There are many ways to meditate. The first stage of meditation is to concentrate on a specific object or establish a point of focus, with the eyes either opened or closed. Silently repeating a word or phrase, audibly reciting a prayer or chant, visualizing an image such as a deity, or focusing on an object such as a lighted candle in front of you are all commonly recommended points of focus.Observing or counting your breaths and noticing bodily sensations are also optional focal points.
Using the breath as a point of focus is yet good possibility. You can do this by actually counting the breaths as you would in pranayama practice. Ultimately, however, meditating on the breath just means purely observing the breath as it is, without changing it in any way. In this instance, the breath and concentrating on you heart level (anahata chakra) becomes the sole object of your meditation.
In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali gives instruction on how to meditate and describes what factors constitute a meditation practice.This mental stillness is created by bringing the body, mind, and senses into balance which, in turn, relaxes the nervous system. The word meditate comes from the Latin meditari, which means to think about or consider. Med is the root of this word and means “to take appropriate measures.”
In the yogic context, meditation, or dhyana, is defined more specifically as a state of pure consciousness. It is the seventh stage, or limb, of the yogic path and follows dharana, the art of concentration. Dhyana in turn precedes samadhi, the state of final liberation or enlightenment, the last step in Patanjali’s eight-limbed system. These three limbs—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (ecstasy)—are inextricably linked and collectively referred to as samyama, the inner practice, or subtle discipline, of the yogic path.
Recall that the first four limbs—yama (ethics), niyama (self-discipline),asana (posture), and Pranayama (life-force extension)—are considered external disciplines. The fifth step, pratyahara represents the withdrawal of the senses. This sensual withdrawal arises out of the practice of the first four steps and links the external to the internal. When we are grounded physically and mentally, we are keenly aware of our senses, yet disengaged at the same time.
Although you don’t need to formally meditate in order to practice Hatha Yoga—nor is the practice of Hatha Yoga mandatory in order to meditate—the two practices support each another. Through your practice of yoga, you’ve enhanced both your abilities to concentrate and to relax—the two most important requirements for a meditation practice.
One of the most fundamental—and practical—parts of yoga philosophy is the group of practices called the yamas. Described in depth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the yamas are five guiding ethical principles which can improve your relationship with others and yourself. I think of them as a sort of compass—a way to orient myself back to the right direction in life when I’ve swerved. Here’s a (very!) quick introduction:
1. Ahimsa: nonharming. This is the foundation on which the whole yoga practice is built. Ahimsa is cultivating an attitude of love and compassion toward others—toward everyone—even ourselves (amazing how easy it is to forget to include ourselves). It’s asking ourselves before doing something—is this harmful or helpful? Am I doing this out of love, or…? Ahimsa helps us become more in tune with the subtle ways we do harm to ourselves through negative self-talk or even pushing ourselves too hard in a pose, for example. It also helps our relationships by getting us to consider the impact we have on others. Sometimes when we’re in a difficult situation, it helps to remember ahimsa; we can remind ourselves we’re not really “against” anyone, even yourself. And if it’s difficult to be kind to yourself, try considering how you might feel or act toward someone you love—a child, friend even a pet, and apply that same approach to yourself. With practice, ahimsa can become the basis on which we think, feel and act – out of love.
2. Satya: truthfulness. Being honest with others is essential for good relationships. Being honest with ourselves is equally important. But we humans are pretty good at fooling, if not outright lying to ourselves about things we don’t want to face. Much of the time, underneath the denial there’s an awareness of what’s really going on—but a lack of acceptance. Mind you, acceptance isn’t the same as being resigned to the way things are. On the contrary, acceptance is a necessary condition for change. We have to see where we are on the map if we want to make a path to where we want to be. Of course, on a more basic level, satya is about telling the truth to others, too. It’s important to remember the underlying foundation of nonharming, though. Sometimes it’s better just to stay quiet!
3. Asteya: nonstealing. This can be taken literally, as in not taking what isn’t given to you. On a more subtle level though, it also has to do with not taking what belongs to others, like their time, attention, control, or dignity. Do you respect people enough to be on time, or do you make them wait for you? Can you let someone enjoy the spotlight, or do you have to grab it for yourself? Do you need to control situations at the expense of others? The ways in which we can take from others (or not!) are endless.
4. Brahmacharya: control of desires. This one is harder to define and if you look into it much, you’ll find lots of different interpretations, but the basic idea is to avoid giving into every desire and misusing your energy. Some texts interpret this yama to mean sexual restraint, but it can also be applied to all sorts of situations. Paying attention to where we put our energies is a very valuable exercise. Do you squander your energy in unhealthy ways like gossiping, using drugs, spending all your time on Facebook, or…?
