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Do Yogis Have to Meditate?

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

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

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.

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.

One popular misconception concerns the supposed religious connotation of meditation. Although some Hindu techniques involve silently repeating a Sanskrit name for God, classical Buddhist methods involve such culture-neutral practices as counting inhalations and exhalations. This is why someone like Phil Jackson can get away with exhorting his Los Angeles Lakers to meditate to improve performance, or a corporation can teach meditation to spur employee creativity.

A Brief History of Om

Meditation was probably discovered by protohumans in archaic times, notes Sanskrit scholar Willard Johnson, author of the meditation history Riding the Ox Home (Beacon, 1986). Johnson suggests early humans may have stumbled upon meditation shortly after they domesticated fire and began using it for central heating. Huddling close to their bonfires for warmth, they probably spent hours staring at the hypnotic flames. At some point, they would have noticed that doing so could produce an altered state of consciousness.

Johnson guesses that archaic folks might have also noticed that certain plants, sexual orgasm, physical trauma, and near-death experiences produced unusual states of mind and invented meditative techniques to recreate them. Alternatively, poet and essayist Gary Snyder has speculated that meditation may have been developed by the earliest hunters. Without bows or other long-range weapons to bring down their prey, hunters might have trained themselves to quiet their minds so they could stalk wary animals.

Records of meditation as a discipline for lay people, as opposed to priests, first show up about 500 B.C. in both India and China. The first lay meditators in India came from that culture’s Woodstock generation, who rebelled against the priests’ monopoly over cosmic communion and created what we know as Buddhism and Hinduism. They may have been trying to replicate the soma ecstasies of India’s Vedic age, just as the 1960s flower children adopted meditation as a natural high.

About 200 A.D. the Indian author Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutra, summarizing for mass consumption the “science of yoga.” He did such a thorough job that the Yoga Sutra remains the primary source on the subject today. Contrary to what many yoga students believe, his text said little about hatha yoga postures, which weren’t a widespread practice at the time. He defined yoga as “the (temporary) stoppage of the waves of the mind” (Johnson’s translation). The direct route to this stoppage, he wrote, is regular meditation. The asanas described in his sutras referred to meditation postures, by which Patanjali meant anything that was relaxing and stable for both body and mind.

Meditation eventually appeared in the West, but it too may have blossomed from Hindu and Buddhist sources, says Johnson. Most of today’s popular Eastern styles are Hindu- or Buddhist-based because the Chinese Taoists—the other major meditation culture in Asia—never showed interest in promoting their practices to outsiders.

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.

What these techniques have in common is they give the mind something simple to do, so your consciousness—which is separate from thought—is freed from identifying with it. When you notice you are distracted from the meditation object, you refocus on it. This way you develop “one-pointedness” and also calmness, because the meditation object replaces the thought streams behind your anxieties.

To concentration, Buddhists add vipassana, which is a nonintellectual form of understanding and inquiry; roughly it involves “being there” at all times. This takes many subtle forms and extends beyond formal meditation to the way you attend to your life. Thus, it grossly oversimplifies matters to say all meditation is the same.

The right style for you may be a matter of taste. If you don’t like “God talk,” you may prefer Zen or the Theravada Buddhist forms taught by such well-known teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield. Zen and vipassana meditation reflect similar values. Hindu and Tibetan practices can be a trifle more elaborate, although the “so-ham” mantra style I learned from Swami Muktananda (saying “so” on the inhalation, “ham” on the exhalation) is almost like mindful breathing in its elegance and attention to breath.

Putting in the Time

Convenience may also determine how you choose to meditate. Many teachers of concentration styles feel you need to meditate for at least 20 minutes once or twice a day for it to make a difference. Vipassana sitting also takes time. If you can’t clear that kind of space, don’t try to force it; otherwise, you may find yourself meditating about what you’re not getting done.

Instead, try overlaying meditation on your regular activities. Do your job with focus and heart. If you take regular strolls, walk mindfully, observing yourself without indulging in thoughts. When standing in a checkout line, watch your breath and do a mantra. As you lie in bed before sleeping, count breaths, not sheep.

If you can set aside time to sit for meditation, recall Patanjali‘s words and choose a comfortable posture, which may mean sitting in a chair. And don’t think the Full Lotus is the posture of choice for meditators. Indian yogis have historically meditated in Full Lotus only because “that’s the way Indians sit anyway,” says Johnson. The same is true of the kneeling posture in Zen.

If these positions are painful, don’t feel compelled to grin and bear it. “Our practice should be intelligent,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, which means comfort for body and mind. He sometimes recommends lying on your back, arms loosely at your sides. If you can stay conscious that way, it’s as good as any.

Both Hindu and Buddhist teachers traditionally advise meditators to do their sitting in a clean, pleasant space. The power of a neat office desk has the same effect at home, but if you’re comfortable surrounded by creative clutter, then so be it. Incense and mystical art create an atmosphere that may help orient your consciousness to the task at hand, but, again, they are not necessary.

Quiet? Preferred but optional. When I began meditating in the mid-1970s, I lived two doors down from an auto body shop. The air hammers started at 6:30 a.m., about the time I began meditating. No problem—although the racket dominated the neighborhood, it was no louder than the noise in my head.

Will Meditation Help My Yoga?

You may already feel a sense of peace from your yoga practice. You may feel that you’ve already attained some of the other meditation benefits described above. There’s a good reason for this: In Buddhist terms, asanas are their own type of meditation; to perform difficult postures, you have to focus awareness on your body and breath and relax into the pose. Being mindful of your body as you occupy it is a classic technique prescribed by the Buddha.

In classical yoga, too, meditation and postures go hand-in-hand. “It’s actually the same thing,” says Cope. “With postures, you’re also training equanimity, and you’re training the mind to become focused. You’re using the body as the object of that focus.

“You’re also training awareness,” he adds. “You’re conditioning the mind to scan to see how things shift, to see the ebb and flow of energy in the subtle body. These are the same skills we’re training in meditation.”

But not necessarily to the same degree. Often, the more profound your meditation, the more intense the yoga. Cope has experienced this firsthand. “When I’m in a meditation retreat, my practice of postures goes much deeper. My flexibility is greater. The conditioned states of the body are seen through. It’s powerful.”

Alan Reder is co-author of Listen to This!: Leading Musicians Recommend Their Favorite Artists and Recordings (Hyperion, 1999) and The Whole Parenting Guide (Broadway Books 1999).