Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dhyana, or Meditation

The seventh of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is Meditation. The fifth, sixth and seventh limbs all go together, in a way. In order to meditate, you need to
a.) withdraw from the influence of your senses (Pratyahara) ; and
b.) concentrate on something (Dharana).
When you achieve these together, most likely you’ll slide right into meditation, (Dhyana).

Traditional yogic and Buddhist philosophies define meditation as “the liberation of the mind from all disturbing and distracting emotions, thoughts and desires.” That sounds intimidating, though, doesn’t it? How on earth does one do THAT?

Try it this way instead. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines meditation as simply “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” That’s better, eh? And there are so many different ways to meditate – sitting, walking, praying, repeating a mantra, and so on.

There is a common misperception that meditation is only done correctly when one is sitting completely still and one’s mind is completely empty. We may have glimpses of that every now and then, but on the whole, meditation is not about ACHIEVING this goal, but rather the PROCESS that we use to get there, or even to approach getting there.

Meditation is about learning to quiet the mind, even if we never actually manage to quiet it. It’s about letting go of the past and future, letting go of all our predicting and what-if-ing and then JUST BEING in the present.

For most of us, the present is elusive. We may focus on it for a moment, but a second later the mind is flying off in another direction.

In meditation, we recognize that it’s the nature of the mind to run off (experts call it “monkey mind”). We just keep patiently bringing the mind back to whatever we’ve chosen to concentrate on, WITHOUT JUDGEMENT.

A traditional definition of the purpose of meditation is “to relieve suffering.” Suffering is defined as the conflict between what is and what might be, what we wish for, or what we want. In meditation, we try to focus on what’s real and to strip away the rest. What’s real may not be very comfortable – we may have to face problems, fears, discomforts.

Some interpretations of the Eight Limbs indicate that the ideal is when you’re meditating on the divine or feeling devotion to the divine. But atheists can meditate too! So I look at a “good” meditation more as aligning oneself with a higher vibration or energy, and landing in that place where everything seems to make sense and flow effortlessly. And, most importantly, feeling devotion to and gratitude for this connection between oneself and the universe.

When we’re meditating, we’re more open to insight. It’s a valuable tool to help us see things more clearly and extend our own perception of reality. It helps us to feel calmer, more grounded, more aware – and can improve our health.

Remember, the yoga postures were originally developed to prepare the body and mind to sit for meditation.

If you enjoy yoga, please consider coming to one of my meditation workshops this fall. I will offer two sessions – Meditation Basics and Beyond Meditation Basics -- at Dragonfly Yoga Studio in Marshfield (November 7 and 21); and another at Body To Soul Fitness in Pembroke (date TBA, probably a weekend in September). I also offer private Learn To Meditate classes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dharana, or Concentration

Dharana, or concentration, is the sixth limb on the tree of yoga. Like Pratyahara, it is part of the “meditation triad” in the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Sense withdrawal and concentration are basically precursors to meditation. In order to meditate effectively, one must tune out outside stimuli (Pratyahara)and then concentrate on something in particular (Dharana). Neither is necessarily an easy task at first, but both become much easier with practice.

What’s wonderful about meditation is that you can choose what you want to concentrate on. Your breath! Sensation in your body! An image (of a deity, perhaps, or something else that’s meaningful to you)! An action (walking, yoga, mala beads)! Find something that you can really relax into, and then focus, focus, focus!

It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Meditators call it “monkey mind.” So if you lose your concentration, you haven’t failed. You’re just human! Meditation teaches us to improve our concentration by constantly returning to the subject upon which we intend to focus, going back to it again and again, each time the mind darts off to other topics.

