Why Yogis Don’t Meditate.

Via Philip Goldberg
on Mar 5, 2011
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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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About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “The Intuitive Edge," “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path,” and his latest work, "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He also blogs regularly on the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.

Comments

68 Responses to “Why Yogis Don’t Meditate.”

  1. Great blog, Phil.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. camella nair says:

    Good observation. I totally agree. We have come so far as a culture out of the cave.

  4. Pamela says:

    I'm a yoga asana to meditation person. Now meditation is the main practice – there's no meaning without it. The best gift I ever had was Erich Schriffmann explaining meditation to me (via his stillness book) He gave me the courage to give it a go – and it worked. My teaching has to include an aspect of meditation ( even if not actually called that). In our physical practice world we can still get the ideas in there.

  5. That is a great book, isn't it, Pamela? Here's the link for those who are interested:
    http://www.movingintostillness.com/teachings.html

  6. […] a language of yoga, even better, use language that buttresses the theme you’ve created for your class. As we edit out our verbal blind spots, we can write a list of alternative words and phrases to […]

  7. Carol Horton says:

    I totally agree! And hope that there's more and more encouragement for asana practitioners to take up meditation, because the practices cross-reinforce and inform one another.

    I would likewise add that it seems like there are lots of meditation practitioners who could benefit from asana as well. I was shocked several years ago when I went to a meditation training at our local Shambhala Center and one of the instructors told me that she had suffered from upper back pain when sitting for the past 10 years. I told her that in yoga, that would be a sign that her body needed attention, and that yoga offered lots of tools to explore what's going on there – it floored me that she had been trained to ignore her body's signals like that in her practice.

    Similarly I am currently reading Reggie Ray's "Touching Enlightenment' and it floors me that he doesn't connect his ideas about meditating with the body to contemporary asana practice at all. Not that this has to be the central feature, but it is such a logical connection to make, and it's not. Asana offers so many tools for opening up feeling, memory, and intuition in the body – I strongly believe that it's just as much a complement to meditation as vice-versa.

  8. instantkarms says:

    Great post! I meditated one whole session this week!! 🙂 40m. And my hard asana practice (Mon-Thurs) is about 2.5 hours long at this point.

  9. Meditation ain't as glamorous as asana. The benefits aren't immediately obvious. It's hard to take sexy photos of meditation. You can't show off how great your meditation is the way you can your asana. And teaching meditation certainly isn't as cool as teaching asana.

    Yet if the purpose of asana is to get the mind & body ready for meditation… there must be so many people ready to make the leap.

    Me, my daily practice is now meditation. Love it love it love it. It's effortless too. I still practice asana, mainly for the sole purpose of enjoying moving my body and keeping it limber enough to effortlessly sit in meditation. If I had to give up one.. I'd give up asana (and find sneaky ways to make asana just the way I move about my day.)

    Maybe we need a campaign to make meditation sexy? Maybe we need some rockstar meditation teachers? Maybe people will just get there in the end, with a little prompting from great articles like this.

  10. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the seminal text of non-dual, classical hatha yoga (an arm of classical tantra), the first verses are about the seated yogasanas. In textual exegesis what it stated first is therefore MOST important. Thus, the very first verse of this text talks about the GURU, which is the single most important aspect of authentic yoga. And, then, it discusses the practices and benefits of seated meditation asanas. This is what yoga is all about. Guru and meditation. One of the meanings of asana, after all, is "seat." Modern practitioners tend to dislike both gurus and meditating… both are too bothersome… so, we make what we want of a tried and true system that is proven to give results (provided we follow the steps). Thus, though there are a bunch of healthy, and psychologically well-adjusted modern yogins out there, how many are radically enlightened as the texts promise they could be? We have watered these textual references down to analogies, but that is only because we haven't taken the leap of faith to really follow the actual tradition of yoga in order to discover the reality of these seemingly hyperbolic statements.

  11. Linda-Sama says:

    "I’ve always found it odd that so many dedicated yoga practitioners don’t have a regular meditation practice. "

    the fact that so many yoga teachers I know do not have a meditation practice is appalling to me. when I start my teacher training program, the students will not only have to begin a dedicated meditation practice, they will be required to do a 10 day silent retreat if they want that piece of paper. I have heard so many teachers say that they could never do a silent retreat because it would be "too hard." yeah, it's supposed to be hard, or else everyone could do it.

    it is through meditation that you work through your own shit and I do not believe that any yoga teacher worth their salt has a right to sit in front of a class and tell them to "breathe", "go inward", "be still", "let go", etc etc etc unless you're examining your own Self.

