December 7, 2011

Meditation (in the Integral Yoga Hatha I Class)

Disclaimer:  Any information presented in this post originates from my understanding of the Integral Yoga tradition.  As a Yoga Alliance certified teacher in this tradition, I am only qualified to speak from this point of view.  I strive to present objective and scientific information on the subject of meditation.  I claim any errors, factual or otherwise, as my own.

Now on to much more important (and uplifting) things! :)


"Those who are interested in making gold should be silent.  There is a saying, 'Silence is golden.'"
- Sri Swami Satchdinanda

At the end of every Integral Yoga Hatha class that I teach, I conclude with one minute of silent meditation.  All of my students sit in a cross-legged posture, elongate their spines, close their eyes, and focus on their breath for sixty, uninterrupted seconds.  While I am sure that some students truly relish the peace of these sixty seconds of silence, I am equally sure that others merely endure it as a part of the practice...hoping one day that I will either forget about it, or it will become easier...


Although I try to always explain the "why" behind the meditation before we begin, the truth is that there will never be enough time during a ninety-minute yoga class to fully explain the importance of this brief meditation.  In reality:

Meditation is the culmination of every aspect of our class.

Meditation is the single. most. important. part of the yoga class.

Mediation is the essence of all yoga.

Me, and a few of my training mates, heading to LOTUS shrine for noon meditation at Satchidinanda Ashram - Yogaville.

Sri Swami Satchidinanda explains:

Ultimately, the aim of all the Yoga practices is to make the mind calm. Instead of trying to approach the mind directly, we work first through the body [through asana]. One means of calming mental agitation is by calming the agitation of the body, because the body is an expression of the mind. We work from the gross to the subtle, from the body to the mind. (Emphasis added is my own.)

Okay, so before I get any more fancy-pants theoretical on you (Yes, "fancy-pants theoretical" is a technical yoga term!), let's take a break and briefly review a few of the benefits of meditation (This list is by no means inclusive!).

Benefits of Meditation

  • Physiological:
    • reduces blood pressures;
    • reduces cholesterol;
    • relives insomnia;
    • increases endorphins (the body's natural painkillers); and
    • improves communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
  • Psychological:
    • reduces mental tension and anxiety;
    • reduces depression; and
    • increases contentment.
  • Physical:
    • increases mind-body coordination;
    • improves athletic performance; and
    • shortens reaction time.
  • Mental:
    • develops positive attitudes and patience;
    • increases equanimity (i.e. composure, calmness, poise); and
    • allows negative thoughts and suppressed feelings to surface from the subconscious mind, facilitating the release of habitual negative thoughts.
  • Spiritual:
    • increases awareness of inner stillness;
    • brings a deeper understanding of, and desire for, selfless service; and
    • heightens awareness of inner peace, love, and joy.
Sources:
  • Integral Yoga Basic Teacher's Manual, Satchidinanda Ashram - Yogaville
  • "Meditation" by Sri Swami Satchidinanda
  • "The Meditators Handbook" by David Fontana
  • Time Magazine: "The Science of Yoga" April 23, 2001
  • Newsweek article: "God and Health" November 10, 2003
  • "Surgery and Its Alternatives" by Dr. Amrita McLanahan and Dr. David McLanahan

So now that you know a little bit more about meditation's benefits, let's talk briefly about yoga's origins (or, at the very least, yoga's origins as they have been explained to me). 

Many centuries ago, the swami's of India noticed that their human bodies were both too weak and too stiff to practice extensive meditation.  As they would sit in meditation - frequently for hours at a time - their bodies would begin to ache with pain, to the point that they could no longer maintain their physical stillness and would have to break their meditative practice.  So, the monks began to practice physical postures (asanas) designed to increase their bodies flexibility and strength.  In this way, they hoped to overcome the bodies weakness and carve a path towards uninterrupted meditation.

Many of the asanas that are practiced in modern-day yoga classes are older than recorded history.  For centuries, cultures around the world have used yoga as a tool to strengthen the body, and consequently, calm the mind. 


LOTUS shrine (where I meditated twice a day during my teacher training)

As Swami Satchidinanda further explains:

The aim of the Yoga asanas is to accomplish one steady and comfortable posture -- which is a meditation position. Only in a steady posture can you have good meditation. A body filled with toxins, weak muscles, and jumpy nerves will not be able to stay quiet for any time. But the Hatha Yoga postures eliminate the toxins and give strength and steadiness. When the body is healthy and supple, we can easily sit with the mind still and peaceful. As we begin to control the body and its movements, this will carry over to the mind.

Swami Satchidinanda even issues a challenge to anyone brave enough to accept it:

Try this yourself. Any time the mind is agitated, just sit quietly, not moving at all. Let the mind be as agitated as it wants. If your body is still, very soon the mind will calm down by itself. Why? Because when there's no physical movement, the breath becomes slow; and the breath is the interconnection between the body and the mind. As the breathing slows down, the thought-making process also slows down, and the mind becomes calm. (Emphasis added is mine.)

Inside LOTUS shrine.

Pause, for a brief intermission:

Perhaps I should clarify that meditation is not prayer.  Meditation, in and of itself, has no connection to religion.  There are numerous styles of meditation, of which (1) I only have a personal knowledge of about half a dozen, and (2) there is neither enough time nor space on this post to explain.  While there are styles of meditation where personal religious beliefs may play a role, that is not the type of meditation currently in discussion.  In this particular post, I am talking about the most basic form of meditation: meditation focused on the breath.  The only focus of this meditation is the breath, and the only goal of this meditation is to calm the mind.

Normal posting will resume at this time.

Even though some of my students might prefer a yoga class without a meditative component, that is my practice, and therefore meditation will always play a role in my yoga teaching. I hold a firm conviction in both the benefit and the relevance of meditation in my life.  I have seen its impact on my own mind.  And if for no other reason than that, I will continue to lead my beautiful students into one minute of silent meditation at the end of every practice.

It's simple. 

In my very humble, and admittedly biased opinion, no yoga class would be complete without a meditation.

Truly, meditation is the dessert of yoga class.  Although hard at times, the benefits of meditation are sweet, and they always leave you feeling satisfied. :)

(peace peace peace)

P.S.  When I arrived home this afternoon there was a large cardboard box waiting for me at the front door.  When I opened it I realized it was the best. early. Christmas. present. EVER!  A Manduka yoga mat and SKIDLESS towel!  This is truly the gift that keeps on giving!  I have been blessed with a truly wonderful mother.  She knows me so well. :)

Question of the Day:

Have you ever practiced meditation?  If not, would you ever consider incorporating meditation into your life?

Blessings,
Ally and Bo

2 comments:

  1. I have experienced all the benefits of which you speak through meditation. Whenever possible I like to get to class early... do my pre-class stretch and warm-up then meditate for at least 5-10 min. During this time I set an intention for the class. Through pray and in communion with the Lord He directs what my focus for the class should be. It is always timely, and as I proceed with the class this intention/prayer often gives me strength, and peace through the work/practice, especially at the end of class.
    I am soo looking forward to having some yoga time with you!

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  2. What a beautiful comment, Mom. Your explanation of setting an intention for your yoga practice was similar to what I experience. My intention, more frequently than not, carries me through the class by lifting my spirit and energy. I am getting very excited to practice with you next week! :)

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