Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: What is Meditation?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Friday Q&A: What is Meditation?I am finally back from my retreat in Mexico, where we practiced meditation at the beginning and end of each of our two asana classes daily. Via my iPhone (don’t just love technology, sometimes!), I was able to share some simple meditation practices with you last week (Short but Sweet and More Short Meditations from Mexico). These posts spurred one reader to ask the following:
Q: I have a question on meditation. You have been running articles lately on meditation but have never precisely defined what meditation is. Savasana doesn't seem to count as meditation, but why not? If someone is in a restorative pose like legs-up-the-wall or supported bridge and is focusing on the breath, is that considered meditation? If not, why not? I hope you can clarify this for me.
In addition to the posts I did last week, Timothy and Ram have addressed certain aspects of meditation in earlier posts (see Starting a Meditation Practice and Achieving Stillness in Turbulent Situations). But, our reader is right on some level that we have not precisely defined what meditation is. And this is partially because there are many kinds of meditation, depending on what tradition you look at. Different yogic traditions have different focuses, techniques and goals for meditation. So, in some ways, one definition will not satisfy all meditators!
That said, we can look at classical yoga as defined by the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (which we have quoted on numerous occasions here at YFHA) to get at least one perspective on what meditation is. One of the most obvious goals of yoga practice, and of meditation (since it is one of the tools or techniques of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga), is the “quieting of the fluctuations of the mind” as sutra 1.2 “yoga citta vrtti nirodhah” is often translated. TKV Desikachar’s translation of this same sutra is as follows:

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without distraction.

The underlying idea here is that the normal busy, erratic and worry-prone mind—to mention a few of the qualities of average mind—is the source of much of our daily suffering, and the result of the focused practice is a quieting and stilling of the mind that results in greater peacefulness. There are also other loftier results that arise with continued yoga and meditation practices, which we can leave for another time.
There are several stages in the process in classical yoga, which include:
  1. Pranayama practices that intensify concentration and focus.
  2. Dharana or “concentration.” In dharana, you choose an object for your mind to focus on, even though it wanders off and has to be brought back to the chosen object frequently. Anyone who has tried to sit for 10 minutes and focus on one thing, like the mantras I suggested last week, has had this on again, off again experience of trying to focus exclusively on one chosen thing.
  3. Dhayana or “meditation.” As the practice of concentration improves, at a certain point the mind establishes a continuous link with the object of the practice and you are said to be at the stage of “Dhayana” or meditation. Sutra 3.2 marks this shift in the quality of the experience, which Desikachar translates as: “Then the mental activities form an uninterrupted flow only in relation to this object.” Even though this is not the end stage of things in the classical yoga perspective, I’ll stop things here and say that in modern circles we often call even the earliest stages of concentration practice “meditation,” and this is really OK for our purposes.
I’ll now turn to which postures you can “meditate” in. The truth is that as long as you are able to mentally focus on your chosen “object” of the day, just about any pose that allows the body to remain quiet and less likely to distract your mind could be a good one. Even though I asked my students to sit in one of several typical yoga asana sitting positions, a few students last week had body pain that made it very difficult for them to keep their meditation focus. So those students were invited to lay in supported Savasana, for example, as an alternative. Legs Up the Wall could be an acceptable alternative for some students, especially for shorter meditations less than 10 minutes long. For anything longer, many students will begin to experience tingling in the feet and legs, which may be too distracting to the mind for a good meditation. Supported Bridge pose, for many, would likely be to physically stimulating to be a good meditation position, but there could be exceptions in some cases. And you need to be able to stay awake and present while meditating, so if the posture you chose is leading to drowsiness, this means the mind is no longer staying focused and you need to find a different position for your practice.
And the “focus” of the mind can be varied, from something as simple and consistent as the sensation of inhaling and exhaling, to a single word or phrase repeated with each breath that I called “mantra” in our practices last week, to the gazing at a mandala or a flame (meditation techniques in which the eyes are open and used to direct the attention of the mind). As the topic of meditation is larger and more complex than these introductory thoughts I am sharing with you today, I know we will return to it again and again in future posts to tease out subtly, nuance and purpose. In the meantime, if anyone has a favorite yoga posture that they find effect for their meditation practice, please share that with the rest of us.

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