  12. Ben_Ralston says:

    Great post.
    Yoga is meditation. Period!
    But let's face it – most people don't know that, and instead they believe yoga to be a kind of kewl, esoteric form of gymnastics.

  13. Sabina says:

    Great article!

    Here's an article that fits to the topic http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/not

    "Yoga is to North America what McDonald’s is to India: both are foreign implants gone native."

  14. Elena Brower says:

    For me, the yoga practice led me to the POSSIBILITY of having a meditation practice, but i personally needed more unpacking of my personality before i could really understand and access the refuge of sitting.

    I'm still in the process, and it's taking years, but now that I can see my parents as people and not obstacles to be disrespected, and now that I can admit all the times I was either aggressive or weak, and now that I can own my secrets and stop hiding them, meditation is an actual healing respite. Sitting helps me stop blaming and start listening.

  15. great comment Elena and interesting article!

  16. Good point Carol. I always found that doing asanas and pranayama deepens my meditation. In all my years around meditators it always surprised me how few of them did asanas, or attended to their bodies at all in any meaningful way. So now, as you suggest, there are a lot of middle-aged meditators who can barely stand up from their cushions.

  17. Ivy Stirling says:

    Perhaps it is in the instruction. My teacher told us that the most important asana was Savasana! That is where we started, with that end in mind. All else was a pathway to that practice. And remembering that yoga is the eight-limbed path to Samadhi. Yoga is meditation in action or movement. All poses lead to inner awareness, much like meditation. Build on that, and you will want to sit and continue to cultivate the "stillness" inherent in every pose. Thank you Erich Schiffman. i am so honored to have had your teaching.

  18. Stacey Gunderson says:

    There is a huge difference between teachers and classes. I took Kundalini Yoga classes at the ashram in Los Angeles (started by Yogi Bhajan) when I was 22. The focus was a very spiritual one….the body being a part of that practice, yet the focus on the holistic truth. I find many of the western classes more physically oriented, yet I prefer the western forms to the kundalini in practice. I rarely feel anything close to the reverence that I felt practicing at the Ashram….nobody would ever dream of skipping death pose there. It felt like an integrated religious experience every time. That being said, yoga creates physical strength and focus. If the focus is developed into present moment awareness that is carried throughout the day, then that is waking meditation and worthy goal as well.

  19. ARCreated says:

    (I prefer “cessation” to “suppression” and other terms that suggest force.) I like "stilling the mind stuff" 🙂

    For me, the yoga practice led me to the POSSIBILITY of having a meditation practice, but i personally needed more unpacking of my personality before i could really understand and access the refuge of sitting.

    Thank you Elena — I too am an asana to meditation girl (actually I am currently a yoga nidra addict :0)

    the POINT of asana, at least the way I teach it is to PREPARE for meditation. we always do brief meditations in my yogasana class…more brief in the beginner classes and longer in the more advanced classes…I have always thought of it as the gateway.

  20. ARCreated says:

    once I found meditation a few years ago there was a year where I left asana "behind" I found that to be just as bad as not meditating. now I have both and I have better balance in all things…without my asana I became less grounded and without my meditation I become less focused — basically I get benefit from both…one led to the another and then back again. I think we are still just at an infantile stage in our yogic practice and it will grow and so will meditation.

  21. Hi, Phil. Great article and discussion.

    You may be encouraged to know that Elephant thinks so highly of mediation that meditation has it very own dedicated Facebook page, called, appropriately enough Elephant Meditation, and a daily blog dedicated entirely to meditation, written by the inimitable Benjamin Riggs.

    It's true that these are more Buddhist inspired than Yoga, but here at Elephant we intermix these freely, as we well should. There have been many Yoga meditation blogs as well, which are always among our most popular articles, like yours is proving to be.

    Thanks again for being here.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    Join Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  22. And look at this placement we've given you on the Elephant Yoga homepage–sandwiched in between two photos of Charlie Sheen!

    And look who's getting the most hits. You're a star, Phil.

  23. From Facebook:

    Kara-Leah Grant The title bugs me.

    It's inaccurate.

    I'm a yogi & I meditate.

    It needs to be Why Some Yogis Don't Meditate. Or maybe even Why Most Yogis Don't Meditate…. but to claim all yogis don't..

