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Take a Seat

If you're not meditating, are you really doing yoga?

By Alan Reder

The success of yoga in the West may have come at a heavy price. Many teachers worry that something special has been lost in yoga American-style, and that something is meditation. Meditation, not postures, is the heart of yoga, they point out. In Patanjali's India, yoga and meditation were nearly synonymous, yet meditation plays only a minor role in many American yoga courses. In others, it is not taught at all.

"Many important yogic scriptures say that hatha yoga should be practiced in the context of raja yoga (the yoga of meditation)," says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999), who has joined a growing chorus calling for American yoga to remember its heritage.

Some yoga students regard meditation as boring cultural baggage and appreciate learning postures without it. But what if your experience with yoga has inspired you to go deeper, into yogic spirituality? If your yoga teacher doesn't offer meditation guidance, how should you begin? Since yoga comes from India, should your meditation technique be Hindu or Buddhist? Is Zen Buddhist okay? Does the inner peace you already feel in yoga class count?

Meditation and its role in yoga are widely misunderstood topics, even in the yoga world itself. Before unearthing all the sectarian splits in meditation style, you first need clarification about what meditation means and its roots in human history.

Thinking about
The word "meditation" covers many disparate practices under one big and somewhat disorderly tent. Visualization, getting lost in a provocative book, thinking through a complex idea—in the broad sense, all these qualify as meditation. But in yoga and Buddhism, meditation generally refers to more formal practices of focusing the mind and observing ourselves in the moment.

Formal meditation is designed to carry us beyond the illusions created by our thoughts and senses so we experience everything in its truest form. It will carry the most advanced practitioners, sages contend, all the way to enlightenment—which to Hindus means a realization of our inner divinity, and to Buddhists a more secular sort of self-realization. Few will reach that exalted state, the masters admit, but meditation confers many benefits along the way, including inner calm, so everyone is a winner.

Many of the classic techniques involve an object for the mind to focus upon, such as a mantra (repeating sacred words or sounds), a picture, or the ordinary movements of breathing. Other forms, particularly Buddhist ones, advocate a more free-flowing type of awareness and inquiry into moment-to-moment existence. In nearly all styles, sensory input is kept to a minimum, usually by sitting in a relaxed, stable position, but also while walking or doing simple routines.

Meditation, however, is not prayer. Krishnamurti distinguished between the two by noting that prayer is a supplication or petition to God (or cosmic intelligence) by one who seeks gratification. In meditation, you ask for nothing and take what you get. And what you get some days is just a mirror view of your own busy mind.

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