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”.


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.


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

  1. I believe we are scared to look at our minds. An unexamined mind is a train wreck. It’s easier to stay busy and keep jumping from project to project. But it’s like running from the monster in a scary dream. Once you stop and actually face it you see there was nothing to fear.

    The rewards are priceless. It is hard work to look at your mind. Keep at it and I’m told you’ll see there is no reason to run. You’ll see your limitless perfect nature and discover true peace!

    My dream is to see all yogis develop a seated practice over the next few years.

  2. Corti Cooper says:

    Thanks for this. I completely relate to this as I struggle with sitting despite the fact that when I do it, it's rewards are phenomenal. Yet, day after day I ignore this practice. Perhaps, like Elena states above, I still need some work on myself to comfortably sit down and listen. In the meantime, I have taken quite nicely to walking meditation, whether it's walking with a mantra or simply enjoying each step as my pup prances along my side. The walking meditation gives me the movement I need to settle into myself and the quietness of walking gives me the chance to listen to each glorious breath.

  3. Jiivadhara says:

    After a little, meditation becomes effortless,especially if we surrender and stop wanting an outcome. Leaving the project of enlightenment aside helps a lot. Being in the moment of no duration and embracing what you are doing (even during mediation) – this total acceptance – guides the way into deeper meditation. Anyway, in order to really meditate well one often needs the power of a qualified enlightened guru and perhaps not so many of those are around. Still, I also think that Divine Grace would stop showering down on the practitioner because they are NOT initiated. I noticed actually that a lot of people are afraid to meditate. Some can't even close their eyes out of fear that nothing could be there to grasp onto. When you have a proper meditation teacher, he/she can take away all your fears (if that is the reason why some don't meditate).

  4. […] day and four the next-next. Keep going and see what happens. You could find yourself developing a meditation practice, or simply a daily routine of slowing […]

  5. […] the heart of this practice is mantra meditation in which we vibrate that central channel as well as every cell in our body, as long as we are […]

  6. […] that meditation is about achieving a special state of mind. And, second, that achieving that special state of mind […]

  7. […] you go to a yoga class to distract yourself from the issues in your life. The practice becomes less meditation, and more medication, a balm for all the places of […]

  8. […] was excited and nervous to attend. I had never meditated before and I was under the impression that I just couldn’t. My mind was filled with too many […]

  9. […] mountain — I’m sure you’ve heard that one too) can be so goddamned annoying to sit with. So we fidget, bite nails, daydream, reminisce, take a nap, eat cupcakes, make excuses. (Yes, […]

  10. […] finally, to the use of a mantra, I became a Big Girl meditator. Much like the notion of a healer, meditation has no finish line because “finishing” is scarcely the […]

  11. […] daily meditation practice, a practice that I continue whether things are good, bad or even if the sky is falling, I’ve […]

  12. […] daily meditation practice, a practice that I continue whether things are good, bad or even if the sky is falling, I’ve been […]

  13. Leann says:

    Love your point about people still too caught up in attraction and aversions.

    Every time I meet a yoga teacher, I have to ask what kind of meditation they practice. I'm trying to meet one that replies with anything other than "Yoga". When I ask, no, what kind of body-stillness practice do they have, they look at me like I have six heads. I get a variation of "Well I do Yoga – that IS meditation". As if that's the only kind of meditation ones need!. Wasn't all this to help prepare you for body stillness? How are all these yoga studios cranking out these people?

    Thanks for a GREAT article and comments!

  14. Turiya Hill says:

    My understanding and experience is there is really very little difference between Yoga/Movement and Meditation/Stillness. Both involve Body, Breath, Mind…..One tends to be more Yang or active…One tends to be more Yin or passive…..They exist together in all aspects of life and beingness….Both always happening either formally or informally.

  15. Jessie Paul says:

    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.

  16. AlteredTowers says:

    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.

  17. Astrid Amalia says:

    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 😉