    It may make a snazzier headline, but it's sacrificing truth.
    12 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    elephantjournal.com Kara and Michelle – as a writer on EJ I can tell you that without a 'snazzy', or provocative, or 'sexy' title, an article doesn't get so many reads. But also, if you read this particular article, you'll see that the author is actually making the point you are making… ~ Ben R
    8 hours ago · Like

    Fabienne Bernard Yes, if the asanas become a goal in themselves (keep trying to perfect the next cool "trick" pose and the next and the next), that is not yoga, just a crutch to narcissism. Aren't the asanas primarily meant to prepare the body to sit in meditation? To make the body healthy (clean the vessel) so that we are comfortable for the observation of our mind then the cessation of its fluctuations? That being said, we can become so engrossed into an asana that it itself becomes meditation in motion 🙂
    5 hours ago · Like · 2 people

    Kara-Leah Grant Hey Ben, I did read the article. And I get the point you're making… it's a tough call though between truth and popularity… and I know as writers we all want to be read as that serves the point we're making. I still reckon we can find creative, truthful, provocative headlines though…
    2 hours ago · Like

  24. Great article. Dualism is a problem. So is spiritual materialism. Seng Tsan says “Seek movement and there is no movement. Seek rest and no rest comes instead.”

    For a very balanced discussion of embodied meditation, almost any book by Will Johnson, especially The Posture of Meditation.

  25. Phillip, I appreciate the post, it got me to think and to explore. I think that yogis do meditate, because when yoga is practiced by following the eight limbs it leads to meditation.

    When a yogi is hungry for liberation as a drowning person is grasping for air then the right path is followed and meditation happens.

    Did not want to write all in a comment so here is the full exploration: http://earthyogi.blogspot.com/2011/03/yogis-do-me

  26. Hi, James. This is a tricky question.

    Phil himself has greatly widened my view of what has been influenced by yoga. See the two links I just added to the end of the article.

    But then when he uses the word yoga here in this blog, he's clearly referring to things that call themselves "yoga".

    More and more I think it's more useful and accurate to think of "heavily yoga influenced" rather than what happens to be called "yoga" today. This would include people like Chopra and Tolle and dozens of others, not just asana yoga.

    But I had to read Phil's book to have my thinking transformed in such a dramatic way. I now think of "what's actually called yoga" as a somewhat arbitrary and misleading distinction, compared to the historical reality of Yoga in America.

    The other thing that's interesting is, that if you go to a yoga class, it's mostly asana, just as Phil says. But when Yoga teachers write, whether on Elephant here, or on their own blogs, or in compilations like Yoga in America, they almost always write about meditation and philosophy, not asana!

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  27. Charlotte says:

    I think most people in this culture get their feet wet with asana because we are generally very physically oriented. Many stay just with asana and don't try meditation. Others try meditation and give up, and others take to it like a fish in water. I am of the third group, but I can't say it is easy. In fact, meditation is by far the most challenging practice I've done. It is also the most rewarding. I sat my first five-day vipassana retreat back in 1988, and I couldn't believe how hard it was. I spent much of the first three days planning my escape. Then one moment of mindfulness changed my relationship to meditation, and changed my life. If I have only an hour for practice in the morning, I always practice pranayama and meditation. If I have more time, I'll practice asana too, which is my preference.

    I agree with the author that many people give up on it because they don't stick with it long enough to see the benefits. The effects of meditation are more subtle in a way than those of asana. It takes time, and we are not conditioned to be patient. Meditation is not the Drano path to freedom. It is slow, subtle and incredibly powerful and profound.

    I think that one of the reasons people say it doesn't work for them, as the author cites, is that in the process of slowing down and being quiet, you start to see—sometimes for the first time—just how unsettled your mind is. Many people mistake this for "doing it wrong" when in fact, it is a revelation to see for oneself just how distracted our minds are.

  28. HermosaYogini says:

    Great article! Thank you! I just got back from my first Vipassana course mid-feb and I haven't sat since my return. I'm not sure why-kinda felt like I am still processing that change. This article is just the kick I needed. I will do my first hour sitting tonight.

  29. Phil Goldberg says:

    Good to know that Bob.

    The Buddhism/Yoga intersection the last few years is intriguing. At the risk of oversimplifying, a lot of hatha yogins looking for meditation instruction turned to Buddhist teachers, and a lot of long-time Buddhist meditators, realizing they've neglected their bodies, started turning to hatha yoga teachers.

    Phil

  30. Phil Goldberg says:

    If being a star links me to Charlie Sheen in any way, I'll pass, thank you very much.

  31. "Meditation is harder than asana" — that's true, if you don't have proper instruction. I suggest learning meditation from a certified teacher of Transcendental Meditation, as taught by Maharishi. Then meditation instantly becomes not only easy — but EFFORTLESS! …and profoundly effective. And, due to the non-profit structure, anyone can learn TM because there are grants and scholarships available for people who need help with the course tuition. TM is real yoga, in that it provides the experience of union with the Self.