5. Aparigraha: greedlessness. This one runs a bit counter to what society expects of us. Aparigraha encourages us to be satisfied with what we’ve got, not constantly accumulating shiny new things we really don’t need. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable in life, but most of us spend a lot of time thinking about, wanting, and chasing the next best thing. We’ve heard that stuff doesn’t really make us happy but we haven’t given up hope. Sure, new cars, fancy yoga clothes and expensive stuff can give us some immediate pleasure, but soon the buzz wears off and we’re on to the next thing (or paying off the credit cards). Much of the time, our stuff is just a distraction from our real lives. Volumes have been written about the yamas—this is just a brief introduction to get you started. So why is all this important? Because kindness and ethical behavior are necessary if you want true happiness and peace of mind. If you treat yourself badly, you can’t be happy. If you treat others badly, your relationships suffer, but you are also bound to suffer bound to some combination of guilt and anxiety about future consequences. The yamas help take us away from our usual self-centered mindset and start acting out of love, with consideration for the impact we have on others, and on the world. When we feel good about ourselves and what we do, we can have true peace of mind. Ultimately, doing better means feeling better. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself! For further reading, check out Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. There are many good translations out there, including:
The niyamas, or restraints, are another set of practices outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. If the yamas have a lot to do with our behavior toward others, practicing the niyamas, we cultivate good habits toward ourselves that help us live better lives. There are five of them as well, and they are:
1. Sauca: purity, or cleanliness. No doubt you’ve heard that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” The idea behind sauca is to keep yourself and the things in your life clean and in good order so that they can function their best and help you live your life well. Knowing the connection between the body and the mind, if feed your body junk, or take drugs, for example, can you really expect to feel and do your best? You wouldn’t put sewage in your car and expect it to run well. There is a more subtle, internal aspect to this practice also. It’s a good idea to examine what kind of things you’re feeding your ‘mental body’ also. For example, if you spend all your free time playing violent video games, you are feeding your brain these images. And it’s hard to have a peaceful mind when your brain is fed a steady diet of violence. Does this mean we should just avoid all of the unpleasantries of life? Not at all. It just means we should be mindful of what we choose to ingest—literally, and figuratively. Of course, the tendency to keep things clean and pure must be met with brahmacarya, or moderation. Going to extremes with is ultimately self-defeating.
2. Santosha: contentment. We’re all seeking contentment, aren’t we? As elusive as it may seem at times, it helps to remember that positive states like contentment can be cultivated. There are many ways–and everyone will have their own. For me, yoga, music and laughter do the trick. Another way to increase contentment is to cultivate gratitude. Why is it that we’re so quick to recognize the things that go wrong in our lives–when we seldom stop to acknowledge the little things that go right. For example, I was able to go to yoga class this morning because a myriad of things went right. Just to name a few–my car started; I had gas in my car; I had food to eat for breakfast; I didn’t have a wreck on the way; the teacher had the same luck and showed up and was generous enough to share her knowledge with us; my body was healthy and pain-free enough to participate…the list could go on and on. We so rarely notice our non-headaches–the absence of problems, pain or suffering, we just become aware of these things when they show up. Waking up to the presence of non-problems goes a long way toward cultivating contentment.
3. Tapas: heat, or “glow.” I think of tapas as having to do with perseverance, self-discipline and enthusiasm. We all have days in which we don’t want to go to work, exercise or do something that’s good for us. What makes us work through our resistance? Tapas. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of why it’s good for us to do something. When I feel like blowing off my yoga practice, I often tell myself – I never regret doing yoga, only not doing it. To get the benefits of any practice, we need sustained effort and discipline over time. Tapas. Of course, burnout and injuries are all-too-common facts of life and we need to be mindful—and moderate—in the way we use our energy (again, brahmacarya). Other times we think too much about things–getting into mental arguments with ourselves about what we should do. In these cases, we need to just let go of the internal chatter and just focus on doing what we know we really need to do. Because in the doing it—in the showing up—we’ve already made progress. We’ve strengthened our tapas. As with all of these practices, tapas can be cultivated. We may not start out with much self-discipline, but by making one little change every day adds up to a lot of progress – and momentum – before too long.
4. Svadyaya: study. Here’s another example of a practice that has both external and internal aspects. Learning and study are vital to personal development. Whether we’re practicing a new hobby, studying the yoga sutras or a new language, learning is good for your brain and your mental health. The other side of the coin, though, is self-study. We should regularly engage in honest self-reflection, which should include examining not only the things we could improve, but the things we’ve done well. Viewing ourselves with honesty (satya), the self-discipline of tapas and the kindness of ahimsa, we can begin to see where we need to make changes in the direction of becoming the person we want to be.
5. Isvara pranidhana: surrender. This practice is often described as devotion to God—or surrendering the fruits of our labors to God. As beautiful of an idea as this is, this interpretation may not immediately resonate with everyone. It can be useful to think about Isvara pranidhana as a practice of surrendering the illusion of total control. As much as we would like to be in control of our lives—and of course, having a certain amount of control of ourselves is desirable—at some point, we have to acknowledge and admit that we can’t control everything. All we can do in life is show up and do our best, and then leave it. Forget about the outcome. If you’ve done your best, you can rest in the knowledge that you’ve made your contribution—and remember that the ultimate outcome is not totally up to you.
“Silence is the language of God speaks and everything else is a bad translation” by Thomas Keating