The practice of quieting your mind might sound like a ridiculously unattainable goal. If you're a Type A personality, multi-tasker, urban dweller, or parent, it might even sound like a luxury similar to three weeks on a tropical island! But clarity, focus, and inner tranquility are available to anyone. You don't even need a heavy-duty yoga practice to study meditation. All it takes is the desire to learn. Below is an overview of the principles, benefits, and practice of meditation. With some discipline and dedication, you'll be well on your way to peace of mind and a revitalized outlook on life.
Principles of Meditation & Yoga
Meditation is a discipline used to reach a deeper state of awareness by observing the mind. It's the seventh of the classical eight limbs of yoga, followed only by Samadhi, the state of supreme bliss and oneness with the universe. That's pretty enticing! All around the world, there are different styles and practices of meditation, all with different aims. Nevertheless, the ultimate and universal "goal" of yoga is to attain self-realization.
Meditation is a vital aspect of yoga that goes back thousands of years. The Upanishads, a collection of yoga philosophies dating back to around 500 BCE, defines yoga as a practice of holding back the senses to unite with one's supreme state of being. The Hindu story, The Bhagavad Gita, dating from around from 200 BCE, conveys the message that meditation is important in overcoming suffering. Even the sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, written around 150 BCE, define yoga as "Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah." This Sanskrit phrase translates to "the restraint of the modifications of the mind."
Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are.
The basic component of meditation is observation and control of your mind. When you focus on one point, extraneous thoughts melt away. This allows your awareness to travel deeply inward, perceiving your higher or innermost self.
There are many different ways to practice meditation. When you practice Hatha yoga, the physical discipline of yoga, you prepare your outer body for an inner journey. Yoga "asanas," otherwise known as "poses," can provide a form of moving meditation, sharpening your awareness and concentration by focusing on your body's movements. Though many people are familiar with seated meditation, it is generally understood that the yoga asanas were designed to prepare the body for long periods of seated meditation. The most common seated positions for meditation are actually ancient yoga poses.
Practicing meditation, along with yoga asanas, can be a natural portal to the inner depths of your mind. In yoga, your true essence is always there, buried under illusions and falsehoods. When you learn to calm the fluctuations of your thoughts, you begin to peel away layers of false beliefs. As you reveal your natural state of peace, you learn to practice yoga.
Benefits of Meditation
A regular meditation practice provides a world of physiological, psychological, and spiritual benefits. One definition of "yoga" is "union," referring to the unification of body, mind, and spirit. With asana, meditation, and "pranayama," (otherwise known as "breathing exercises") the threads are tied and unity becomes real.
Meditation offers its practitioners an abundance of benefits:
- Reduced anxiety, fatigue, and depression
- Regulated blood pressure
- Decreased heart rate
- Lowered levels of stress hormones, like cortisol
- Lowered cholesterol levels
- Regulated breathing and increased lung capacity
- Strengthened immune system
- Increased creativity
- Increased productivity
- Improved comprehension and memory
- Greater sense of well-being
- Greater sense of living in the present moment
- Greater sense of purpose
- Increased emotional stability and feelings of happiness
- Increased faith in one's spiritual system or religion
- Greater sense of compassionate self-awareness and acceptance
Meditation can be an important tool for achieving your highest states of health. It can balance and lift your moods, resulting in a more positive outlook on life. It can also help you gain clarity and perspective, which can help you to achieve your goals.
Once clarity and peace are achieved, it's important to remember that it takes discipline and dedication to maintain them. Enlightenment is not a state of being that is reached once, and then forgotten. It's a way of living — a constant presence of mind. With practice, it becomes easier and more integrated into daily life. Read the next section for some simple ways to begin incorporating meditation into your life.
In 2008, a Chinese builder who was buried for two hours, six feet underground, survived by using meditation techniques to control his breathing. He subsisted only on the air that was trapped in his helmet. Experts say he should have only lasted for five minutes. Meditation helped him to relax and slow his breathing until rescue workers dug him up. He fully recovered from the accident.
Mindfulness Meditation Practice
"Mindfulness" is a state of awareness that is non-reactive and non-attached. This type of meditation does not seek to transcend daily existence. It doesn't strive for metaphysical or psychic powers, like telepathy or psychokinesis. Mindfulness meditation brings calm and focused attention to the endless stream of thoughts floating through your mind, and to the sounds, scents, and motion of the world around you.
It can be very difficult to begin a meditation practice of utter mindfulness — that is, one entirely focused on emptying the self. Many beginners find it easier to learn by focusing attention on one sensation, object, or thought. The recipient of your attention might be:
- Your breath
- A bodily sensation, such as touch or smell
- A movement, such as asana
- An action, such as eating
- The flicker of a candle's flame
- An image of a deity, saint, or inspirational figure
- A "mantra," a Sanskrit word meaning "the repetition of a sound, syllable, or phrase"
- The visualization of a goal
- A value or virtue, such as love, compassion, or joy
Before you begin this meditation, it's important to remember that you might not get it on the first try. Don't be too hard on yourself! Discipline and patience are the keys. Set aside a quiet place to practice and wear comfortable, nonrestrictive clothes.
- Sit in a comfortable, upright position. Do not attempt to learn to meditate lying down, for you'll be more likely to fall asleep. Come into Easy Pose (Sukhasana), Hero Pose (Virasana), or Lotus Pose (Padmasana). If those are uncomfortable, try sitting on your heels in Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana). Adjust your position so your spine is erect. Sit with your head, neck, and spine in one straight line. You may also sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, arms and legs uncrossed.
- Close your eyes.
- Begin to regulate your breathing, inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for five. After a few deep breaths, breathe naturally again. Notice the sensation of the air as it travels in and out of your nose. Continue to bring your awareness back to your breath, in and out, in and out.
- Do not force yourself to concentrate. Simply notice when your mind wanders, then gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Consistently returning to the present moment takes patience and dedication. Be careful not to punish yourself for wandering thoughts.
- Now bring your awareness to the object of your focus. This might still be your breath. If it's a visual object, like a candle, soften your gaze.
- Maintain your awareness. When your thoughts start to wander, gently guide them back to the object of your focus. Don't fight the thoughts. Simply acknowledge them and let them pass, like clouds floating by in a summer sky.
- Do this exercise for 10 minutes a day, gradually extending your sessions to 20 or 30 minutes.
Think presence, not transcendence! Meditation is not about suppressing or hiding your thoughts, nor is it about transcending them and becoming superhuman. It's in the nature of your mind to think. Meditation helps you to become fully conscious of your thoughts and the world around you, bringing you to a state of awareness of the present moment. Don't expect to land on another plane of existence. Know that inner peace and tranquility are a state of living fully in the now.
Practice for Peace
Meditation requires persistence, dedication, and patience. It's good to make it a regular habit in your daily life. When you meditate on a consistent basis, your mind begins to respond to the world around you with an unattached presence rather than reactionary emotions. In this presence, you can find peace. You may not get it the first few times, but steady practice will help you along the way. In time, your efforts will repay you with countless mental, physical, and spiritual benefits.