Ready to Meditate?
Meditation can be challenging. Even after you've had a taste of its benefits and long for those sweet moments of inner calm, clarity, and deep connection, it can be hard to just sit. If you're like most people, you may find that one day your mind is speeding into the future, your body feels agitated, and you can't sit still, while the next day you're so lethargic that you can hardly stay awake. Don't be discouraged. Resting with ease in meditation doesn't magically happen. But there is a path to help you get there: Through your breath, you can tap into the flow of prana (life force) to increase, decrease, or focus your energy, bringing you into a state of balance and making it easier to sit with relaxed attention in meditation.
Prana flows along energy channels in the body called nadis. The three main nadis are the sushumna, the central channel along the spine through which kundalini, your spiritual energy, ascends; and the ida and pingala, which start on either side of the sushumna and spiral upward in a double-helix pattern around it.
Prana moves with breath and mind (which includes your thoughts, mental images, and emotions). A change in one affects the other. Through the breath, you can open, regulate, and direct the flow of prana, which, in turn, will stabilize the mind and body for meditation.
Depending on your mood and energy level, one of the following asana and pranayama practices can help you move from agitation to relaxation, from lethargy to lightness, from fragmentation to integration—so that you might ease gently into meditation. The emphasis in each of the following practices is on linking slow, mindful movements with the breath and creating dynamic, flowing transitions to integrate mind and body. Each series is repeated several times, during which the length of the exhalation and inhalation—and the pauses in between—change progressively.
Sometimes you need to wake up, and sometimes you need to calm down. Often you need a combination of awakening, calming, and focusing energies. But to understand your needs, it's essential to spend some time discovering what state your energy is in.
How Do You Feel?
Begin by lying on your back with your legs extended. Fill your body with awareness, as if you were filling a glass with water. Notice how your body responds. Does it begin to release and relax, or is there resistance? Close your eyes and feel the weight of your skull and pelvis, the contact of your back on the floor. Are there places that pull away from the floor and areas that are more in contact?
Then mentally scan your body one area at a time. Begin with your toes and travel up to your legs, pelvis, spine, lower and upper back, and shoulders, then down your arms and hands, and back up your arms to your neck and head. Are there areas of discomfort, places that feel stiff or more spacious, or parts that feel warm, cold, or numb? Some areas of holding are so habitual that we skip over them without noticing; let your attention gently tap into those places. As you scan your body, see whether a running commentary is going on in your head. Try not to judge or analyze what you discover. Instead, simply notice what is present. Now bring your focus to the central column of your spine. Imagine a wide river from the base of your spine to the base of your skull. Does the river flow freely? Are there areas where it's blocked, narrowed, or stagnated?
Next, bring your awareness to your entire body at once. Notice if there are any strong sensations remaining, areas of the body calling for attention. Now allow your mind to draw into the breath. Notice the quality, texture, and rhythm of your breathing. Is it short and choppy, long and smooth, or somewhere in between? Do you tend to hold your breath after breathing in or out? Notice the relationship between your breath, body, and thoughts.
Now check out the flow of thoughts moving through your mind. Do you have a perpetual to-do list? Are you rehashing some conversation or planning the future? Are you spacing out, or do you feel sharp and clear? Try not to make judgments—simply observe. As certain thoughts come, is there a physical response in your body or your breath?
Next, place one hand on your heart. Take a moment to feel the beating of your physical heart, your chest rising and falling with your breath. Let your awareness settle into its rhythm, then drop your attention in a little deeper, sensing the emotional heart. Is there sadness, joy, or anxiety? Don't go deeply into any one feeling; just get a sense of the overall tone that is present at this moment. Make note of the relationship between your emotional state and your breath, between your feelings and your physical body.
Finally, feel all of these dimensions at once: physical, energetic, mental, and emotional. Notice the part of you that is observing—your unchanging awareness. Now rest in this spacious awareness.
Remember, your observations may change from day to day, depending on the hour, your schedule, and all of the other variables that affect your energy and mood. If you observed that your breathing was labored, your mind dull, and your heart heavy, try an energizing practice. Was your breathing rapid, your mind racing, and your body tense? Then a calming practice might be most appropriate. Feeling scattered and disoriented? A focusing practice can help you come into balance. Listen to your mind, body, and heart for guidance about a movement practice that can bring you into balance, ready to sit and draw your attention inward.
Janice Gates is president of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and author of Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga.