you’re in for a real treat that you will not soon forget, and that you will want to come back to day after day in your yoga practice. It will make you feel awesome, which is part of what yoga is all about, and can help you take further steps on your spiritual path.
Yoga and meditation were made to go together. It’s even there in the word yoga. Although we in America use the word to mean postures, in the original Sanskrit it means “union.” And if you look back at Patanjali’s list of the eight steps of yoga, “oneness” is the final goal of meditation. Yoga and meditation are not really two things that go well together, they are really two parts of a whole, an ancient and powerful system for changing your life and your world.
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