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Is Meditation an Essential Part of Practicing Yoga?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Timothy

Is Meditation an Essential Part of Practicing Yoga?

Patterns in the Sand by Brad Gibson

Do you need to meditate? Can you achieve all or most of the same benefits from just practicing asana, restorative yoga, Savasana, and/or pranayama? Is it worth even trying if you feel like you're no good at it? We get questions like these at the blog from time to time, so I figured I'd tackle them today.
I can't help but notice that people often talk about yoga and meditation as two separate practices. But according to Patanjali, the great codifier of yoga, meditation was an integral part of the practice. By yoga, of course, most people in the U.S. mean asana, which is why people say yoga and meditation. And since most asana classes don't include any meditation, many yoga practitioners have looked outside of yoga, often to Buddhism, if they're interested in learning more. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think people forget that the Buddha was a yogi before he became the Buddha!
Meditation gets a lot of press as an effective tool to de-stress, to calm the mind and the nervous system. That's certainly true, but if that were all meditation had to offer, you could hardly view the practice as vital, since we've got so many tools in yoga that can foster relaxation: asana, breathing practices, chanting and restoratives to name a few.
To many dedicated yogis, however, meditation is the crown jewel of the practice. They recommend asana mostly because it prepares the body for meditation, to sit up straight comfortably for long periods of time. All the high levels of samadhi—absorption as it is sometimes translated—the eighth of the eight limbs of yoga that Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras, are said to happen only in meditation. And, more specifically, from its long-term practice over the course of years, even decades.
I have been meditating for a long time, and it has become in many ways the most delicious part of my practice. It didn't start out that way. My mind was very busy when I began, and it was extremely difficult for me to keep my attention from flitting from idea to idea. And it was hard to find comfort sitting in one place, without frequent position adjustments and fidgeting. Many people who try to meditate get discouraged at this point and give up. That, I believe, is a mistake. As with a lot of other areas of yoga, hanging in when things are challenging, even discouraging, can bring rewards. Yoga teaches that it is by strengthening our weaknesses that we become more balanced.
Meditation can be a fabulous tool to study your mind and slowly gain more control over it. (I'm not just talking about the conscious mind, which is mostly what gets dealt with, often quite helpfully, in psychotherapy, but the unconscious mind, which hugely impacts our behavior and happiness.) The first lesson for most of us on the meditation cushion is just how unruly our minds are, and how hard it is to maintain our focus for more than a few seconds. Seeing that reality may be uncomfortable, but it's the first step toward eventually changing it.
And there is real benefit in feeling your mind running all over the place, wanting to get up and move, and continuing to stay seated anyway, trying to bring your attention back to whatever you're focusing on, whether that's your breath, an image, or a mantra. Studies of the Relaxation Response, which were performed on people practicing a demystified form of yogic mantra meditation, have shown that even when practitioners don't feel they are doing it well, they gain the physiological benefits of lower blood pressure, heart rates, etc.
Even after years of practice, some days my mind is still all over the place. But usually, if I stay at it, things eventually settle down. One reason why some experts recommend 20 minutes of meditation daily is that it often takes about that long to settle down. But the more you practice the easier it gets.
You might wonder where you will find the extra time to add a 20-minute practice to your already busy schedule. Well, first off, you don't need to do it for that long. Even a few minutes in the beginning starts to build up the habit. Over time you can slowly increase the time you sit. Interestingly, about a decade ago when I upped my practice to an hour a day, I discovered that I began to need about an hour less sleep each night, as if the meditation were giving me some of sleep's restorative effects. It felt like I was getting to meditate for free, without carving any time out of my day!
In my yoga therapy work, I often recommend meditation, but not always. Sometimes when someone is very anxious or seriously depressed, if they attempt to close their eyes and go inward, they may go into an unpleasant—and potentially counterproductive—state of mind. But if we can use other tools, like breath and asana, to improve the acute situation (along with whatever medication, therapy or other tools they are employing), I will often try to add meditation later. I have come to believe that for the long-term care of anxiety and depression, meditation may be the most powerful tool we have. It gets to places that asana simply can't, as powerful as asana can be.  But unlike a lot of meditators, I don't think you should give up your asana practice once you get into meditating. Because asana also gets to some places that meditation can't, like your hip flexors, for example!
The bottom line is that the different yogic tools appear to work together in a synergistic fashion. Meditating can make you a better asana practitioner, and doing asana can help deepen your meditation. And regular pranayama can help both of them!
In my next post, I'll give more specifics on how to begin a meditation practice. If there are particular themes you'd like to me address, please let us know.

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