  32. David Walker says:

    Good points, KL. But as someone who's been meditating twice a day for decades and doing yoga daily for as long also, I'd say that the benefits of meditation are actually a lot more obvious and immediate than that of asanas, just more subtle and profound. The trick is, you have to have an effective meditation technique and the right kind of guidance. I find that in TM.

    As far as rock stars promoting meditation, it's actually been happening for many years — ever since the Beatles hooked up with Maharishi. A couple years ago Paul and Ringo, who still do TM and love it, did a benefit concert to teach 1 million youth to learn TM (with Moby, Eddie Vedder, Cheryl Crow, Ben Harper, and many other meditating musicians). It does help to draw attention to it, but most importantly, collective consciousness has to change so that more people will begin to appreciate the value of meditation. And collective consciousness is changing fast as more and more people meditate.

    I think meditation is already sexy, but needs to become more so. Nothing is more sexy than a beautiful woman with eyes closed sitting in lotus, transcending. Way more sexy than asana, if you ask me.

  33. Yogini5 says:

    I'm not able to rock padmasana, and I still love this comment!
    And meditation is the ultimate be where you are now statement …
    The Silva Method and other Western modalities, which I've practiced, also have had their rock stars.
    They are not doing kick-asana photo ops at yoga festivals or Burning Man, though …

  34. Kala says:

    Gawd, this SOUNDS like something a TM mantra salesman (AKA “TM teacher”) would say.

    Oh guess what, he’s shillin’ his latest book. Surprise, surprise, a TMer selling something…

    ….you just can’t get rid of these people with their phony research and their discredited “rishi”. I’d have hoped America was growing beyond these pseudo-Vedantins!

    If you want to really know the Honest Truth About TM, see “David Wants to Fly”, the award winning documentary which exposes these phonies for what they really are. Really, it’s a great movie.

  35. Shaas says:

    Well put, Philip!
    The modern casual understanding of Yoga is more in the direction of gymnastics.

  36. Charlotte says:

    I like Alistair Shearer's translation of sutra 1.2: Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

  37. That's my favorite version of the Yoga Sutra, even though it's controversial with some scholars.

  38. […] across something else I wanted to repost tonight, this article from Elephant Journal on why yogis don’t meditate by Philip […]

  39. Bob, I guess thats right that yoga is heavily (and originally) influenced by philosophy. And, certainly the approach I see people take here and on other sites seem to be very philosophy-oriented. I'm just wondering if its a marketing issue really when it comes to getting the masses (who are in yoga) to meditate. I'll check out that "yoga in America" compilaton.

  40. That's a great lineup, Charlotte! Could I interest you in writing an article about these various versions of the Yoga Sutra?

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  41. […] Photo: jessebezz Inspired by Phillip Goldberg’s fine article Why Yogi’s Don’t Meditate. […]

  42. […] 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 […]

  43. […] realized that I couldn’t find one place in my life where I wasn’t manipulating: in the meditation hall I sat up straight and didn’t move hoping that others would think I was the model […]

  44. Jiivadhara says:

    To practice meditation properly requires a basic very rooted deep spiritual longing. Many yogis and yoginis don't have that kind of longing to rest in pure awareness throug meditation yet. It will come. Younger yogis are to busy to create their dream body and perhaps attract a partner, create a family, etc. After a while… perhaps people want to meditate and then actively start to look for a qualified meditation teacher. Patience is the key. After all yoga is still very new to the West.

    Also, I notice that many people see asana practice as moving meditation – similarly to Tai Chi, for instance. Practicing asanas can bring you into the moment (which actually does not have any duration) and you are then in a flow (rasa).
    It may not be samadhi, it may not be bliss, even some can get that too, it all matters not the flow carries into non-dual experiences – if it is an experience indeed. What matters is that doing what we are doing in itself can bring us into meditative states. The difference is that some people do not get the structured practice a qualified meditation teacher can give through diksa.

    Anyway, it is clear to me over the years that meditation, or sadhana, is of utmost importance. It reduces my own suffering in life and is a way to surrender, merge and rest in awareness. Asanas never could do for me what meditation does. Then again I have met others who swear that their asana practice is a bliss-meditation. We may then ask, what is not a meditation?

    Overall, i tend to think that people are still too much caught up with their own attraction and aversions in the way they approach yoga. The moment when we can practice yoga and not be caught up by these notions – perhaps then – they really can open up for meditation. We would practice then, even when we do not feel like it. That to me is yoga. We keep trying!

  45. […] In this article a friend recently sent me, the author discusses the curious development in the West of Yogic practitioners and teachers who don’t actually practice Yoga. At least not in the sense Patanjali described. Yoga has become synonymous with stretching exercises, just one aspect of Yoga’s 8 limbs. While there is certainly benefit to asanas, will they alone bring you home? Davidya […]