Philip Goldberg’s piece Why Yogis Don’t Meditate last week expressed his confusion over the number of yogis who don’t have a regular seated meditation practice. In it, he presents the common disconnect between yoga teachers who are well-versed in Patanjali’s Sutras, yet do not practice the knowledge contained therein (which, as he points out, can be boiled down to this: yoga is nothing more than the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind). Rightly, he points out that Patanjali’s Sutras outline a method for seated meditation, and many asana teachers neither teach nor practice as such. Ultimately, he draws the conclusion that meditation is perhaps not as expertly taught as asana, for example, and consequently many yogis are not trained in a meditation style suited to them, so they don’t do it.
Within his particular paradigm, Goldberg is quite right. I know many yoga teachers who use the wisdom of Patanjali’s Sutras as the thematic underlay of their asana class, but don’t actually practice or teach meditation. I’ve seen, felt and heard the confusion amongst yogis about the relationship between asana and seated meditation. A teacher-in-training recently expressed to me that he didn’t understand why we would start class in seated meditation since “the point of asana is to prepare the body for meditation. Right?”
But what if it’s not? What if the point of your asana practice is your asana practice?
Let me give you some advance warning here: if you are a yoga teacher who likes to espouse Patanjali-isms, what I am about to say might piss you off. But, since you know so much about ceasing the fluctuations of your mind, you’ll get over it. So, read on.
While Goldberg’s conclusion is that the disconnect is between yoga teachers and their meditation practice (or lack of), my conclusion is that the disconnect is between the teachings of Patanjali, and the practice of asana. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Patanjali’s philosophy, or that one can’t enjoy the philosophy and have an asana practice, nor I am advocating against a seated meditation practice. I simply don’t believe that there is a necessary connection between a philosophy that boils down to stilling your mind to transcend the physical experience, and a deeply physical practice that is fundamentally a highly sensory, very vibratory experience.
Like Goldberg, I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation, back in 1993 when I was 12 years old. I learned to meditate before I had a regular yoga asana practice. Though I’ve been exposed to many different meditation styles over the years, I continue to use the mantra I was given at initiation, and my seated meditation generally involves a quiet dose of mind-stilling that Patanjali would no doubt highly approve of. But my meditation practice comes and goes. At times it’s twice a day for 20 minutes as prescribed by the Maharishi, sometimes it’s once a day, and at other times it just doesn’t exist. My daily practice of yoga takes place on my yoga mat (see my January 28th article Practice, Then Preach for details). And I’ll be honest with you, when it comes to my yoga practice, there’s very little room for Patanjali.
But wait, you say! Patanjali’s Sutras form the philosophy behind yoga asana. Without the former there would be no latter. Without Patanjali, asana is just Westernized exercise! This exact belief held me back in my practice for a very long time. Like so many other yoga teachers, my first exposure to yoga philosophy was The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It formed the bridge between taking community yoga classes in local gyms, to something deeper, wiser, more than just exercise. It was the foundation of my first teacher training. It just didn’t really resonate with me.
For a long time I poured over the threads of wisdom in the Sutras and Sri Swami Satchidananda’s interpretations. I meditated with the intention of stilling my mind. I strived to withdraw my senses (Pratyahara) and initially as a teacher I encouraged my students to do the same at the beginning of class (“Stick your fingers in your ears, squeeze your eyes shut, don’t breathe in, whatever you do, try not to feel!”). I tried and failed to be unattached, but dammit I just loved too much! In all seriousness, I had moments of very real and very useful revelations about myself, such as the fact that I didn’t often give without the expectation of receiving something in return. But try as I might, I could never make a distinct connection between my Hatha Yoga practice, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The more my asana practice evolved, the harder it became to grasp the Sutras. Am I still, or am I moving? The more I move, the more I feel my physicality, then I’m supposed to transcend it? The more I move and breathe, the more connected I feel….oh, and it feels good!
Shortly after my first teacher training, I discovered Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga, quite different from what I had been studying at Integral Yoga, it was a revelation to me at the time: here was a style of yoga asana that distilled the practice down to just the practice, and it didn’t try to incorporate what felt like a juxtaposing belief system into downward facing dog. This style of yoga wasn’t my home, but it was a good place for me to hang out for a while. I let go of my grip on Patanjali just a little and let myself just move. Then, the Universe finally decided I was ready and handed me a pamphlet on Shakta Tantrism and the earth shook a little, there were fireworks, the yoga finally made sense to me. Here was a worldview that told me it was okay to feel, that my body wasn’t just a vehicle but an expression of the divine, and that the experience I was already having was worth having!
The turning point for me came with learning that there is a lot more to the philosophy of yoga than just Patanjali. There are plenty more fish in the sea, if you will. There are in fact many, many different yogic philosophies, all traceable to the Vedas, often with similar myths and characters, but all quite different, with varying degrees of connection to Hatha Yoga. If you read Robert Love’s The Great Oom, you’ll see that Tantrism actually came to the West first. But somewhere along the line Patanjali became generally accepted in the West as the yoga philosophy, and maybe we stopped searching. It may not be so for you, but for me, Tantrism makes sense. I quickly broke it off with Patanjali, and though we still talk, I’m Tantric all the way. And not having a regular seated meditation practice is no conflict for me.
Though the differences between the yoga philosophies range from subtle to extreme, Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks boiled it down for me quite nicely in a recent workshop in New York. As he put it, yoga philosophy can be split into two basic groups: Quietism and Pre-quietism. Patanjali’s method falls into the Quietism style, and Tantrism belongs to the noisier pursuit. Many of us are just Quietists. Our path is one of stillness and non-attachment and contentment. But some of us are just plain noisy. Maybe a little messy. We love to love and it’s the movement that connects us to a deeper intelligence. And the great news is, you get to try both.
To get back to Goldberg’s piece, I second his advice; if you are a yogi without a regular meditation practice, I suggest you find yourself a teacher and give it a whirl. There’s enough scientific evidence these days to convince even the most cynical Westerner that meditation is good for you. But if you are, as Sadie Nardini says, Patanjali’s Puppet, if you are remotely interested in yoga asana, then consider exploring other forms of yoga philosophy. You might conclude that there’s nothing fraudulent about being a yogi without a seated meditation practice, you were just reading from the wrong page.
I conclude with my promise to you: as a yogi with an occasional seated meditation practice, we will never practice asana with the intent of preparing the body to sit comfortably in meditation. The purpose of our practice is the practice. I will ask you to be more interested in your experience than you ever thought possible. I will tell you that your experience is one worth having. I will never ask you to withdraw your senses, because I’m afraid you would suffocate. I will ask you only to feel more. I will encourage you to get attached, to seek out the meaningful and bind yourself to it beautifully. And unless you die in my class, you will never transcend the worldly experience, only deepen it.