June 19, 2012

Yoga for Meditators: Kind of a Book Review

Given the history and age-old philosophies of that thing we call yoga, “a book on yoga for meditators may seem redundant,” writes Charlotte Bell in her introduction to Yoga for Meditators *. This point is emphasized with the presentation of lovely translation of the second Yoga Sutra: Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. And, ultimately, the hub around which the book revolves is a simple question: How can we use the body most effectively to allow the settling of the mind into silence?

My initial, and lasting, impression of Charlotte Bell is that she seems like an awesome yoga teacher. From the start, she puts even the most jaded reader** at ease with a friendly and generous tone, providing a wealth of information in a short space, offering a wealth of suggestions rather than didactic generalizations, always ready with variations, alternatives, and adjustments.

The book is divided into four parts. The first offers a strikingly comprehensive anatomical discussion of optimal sitting posture. One big difference I’ve generally found between yogis and meditators—noting that most yogis I know, contrary to the point about redundancy, above, don’t have a regular sitting meditation practice, unless those couple of seconds in sukhasana at the beginning and end of most classes count, and most serious meditators I know tend to view yoga as little more than aerobics with spiritual pretensions—is the amount attention given to the body. Traditional Buddhists I’ve encountered have tended to respond to questions about back and knee pain resulting from sitting meditation with a viewpoint that might be summed up as it’s samsara, deal with it, while the less traditional tend toward a more laissez faire approach: try kneeling, try sitting in a chair, whatever…but let’s not dwell on the body too much. In the yoga world, of course, there’s a lot more concern with finding optimal bodily alignment, but it’s mostly emphasized when it comes to difficult poses where people might hurt themselves and sue the studio. When it comes to those seconds of sitting at the beginning of class when the teacher misquotes Rumi…whatever.

Gratuitous snark aside***, those yogis who do emphasize meditation generally take a more refreshingly mindful attitude to even the most basic of seated poses. I have not, however, seen the matter discussed nearly so thoroughly as in this book, with simple sitting given the anatomical attention that tends to be reserved for the likes of niralamba sirsasana or parsva kukkutasana.

Part 2, which makes up the lion’s share**** of the book, may at first resemble just another basic asana guide. The difference here is, of course, the emphasis on the relationship between asana practice and meditation, and not just in the physical sense, with asanas organized through a series of apt headings: Collecting the Mind, Waking the Spine, Relaxing the Base, and so on. And, in the pages given to each asana can be found an abundance of useful insights for any yoga practitioner, whether interested in meditation or not. In fact, this section might be the perfect basic asana guide for the somewhat skittish beginning student frightened by yoga books featuring pictures of people doing niralamba sirsasana or parsva kukkutasana. Here, there are few complicated, difficult poses, and lots of options, including chairs for those who don’t want to do the sitting on the floor thing, at all. Overall, this is a book that’s dedicated to making yoga accessible to meditators, meditation accessible to yogis, and both accessible to just about everybody.

Part 3 provides a useful series of frequently asked questions with generous answers that are ideal for anyone starting or thinking about starting a yoga or meditation practice. Again, loads of options are given to make yoga and meditation maximally accessible to anybody, regardless of body-type or practical life circumstances. (All too many books and magazines catering to the moneyed New Age demographic make all kinds of irritating upper-middle class assumptions, urging “practicing in a room you don’t use for anything else”—if, presumably, the guest cottages are already in use. As a practitioner with a tiny one bedroom apartment who teaches yoga in a homeless shelter, I find this book’s gentle suggestions to find a reasonably quiet place, negotiating with family members, if necessary, and, otherwise, “do the best you can to anchor your mind to the sensations you feel in your body,” a lot more useful).

Finally, Part 4 offers alternative meditation postures for those who can’t or don’t want to get into the traditional sitting thing. The structure of this part turns out to be, essentially, a microcosm (or series of microcosms) of the book of the whole, suggesting practices to aid walking, lying down, and standing meditations. Here, as elsewhere, the author offers up her personal experience, inviting the reader in by pointing out that she, too, for instance, has trouble staying mindful and awake while lying on her back.

Overall, this is will be an excellent book to keep around and use in one’s daily practice(s)*****—which, as the book emphasizes repeatedly, can take the form of short stretches at work or at the kitchen counter while waiting for morning hot beverages to heat up as much as more formal time-on-the-mat.



* Before even receiving the book, I was planning on starting out this review with a paragraph or two making the same point, so she kinda ruined the plan. But, then, she gives a much better discussion of it than I would have. Of course, I realize that some readers out there are just barely holding back the urge to skip through the rest of this article to leave a comment pointing out that yoga isn’t just asana practice, anyway, and that, in fact, meditation is an integral part of yoga, and that meditation in the traditional yogic sense, actually means something very different from…etc. I know. Charlotte Bell knows, too, and writes about all that stuff in her introduction, which, by the way, is a very nice, surprisingly concise run-down of the path from Patanjali to the contemporary western yoga studio.

** …which is not, of course, to the imply that the author of this piece is such a reader….even if he is, perhaps, a bit too prepared, on cracking the spine on new yoga book about yoga, to grit his teeth at didacticism, excessive perkiness, endlessly effusive praise of the author’s guru, and/or airy new-age speak…none of which, thankfully, are to be found, here.

*** My yoga and meditation teachers are all awesome, by the way…even if they do occasionally misquote Rumi (and Hafiz…and Einstein…and Buddha…).

**** I tried hard…even set an intention…to come up with a good yoga pun here—down-dog’s share?….it didn’t work.

***** Much better, believe me, than reading it sitting in a coffee shop chair, swigging hot caffeine while typing out notes for a review on one’s laptop.


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