Ok. Here are some thoughts on meditation. Of course anything I say is just my opinion/experience…
I think a good jumping off point is with the interrelationship between yoga and meditation. I think common perception is as follows:
Meditation = some crazy mental mind control practice; and
Yoga = some crazy physical body bendy pretzel practice.
However, what yoga really offers is a recipe for wellbeing or a healthy lifestyle. The result for the practitioner can be full spiritual awakening to the true nature of the reality of existence, but let’s save that for another day. Basically, there are eight parts to practicing yoga.
Yamas – moral practices, how we deal with others (things not to do)
Niyamas – personal observances, how we deal with ourselves (things to do)
Asana – postures -AKA the stretching
Pranayama – breathing exercises
Pratyahara – control of the senses
Dharana – concentration and perception
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – bliss, union with the divine (whatever that means to you)
These eight parts were codified, approximately 2500 years ago, in a book called the “Yoga Sutras”, written by a man named Pantanjali. He’s said to be the granddaddy of modern day yoga. It is said that the entire reason we practice the stretching exercises is solely to be able to sit in meditation longer. The reason for this is that it is through the practice of meditation that we’re able to master our minds and ultimately achieve freedom or liberation or enlightenment – however you want to look at it. It’s interesting to note that a practitioner of yoga need not ever attend a stretching class or really do what we think of in America as “yoga” at all, to receive the true benefits of the practice. It has been said that there are as many asanas as there are species of animal.
Anything we do – including singing, brushing our teeth or loving – can be an asana, if done with consciousness and presence. I’m personally a big believer that as long as you move your body in some capacity on a regular basis in a way that promotes growth and stretching, you’re good on the asana front. However, reasonable minds differ on the subject. My viewpoint is that yoga (as well as Buddhism and lots of other disciplines) preaches the middle path, and that means not being excessive in anything you do – including your yoga practice. So to me, it’s all about the fun and joy of it all. Nothing should ever feel like work or obligation.
I started with yoga, instead of meditation, because as you may have noticed above, meditation actually constitutes the seventh prong of the eight part path of yoga. The eight parts are designed to be practiced in order, moving from gross to subtle. What I mean by that is that we start with focusing on the world at large, then how we treat the world, then how we treat our body, then our mind, etc… I think this makes sense when you think about it, and in my opinion is really just the way change happens. Even though it’s suggested we work things in this order, of course there is work to be done on all prongs at all times – everything overlaps and is always a practice. =)
I started my asana practice and meditation practice technically in 2002, although I didn’t hear a word of yoga philosophy until January of 2009. In my opinion, a journey in the dark is still a journey worth taking all the same, but knowledge is power and the journey has been rapidly accelerated since beginning my study. Meditation really actually took off for me first, out of necessity spawned by the stresses of law school. For years, my meditation practice looked as follows:
Cut out the lights, maybe light a candle or incense, maybe turn on something melodic and instrumental;
Lay in bed comfortably with your arms and legs spread wide enough to be comfortable and in a way that promotes not being overly aware of your body (for a long time I used to cross my arms across my chest – whatever works);
Close your eyes and begin breathing slowly in and out through your nose (obviously the mouth works if your stuffy);
Once you find a rhythm to your breathe, begin linking the breath to counting numbers in your head;
Count from one to ten, then ten to one, then one to ten, then ten to one – repeatedly, linking every number to an in or out breath (it’s been said that you can’t focus on thoughts when you’re focused on numbers); and
Continue counting for as long as necessary to subside the thoughts in your mind. You may count the entire time, for a long time, and that’s totally cool. The practice is to still and quiet the mind, and eventually you’ll find that the counting will naturally subside, and you’ll be able to just be in your body, awake and aware, yet thoughtless.
This practice can, of course, also be done in a seated position from Day 1, if that’s more comfortable for you. It can also be done at any time, in any place, wherever life finds you.
A good compliment to this practice is Yoga Nidra. This is a type of meditation that’s practiced while lying down as well, but is more detailed than what’s described above. I use a CD called “Relax into Greatness” by Rod Stryker (http://parayoga.com/store/). Ultimately, you’ll want to practice meditation in a seated/upright position (for reasons to be discussed at another time), but I think laying down is an appropriate place to start, as most of us (myself included in a BIG way) start off suffering from horribly poor posture.
Improvement in my posture has most definitely been one of the big benefits of my asana (stretching) practice. I went to a seasoned and respected Chiropractor in 2007, and was told that I had a reverse curve in my neck, scoliosis, and that if I didn’t start receiving weekly chiropractic adjustments I’d be in daily excruciating pain by the time I was 35. This freaked me out, so I went to a seasoned and respected orthopedic surgeon, who confirmed the problems with my spine and prescribed physical therapy and pills. For my entire adult life up until this point, I had lived with severe pain in my neck/shoulders that would magically appear several times a year and keep me from turning my head to either side for several days. I was also diagnosed around the same time with Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee) by the same orthopedic surgeon. More pills and more physical therapy were prescribed. In addition, just last year during teacher training, I was re-diagnosed by an ENT with TMJ Disorder (problems with the jaw joint), when I had daily pain inside my head behind my ear for over 3 weeks.
It was then that I bought a book called “Taking Control of TMJ”, by Robert Uppgaard, and learned about the real importance of posture, and the role it plays in our overall health (having a lot to do with the body’s fascia – a connective tissue). I’ll be damned if when I started working on my posture (first during yoga practice, then while driving, sitting, standing, etc.), the ear pain didn’t go away (the knee + neck pain had already gone away just from the stretching practice). So, I mention all of this, in a discussion on meditation, only because it will make it easier for you to sit and meditate. Ultimately, we’re trying to get over our mind and move past it, so anything we can do to stop having to think about our body is helpful in that endeavor. Besides, it’s a lot easier to be happy in general when we simply feel good and healthy. =)
There are several tendencies that I think we all have in the way we deal with stress and anxiety. Until they’re pointed out, though, I think most people don’t even know they’re doing them. Beginning to pay attention to these couple of things, in my experience, makes a huge difference in the way we feel, and ultimately our ability to get still and meditate. Notice:
The position of your jaw. When you aren’t speaking and your mouth is in its “resting” position, what’s going on? The top and bottom teeth should be slightly apart, never clenching or even touching. The tongue should be relaxed and the tip shouldn’t be touching the backs of the teeth, but instead should be pointed slightly up, comfortably resting on the palette of the top of the mouth.
The position of your shoulders. We have a tendency to lift them up. This creates all sorts of pain and tension. A good practice is to regularly think of lowering, or dropping your shoulders down.
The way you breath. What happens when we get all stressed out? For instance, what if you saw your child or pet (god forbid) crossing the street while a car was approaching? You’d likely naturally gasp – or hold your breath. This creates panic and anxiety. Part of the practice of meditation is realizing that your breath is your direct channel to your mind. By learning to breath through a situation, rather than going into the automatic panic mode, you’ll be able to not only better respond to any situation, but you’ll feel a lot better doing it. So the practice here would be to regularly check in with the breath, to ensure that it’s constantly connected and flowing, never being held.
IN SUMMATION: CHILL. Hope you found this information valuable, and as always, please feel free to write with any questions or comments!