Brian Sullivan

Devi Asmarani
The yoga we practice today can focus too much on the physical side, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, yoga gives you so many physical benefits.

In its authentic teaching, however, the yoga asana (physical poses) is only a step to prepare you for a deeper spiritual practice that requires stillness in the body as well as the mind: The meditation.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, a foundational text dating back to 500 BCE that has influenced the philosophy and practice of today's yoga, expounds this clearly in its 196 aphorisms.

In the second verse of the book's first of four chapters, Patanjali sums up yoga succinctly as the ability to still the mind, or direct its focus toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction (yogasgcittavrittinirodhah).

We will someday discuss this inspiring text at greater length, but for now let us focus on the idea of meditating.

We live in a hectic world where every second seems to count and where things change or unfold in the blink of an eye. What benefits would we get from stopping and being still even for a moment?

If nothing else, it is your health that benefits the most from meditation.

Scientific studies have indicated that meditation and its behavioral components, which include relaxation, concentration, an altered state of awareness and self-observance, lead to a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body.

These changes alter metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. That is why more and more doctors use meditation as a method of stress and pain reduction using secular meditation techniques.

Of course we like to think of ourselves as being free from those "problems", but even the most physically and emotionally healthy of us can use meditation as a tool to navigate our life and cope with daily stresses.

Yoga's practice of meditation is nondenominational, although you can use your own religious symbolism and expression to achieve focus and attain a state of enlightenment.

There are many different techniques for meditation, but mostly they agree that the spine should be kept straight for better breathing and to encourage the circulation of the spiritual energy or life force (the Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Latin spiritus).

The meditators may either sit still or walk in mindfulness. They can also deploy hand gestures or mudras, which may or may not carry theological meaning, and they can either close their eyes or keep them half or fully opened.

The most common misunderstanding, however, is that we are supposed to stop our mind from thinking during meditation.

In reality, when we sit still and close our eyes, it is almost as if we have just switched on a radio in our head, which would be buzzing with different thoughts. Trying to rein in those thoughts is like telling someone not to think of an elephant (which of course is the first thing they will then think of).

That is why many traditions direct the meditators' focus onto an object such as the breath, a concept, a chant or a deity.

Depending on what style of yoga you practice, meditation can be done before or after the asana part.

If you practice gentle Hatha yoga mostly to awaken your body and gently stretch your joints, you can do the meditation after the asana.

On the other hand, if your yoga style is dynamic and will leave you drenched in sweat, I suggest you meditate before the asana. You may start with some pranayama or breathing practice first before you begin to meditate.

Below is one of the most commonly practiced meditating techniques of mindfulness. Try this in the morning or at night, or at any time convenient for you when you are not in a rush.

Mindful meditation

Find a quiet place where you are not likely to have too much distraction either by noise or extreme temperatures.

Get into a comfortable sitting position. Depending on your ability, this can be sitting cross-legged, kneeling, or on a chair. If you sit cross-legged or kneel, try to sit on a cushion so your hips are higher than your knees to slow down any cramping in your legs (although this is normal).

If you do this the first thing in the morning, do a gentle warm-up by circling your ankles, your knees, your hips and your neck. Also warm up the spine by arching and rounding it as you breathe in and out a few times.

Once you are seated, use your hands to roll your buttocks out from underneath so that you sit a little more forward than your tailbone and your spine is tall.

Rest both of your hands on the knees gently and either touch the tips of the thumbs and the index fingers together (jnana mudra) or place your hands on your lap with the right hand resting on top of the left, the thumbs touching and the palms facing up (dhyana mudra).

Take a deep breath and close your eyes. For a while just breathe in and out, and practice the diaphragmatic breathing (see this column in the March 4, 2009, edition).

Then start to let go of any control of the breath, breathe naturally and become a passive observer of yourself. As you inhale notice that you are inhaling, feel the sensation in your nostrils, your breathing passage and your body. As you exhale do the same thing.

After a while you will lose awareness and your mind will start to wander. Let it, but be aware of its dynamics. Once you become aware of your thoughts, do not try to stop them but also do not react to the thoughts. Just sit back and watch them.

The nature of thinking is that once you are aware of your thoughts but keep yourself from taking ownership of them, they will go away. Then go back to your breath.

This will be a recurring thing throughout your whole meditation practice, and you may even become sleepy after a while, but let it be. Whenever you go back to the breath, it is like the beginning of a new cycle.

Refrain from any great effort and end the meditation when you feel you are too overwhelmed by efforts to "achieve" the state of meditation.

Meditation is an inward journey toward self-discovery. Through consistent practice it can take us to higher states of awareness, peace and clarity. Namaste.

The writer is a yoga practitioner and teacher. Yoga Connection is a regular column on all things yoga, appearing every second week in the Body & Soul section. For questions and comments, please email her at

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