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Consider introducing some form of meditation practice into your yoga classes. Meditation encourages students to apply the strength and balance generated during asana practice to learn how to manage their minds.
The mind can be our greatest friend or our greatest enemy, the source of many of our problems or the solution to our problems. Helping students form positive, conscious relationships with their minds is a great gift. This positive relationship with the mind is the basis of true health and happiness.
If we neglect the mind, we are disconnected from our creative potential and can easily fall prey to anxiety and depression. This is because the mind is a powerful force that requires training and maturity if we are to handle it well. Unfortunately, many people shy away from meditation. Asana practice gives a wonderfully immediate sense of physical well-being, leaving us feeling refreshed and energized. This is one of the reasons that asanas are so popular. Meditation, on the other hand, is a more daunting discipline, because it asks us to face and train our minds.
There are many different forms of meditation, but all lead to the same goal: greater self-awareness. A positive side effect is a state of both physical and psychological health. Meditation also helps us study the mysteries of life and existence, helping us access deeper fulfillment. Ultimately, meditation leads to a grounded, centered, focused state that many describe as enlightened.
Stages of Meditation
Meditation encompasses three distinct stages. The first is self-regulation, in which we teach our students to consciously alter their body-mind functioning and feelings. For example, teach your students breath awareness with the stated aim of inducing relaxation.
Having taught self-regulation, the second stage involves methods of self-exploration, which consist mainly of concentration combined with self-awareness. This allows us to become aware of parts of ourselves that were previously unconscious. Self-exploration techniques develop inner strength and stability.
Ultimately, self-exploration techniques open the door to the pursuit of self-liberation and spiritual growth, the linking of our awareness to higher consciousness. This third stage is called self-mastery, which leads to self-realization.
Facing the Mind
Most people do not want to do the work required to develop meditative awareness, because it is challenging to face the mind. It has areas that we like and are comfortable with and areas that we dislike and want to get rid of. It is quite natural to want to avoid facing difficulties, and most people come to meditation because they want to be free from problems, anxiety, and pain. They hope that meditation will allow them to get rid of their problems.
However, meditation teaches us that we cannot get rid of our problems, that life is inherently problematic and challenging. Meditation teaches us instead how to handle problems with greater strength, poise, and courage, and how to use problems as stepping-stones to higher consciousness.
It is essential to remember that the aim of meditation is self-awareness, not a state of bliss that is free from problems and obstacles. If we simply seek ecstasy, and hope to avoid sorrow and suffering, then we are actually seeking the loss of ourselves. The ultimate aim of meditation is to remain grounded in self-awareness under all conditions of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, gain and loss.
As teachers, therefore, we need to continuously remind our students to stay grounded in self-awareness under all conditions and not get lost in the experience, no matter what state arises.
Challenges to Meditation
There are several fundamental challenges facing everyone who meditates. The first is the nature of the undisciplined mind itself. An undisciplined mind tends to oscillate between two primary states in meditation: the dull, sleepy state and the restless, dissipated state. It is important for teachers to reassure their students that this oscillation is normal.
Other challenges include old mental patterns and undigested emotions and experiences that come up as we attempt to quiet the mind. As we begin to relax, suppressed experiences resurface, and we need to face, handle, and digest them. We do this by teaching practices that allow the detached witness state that lets us observe the mind without reacting.
It is also important, as teachers, to extol a yogic lifestyle and diet, a simple sattvic life that facilitates meditative experience. If we are exhausted by a stressful existence, then during the quiet times of meditation we will sleep. If we eat excessively, we will feel heavy. We will experience in meditation whatever we bring into it.
Changes in lifestyle are often difficult even when we know they will make us healthier and happier.
Meeting the Challenge of Meditation
In order to achieve higher states of meditative awareness, we have to undergo a process of training and self-transformation. This is difficult to achieve alone, and it usually requires a teacher. As teachers, there are a number of things we can do to support more grounded meditation practice:
1. Inspire your students, giving instructions that invoke courage, sincerity, commitment, and determination. Paint a picture of possibility so that students know what they are aiming for and how much benefit they will achieve once they are on this inner journey of self-discovery.
2. Tell your students to contemplate what they want to achieve in life, and resolve to achieve it. They should use meditation as part of this achievement.
3. Practice asana prior to meditation to prepare the body-mind, making it easier to sit without sore knees and backs while we focus on the subtler elements of our being.
4. Use pranayama, a wonderful premeditative process that fills us with energy and gives us the strength and stamina to do the work we need to do with our minds. One of the best premeditative pranayama exercises is alternate-nostril breathing.
5. Engage in a mixture of meditative practices. Start with a concentration-based style of practice, such as meditating using the breath and a mantra. Then go into mindfulness practice by observing what is arising. One of the best breaths to use to stay grounded in meditation is Ujjayi or throat breathing, performed very softly and gently.
6. During guided meditation, ask your students to observe whether they are feeling grounded or dull and dissipated. If they are dull or dissipated, they should meditate on that state to inquire why this might be happening. Encourage them to gain insight into what changes they need to make in their lives.
7. Use self-regulation techniques so that during the practice they can do what they need to do to feel more grounded. For example, use breathing techniques such as Ujjayi or a mantra.
8. A symbol of higher consciousness, such as a candle flame, or some image that attracts our minds to higher inspiration, is often a useful tool to spur us on during practice. Tell your students to hold this image in your heart and mind as they practice.
9. Above all, remind your students that whatever arises in their minds is just part of a mental process. They must try to keep their awareness on themselves as observers of the process, rather than becoming caught up in the mental states themselves.
Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for more than 10 years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. To contact him or read more of his work, go to www.bigshakti.com.