Some practical advice for yogis moving into meditation.
By now, most of us have heard that there’s more to yoga than the physical practice of asana (yoga poses).
It’s almost become a cliché to say that yoga is meant to prepare us for meditation. But, if that’s true, why do we yogis so often struggle to commit to a sitting practice?
In my observation, one of the reasons yogis stop short of developing a sitting meditation practice is because it’s not integrated with the practice they’re already doing. It feels like something extra we’d have to add. For years, my yoga and meditation practices felt like two separate activities.
They were both great in their own right, but it didn’t feel like they were really talking to each other. I might practice meditation in the morning, and plan on yoga later in the afternoon. On a really good day, I could practice both, but more often than not, I only got to do one or the other.
In my case, I usually gravitated toward sitting, leaving my asana practice by the wayside, over there with my good intentions.
For me, this issue wasn’t just a matter of not making enough time (although that was part of it), it was this feeling of disconnection between asana and seated meditation. Despite knowing many of the reasons these practices should help each other grow, it unfortunately felt more like they were competing with each other!
My instinct and strong conviction is that all the practice I do should be leading me in the same direction—towards wholeness. So, that is the ongoing daily experiment of my practice: aspiring to integrate my path.
Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful for developing a home yoga practice that actually does lead to meditation:
1) Do a single practice session that includes both asana and meditation
Lately, I like to get out my cushion and meditate right before Savasana (rest pose). This is when I seem to have the best balance of focus, presence and energy. Then, the body gets to rest in Savasana afterwards (since sitting meditation is physically taxing, after all), and the mental clarity continues into Savasana, so you can experience it as a more conscious relaxation—rather than just zoning out.
You can play with this, though. I recently attended a Yin Yoga & Mindfulness workshop with one of my heroes, Sarah Powers. She placed a 24-minute meditation session near the front of the practice, just after one Yin pose and a brief pranayama session, and the asana practice followed later.
And, when I suggest including meditation in your asana practice, I’m not talking about a meditation drive-by here—the idea is to integrate the sitting practice in a significant way, not as an afterthought. Make the meditation segment of your practice equally as important as the poses you do, whether you are sitting for five minutes or 45 minutes.
2) Calibrate your practice energetically
You want to wake up the body and generate a little energy for your sit, but you may have to tone things down if you’re used to a seriously vigorous asana practice. Energy levels are different person to person, so this will take a little experimentation.
But, if you’re used to collapsing in a puddle of sweat in Savasana, you might want to back off a little in the sessions where you’re planning to meditate, and reserve some fresh energy for your sitting practice. It’s hard to keep the mind sharp and focused if you’re too depleted physically.
3) Transition from movement to stillness
If you tend to start your practice with a bit of unwanted agitation, be more active at the beginning of your asana session to burn off some of that restless energy. But, as you notice yourself settling in, begin to slow things down.
Don’t feed the restless mental habits, but instead follow that feeling of focus that’s starting to arise. This might mean practicing a simpler sequence that requires less planning or less effort to remember. Or, it could mean taking time to enjoy a Yin or Restorative pose or two. Think of this as a transition into the stillness of sitting.
Even during the most active part of your practice, include plenty of pauses, like resting in Child’s Pose or returning to Mountain Pose, and use those times to check in rather than check out. Treat those release poses as mini-meditations, and remember your intention to create more continuity of mindfulness.
Through slowing down and investigating the mat-to-cushion continuum, we’re able to see firsthand how yoga asana helps a sitting practice to flourish. The practice of postures establishes one’s attention within the body, provides energetic grounding and makes tangible the connection to the breath.
Getting into the body through yoga also helps de-emphasize the relentless world of thoughts, which every meditator in history has encountered. And, last but not least, the poses help relieve the inevitable physical discomforts of sitting practice.
As your sitting practice develops, the benefits definitely go the other way, as well. You’ll start to notice more about the way your mind operates when you’re on your mat. You might struggle less with traps like striving, frustration and competition in your asana practice and actually enjoy it more!
Home practice is your chance to experiment, and it can be a great laboratory for transformation. Get your mat and your cushion together and see what works!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jess Sheppard/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum