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Take a Seat

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

By Alan Reder

Medical Know-How
Studies about meditation being good medicine have appeared in popular presses since the 1960s. Research indicates that meditation lowers bodily stress—which can lower blood pressure—reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke by improving arterial health, and brings relief to chronic pain sufferers. Meditation has proven highly effective in treating psychological conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Many people also embrace meditation to advance their careers; artists, writers, and marketing execs alike meditate to woo the muse into their lives. If these pragmatic applications seem to mirror the same materialism that characterizes American yoga in general, remember that meditation has no intrinsic spiritual meaning.

By design, it pursues no goal. A goal, after all, is a thought, and in meditation we observe thoughts and don't try to generate them.

Meditation is a tool, not a project. That said, the grandest project, say all the major teachers, is the one that aims highest—the ending of human suffering. God dwells within you as you, say the Hindus, but until you experience the truth of this through meditation, the pain of existence will continue.

Buddhists take a more psychological approach to the same subject. The causes of your suffering can be understood, they say, through meditation and mindful living, making it possible to move beyond suffering to—in the words of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh—"joy, ease, and wonder."

Picking a Practice
At first glance, many meditation practices appear interchangeable. For instance, the Buddha dissed the yogic meditations of his day by saying that while they concentrated the mind and led to high mystic states, they didn't lead to "Ultimate Truth." What got him to the top, he said, was the technique he discovered: vipassana, or "insight into the nature of things."

Loyalties aside, do the differences between common techniques really matter? Cope, who is also scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, thinks they do. He makes the same distinction the Buddha did between techniques that promote concentration and those that expand awareness. The concentration styles are best for developing "a deep sense of stability, one-pointedness of mind, sweetness, calmness, and equanimity," he says. "They combat anxiety and a sense of fragmentation in the self."

Vipassana, on the other hand, can be disturbing at times, according to Cope. The mind must face the fact "that all experience is fleeting; there is no permanent abiding self under its own power. The self or ego experiences this as a threat." Discomfort aside, vipassana makes an irreplaceable contribution to spiritual development, he believes. Ideally, meditators should practice both concentration and insight just like the Buddha did.

Instructing you in those styles goes far beyond the space permitted here, but it's best to begin with the basics of concentration meditation. In "mindful breathing," a concentration technique within Theravada (South Asian) Buddhism, you observe your breathing while silently noting the "rise" and "fall" or "in" and "out" with each inhalation and exhalation, respectively. In beginning Zen, the breaths might be counted instead—one to 10, and then starting over. In a common Hindu form, a yogi silently repeats a Sanskrit mantra that is a name for God or has other sacred meaning. In tratak, you gaze at a candle flame about 20 inches away. In Tibetan Buddhism, you might stare at a mandala (sacred diagram) or recite a mantra.

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