Dharana can be very helpful during your yoga practice. Do you find yourself contemplating your pedicure while holding forward bends? Thinking about your grocery list while standing in warrior? Instead of letting yourself become distracted by everyday concerns, choose something to focus on while you practice. Again, it could be your breath, or the sensations you experience in your body while practicing. A mantra, perhaps, or an affirmation. Choose something on which you can concentrate with relative ease, and come back to it, again and again, when you catch yourself becoming distracted. Doing this will heighten the benefits of your yoga practice and bring you closer to the “meditation in motion” that makes yoga a transformative experience.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pratyahara, or Sense Withdrawal

Pratyahara, the fifth limb on the tree of yoga, is defined as “withdrawal of the senses.” This is where we are concentrating well enough that we no longer respond reflexively to outside stimuli – sights, sounds, smells, and so on.

There are various stages of pratyahara, but to be honest, that’s a territory of yoga practice that’s beyond my personal experience.

My own understanding of pratyahara so far, is pretty simple, something I think many of my students can relate to. I become so absorbed in my practice that the only things I’m aware of are my body and my breath. The rest fades far into the background.

Yoga can entrance us. It’s a little bit like when you’re driving on the highway and suddenly you realize that you have traveled x number of miles without even noticing. “How did I get here?” Yoga can have the same effect on us. We reach the end of class and realize and wonder, “It’s time to rest already?”

Pratyahara is actually one of three limbs on the yoga tree that describe the process of meditating. We have “withdrawal of the senses” as well as “concentration” or Dharana, and actual “meditation” or Dhyana. All three work together.

So when you’re so absorbed in your yoga practice that you don’t really notice time going by, then your practice has become a sort of meditation. And if you’re meditating and practicing yoga at the same time, you’ll find that the benefits are considerably greater.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pranayama, or Breath Control

The next branch of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is Pranayama, or breath control. Breathing technique and yoga postures go hand in hand. You may have heard me say in class, “If you’re not breathing, you’re not doing yoga.”

Well obviously -- if you’re not breathing, you’re not alive either. What I’m really saying is that it’s important to be sure you don’t hold your breath, especially when you’re doing a balance pose or one that requires a lot of strength or effort. If you find yourself doing so, pause for a moment and take a long, slow inhalation through your nose. Then let it out, again through your nose, allowing your strength to intensify and your concentration to deepen.

Breathing slowly and deeply helps to oxygenate your body, makes you feel calmer and more centered, and aids the body in eliminating toxins. Most of the time during a yoga practice, we breathe this way, but occasionally we take quick and/or shallow breaths to help move energy. There are Pranayama (breathing) techniques to build heat, cool the body down, build energy, calm the body down, improve concentration, release emotional/energy blockages, and so much more. Experimenting with different breathing techniques can add a whole new dimension to your yoga practice.

If you’re interested in exploring the different ways breathing techniques can enhance your yoga practice, look for my Breathing Basics/Pranayama workshop, which I run at least once each year (usually in the winter or spring).

Friday, July 2, 2010

Asana – The Yoga Postures

Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra around 200 AD, outlines the eight limbs of yoga, a path to follow when developing a yoga practice. Yama and Niyama, outlined in the last several blog posts, are the first of the two limbs. The third is Asana, or yoga postures.

It’s important to note that there is no hierarchy here -- none of these limbs is more important than the others. Here in the West, when we think of yoga, we think of the physical postures. But they are just one small part of a yoga practice.

The benefits of asana practice are innumerable – regular practice of yoga improves your strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, and overall health. Yoga also will calm your mind, improve your concentration, and help you feel more grounded.

Most regular practitioners of yoga know that the benefits go deeper the more you practice. You have insights, great ideas, and inspirations while practicing yoga – you ask questions of yourself and solve problems. It seems that while busying the body with physical activity that at the same time calms and focuses the mind, there is room for new information in the brain.

Many of my students have remarked on how I keep a notepad with me while teaching, and often pause to jot something down. No, I am not grading you on your performance in class! Usually I am making note of an idea that popped into my head while stretching and breathing – something I don’t want to forget.

Regarding asana practice, renowned yoga teacher BKS Iyengar wrote,

"This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet yourself. … This limb of yoga practice reattaches us to our body. In reattaching ourselves to our bodies we reattach ourselves to the responsibility of living a life guided by the undeniable wisdom of our body."

I hope to see you in class sometime soon!