One of the reasons why I encourage people to take up meditation is because of the deep relaxation it elicits. When you learn how to let go, your body softens and you go further and deeper into the asana (postures of yoga). There is a release in the posture rather than a 'fight' and 'struggle' to get it, maintain it and achieve it. This idea may set up the practice of yoga with a hidden agenda, but it also be a good starting point for meditation, if not a motivator to try it.
Meditation is the only path that offers a way to understand ourselves fully; going beyond decursive thinking by lessening the mental noise. One of the greatest misunderstandings is that your mind becomes blank. While it is impossible to stop the mind, the practice of meditation decreases the rambling and internal chatter. It also increases energy and decreases our identification to the body. It is an experience in deep aloneness (not loneliness) and oneness with ourself. While meditation is often taken up for health reasons, the anicent practice was to become God realized. That is, to know yourself beyond the physical body.
As an aside, a man I had met briefly at a party told me he used to do yoga but gave it up. However, it should be said that yoga is meditation but this is a topic for another time. When I asked him why he stopped yoga (assuming he was talking about the physical postures) he said, "Because I was always in pain." As a teacher, I was not surprised to hear this because today so many people have turned yoga into an exercise in physical fitness only. So he left yoga and tried pilates!
Of course, there is a kind of inherent struggle built into the practice of the yoga postures. The saying "no pain no gain" is around for a reason. Yet it also involves making friends not enemies with the difficulties, the limitations and the restrictions of both our body and mind. The struggle becomes intensified when you 'force' it like you might a rubber ball from staying under the water's surface. It just bounces right back up! Paradoxically, 'making friends' and softening wiht ourselves creates a release, a letting go and a way of melting into the posture.
Today, there is truly an over-emphasis on Yoga exercise. What about breathing? Sitting? Relaxation? When the breathing exercises are done propery and consistently it can become as hard-core as doing hand-stands or push-ups. Unbelievable but true. During one of my practice studies with my teacher in Mysore he only taught simple exercises such as stretching the toes and ankles, and rotating the wrists and neck. I was drenched with sweat at the end. Intellectually it was a struggle for me because I wanted "to show" the lotus, headstand and wheel. But I can honestly say these remain some of my most vibrant memories of focus, concentration and being completely immersed into practice.
The over-emphasis on physical fitness can be blamed on our culture, but that is just an easy out. It has more to do with the way Yoga has been advertised. People often like to say if you practice the poses you will gradually be lead to the more 'spiritual' dimensions. I personally think you can spend a lot of time and even years 'doing' asanas and never feel the freedom of the body, reach higher spiritual levels and/or quieten your mind. But interestingly enough it also works both ways. There are meditation teachers who have written they only 'sat' on 'stuff' for years never really penetrating the deeper regions of their minds. They only created a veneer of quiet time but never reached a deeper understanding of self.
I feel the notion the more you practice the postures the more you might be lead to the spiritual growth is somewhat misleading. How does it follow if one never thinks about removing the darkness from the soul, the dirt from the mind and/or purifying desires. I don't think it 'just' happens because you take up yoga postures. At the Sivananda organization a resident Swami once remarked the people who do yogasana practice are often more body conscious than those who do not.
The one difficult aspect to yoga being limited to exercise is that it provides only one slice of the benefits. Swami Vivekanada went so far as to say that Hatha-yoga never leads to spirtual growth. And Paramahansa Yogananda also felt that if you practise the postures you might lose your bliss! But leaving all of this aside, the practice of only side of yoga provides one side of the benefits. And the truth is the benefits should be met in a full practice that includes meditation, breathing, relaxation and self-study.
The axiom, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make 'em drink" comes to my mind. I started off like this with my teacher telling me to meditate for years. I guess it is part of being human in having difficulty to follow through with what you know is important to practice. Until one day the teacher who kept mentioning meditation becomes your own inner voice.
The Journey So Far
- Heather Morton
- is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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