Why Yogis Don’t Meditate.

Restoring Meditation to the Yogic Repertoire.

The other night I was chatting with a yoga teacher, who said that one of her New Years resolutions was to meditate every day.  “It’s already March,” I pointed out.  She laughed and said that gives her ten months to get it together.

I’ve always found it odd that so many dedicated yoga practitioners don’t have a regular meditation practice.  More puzzling is that yoga teachers who can practically recite the Yoga Sutras by heart don’t sit regularly either, and they know that Patanjali gives hardly any attention to asanas but has a whole lot to say about the mind.  In fact, the whole text can be seen as an elaboration of the second verse, in which the sage defines yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (I prefer “cessation” to “suppression” and other terms that suggest force.)  You would think that hundreds of scientific studies on meditation, not to mention the surge in yogic literacy, would have made meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix.  Instead, a great many yogis are like the teacher with the New Years resolution: they know it would be a good idea, but they don’t get around to it.

Why don’t they?  There are many reasons, of course, perhaps chief among them the rebranding of yoga as a physical fitness regimen and the almost exclusive identification of yoga with asana. But that doesn’t explain why people who know better neglect Patanjali’s dharana, dhyana, samadhi denouement.

The most frequent excuse I hear is lack of time.  But that’s usually from ordinary folks who are busy ticking off items on their long to-do lists, not yogis who know it’s wise to invest in personal wellness and who have no problem taking the time for asanas.  I think one of the obstacles is a subtle two-step: they don’t fully appreciate the profound value of meditation because they haven’t done it regularly enough or long enough, and they haven’t done it regularly or long because they haven’t really learned how to meditate.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Meditation doesn’t work for me,” or, “I’m not good at it.”  When I ask if they’ve ever been taught a specific form of meditation by a qualified instructor, the answer is usually no.  For some reason, people think they ought to be able to just sit down and do it on their own.  Well, you can pluck some notes on a piano too, but if you want to make music you might want to get some lessons.  Some would-be meditators pick up haphazard directions in a self-help magazine, or try to remember a guided relaxation from a stress management seminar, only to find the experience unsatisfying.  Why?  Because, having heard that meditation quiets the mind, they try very hard to achieve that result, and the effort leads to strain.  Which is, of course, the exact opposite of meditation. As a result, we find situations like this: someone decides to meditate to reduce tension; but she hasn’t been properly instructed, so she gets anxious about her meditation; she tries hard to get it right; it becomes an unpleasant chore; she concludes it doesn’t work for her and gives it up.

Yoga practitioners understand the value of expert instruction.  That’s why they take classes instead of making up asanas on their own.  Asanas are taught with rigor and precision. But, for some reason, meditation has been treated in a much more cavalier fashion.  It was not always that way.  Gurus who emphasized sitting practices provided expert guidance.  Experiences and nuances were discussed.  The differences between one form of meditation and another were understood.  To cite one historically important example, I was one of thousands of people who were trained to teach Transcendental Meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back in the seventies.  We spent hours upon hours over a long stretch of time learning the ins and outs of the instruction and follow-up procedures before we were let loose to instruct students.  Other teaching lineages had their own methods for training and certifying instructors. But the more popular and mainstream meditation became, the more the descriptions of it became careless and what passed as instruction became more and more indiscriminate.

This is something the yoga community needs to contemplate.  If yoga really is what the sages said it is, and if modern practitioners want to enjoy the full range of the tradition’s extraordinary promise, we need to treat meditation with the same respect and rigor that we afford asanas and pranayama.  Then, yogis will find it easier to find time for the practice because they will experience it as easy and beneficial.  Just as Gandhi did: one morning, facing a particularly challenging day, the Mahatma said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” 

Two other Phil Goldberg articles:

True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

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Astrid Amalia Nov 26, 2013 12:16pm

Thanks for the article! I am glad that i have the chance to give my yoga clients more sitting meditation and meditation in savasana instead of long hours of challenging asana…. Most of them found healing from the meditation and light restorative asanas…. And that is what makes them coming back for more…. More meditation, less challenging asanas……. i think my job as a yoga teacher is to heal people in a gentle way through meditation & restorative asanas, not to provide some acrobatic circus pictures for showing off…… Namaste 😉

AlteredTowers Aug 6, 2013 7:06am

I recently attended an astanga yoga retreat with David Robson. During one of the talks he gave over the weekend, he touched on this issue of meditation and yoga.

(Bit of background: The top teacher for astanga is Sharath Jois and he teaches in Mysore, India. Many Astanga practitioners – particularly those who want to be teachers, visit Mysore to practice at Sharath's school on an annual basis. )

David told us that, in Mysore, Sharath has a weekly Q&A of sorts with the students. And, each week, without fail, someone will ask some variation of "When are you going to teach us to meditate?" David said Sharath is frequently visibly frustrated/disheartened by this question because, in his view, all he is teaching is meditation. Yoga IS meditation.

Astanga is all about focusing the mind. There is a special breath that encourages you to focus inwardly. There is a 'drishti' or point where you are supposed to focus your eyes that corresponds with each asana. There are points where your body is so challenged and pretzled that you're sure you're going to snap in half, and the only way to get through it is to bring your mind back to the breath, to the drishti and to let go of the physical.

If that's not meditation, I don't know what is.

The fact that it is a moving meditation as opposed to a seated one does not make it any less a meditation. Perhaps some people don't realize they're doing meditation when they do yoga. But I'm pretty sure it's nearly impossible not to reap the benefits of mediation on some level if you're doing it every day – even if subconsciously.

Jessie Paul Aug 2, 2013 12:10pm

I prefer the more zen view that seated meditation is only a tool to develop that quality of the mind, but should then be carried with us into our daily activities as much as possible throughout the day. Yoga helps to develop our ability to find the inaction within action. Each asana can be performed with the same attention as seated cross-legged whether you are in down dog, pigeon, danurasana, etc. the body changes position, but the quality of mind remains steady. In some ways, it can be a faster track towards realizing the benefits of meditation in our everyday lives.

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Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is an acclaimed author and public speaker whose numerous books include the award-winning American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path: Living at the Heart of Paradox; and the recently published biography, The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. A meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister, he is also the cohost of the popular Spirit Matters podcast and leads American Veda Tours to India. See his website for more.