The Truth Bomb about Meditation Nobody seems to Know.


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The truth is: it’s impossible to meditate.

Meditation is an experience, which may arise after practicing yoga postures and breathing techniques. It cannot be done, because it is not an activity. It cannot be taught, because there is nothing to teach. It is a peaceful quality of mind that forms spontaneously.

When I first started practicing what I recognized as meditation, I was hooked on it. I got to the point where I was sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed for up to two hours a day. I was even teaching daily meditation classes, and I definitely thought it was a great thing for everyone. Well, it is to a certain extent. But, I had started neglecting my actual yoga practice, which is a problem.

At the time I was thinking that yoga postures were a tool to strengthen my back enough to sit up straight for extended periods of time. I saw yoga as simple body maintenance to support my more “advanced” practice of meditation. This idea is a common belief I have heard coming from the yoga community, and it is simply not true.

Of course, spending my time meditating was a lot better than sitting at the bar. But, the point is, what I was doing wasn’t meditation. I was just trying to concentrate. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, meditation practiced independently of yoga asana and pranayama—the physical body postures and breathing techniques which form a yoga practice—can actually have a negative effect.

The problem is the mind is fighting with itself trying to maintain focus on the meditation technique. This typically leads to even more thinking! Just like trying to sleep prevents sleep, trying to meditate prevents meditation. The conditions must be right for the experience to happen, and proper yoga practice creates the necessary conditions.

Today, meditation is pretty trendy. In Los Angeles there are new meditation studios popping up everywhere with the latest visualization techniques being peddled. It’s happening all over the world too. Even celebrities are giving their thumbs up to practicing meditation.

But, should we really be cheering?

I’m not saying there aren’t some benefits to practicing these popular styles of meditation. It can be a lovely experience to sit with your eyes closed first thing in the morning or before bed. However, without physical asana and pranayama practice, true meditation will not happen. The meditator will likely receive some initial benefits, but will eventually become frustrated.

True meditation is the gift one receives by committing to a real yoga practice. It is the ultimate state of peace within the mind. It is not an activity, but rather an involuntary experience.

I learned this from my teacher Mark Whitwell. Mark was a student of the yoga master Krishnamacharya. For those who have never heard that name, Krishnamacharya was the teacher of both B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri Pattabhi Jois. For the people who have not heard those names either, they were the two Indian men who brought today’s most popular styles of yoga to America.

The problem is that Iyengar and Pattabhi never received a full yoga education. They left their teacher Krishnamacharya in their early 20s, and only studied with him for a few years. So, they had to fill in the gaps of his teachings on their own. Unfortunately, as a result, this truth about meditation—and a lot of other knowledge—has never reached the mainstream yoga community.

I find it interesting that meditation, as we know it today, was actually popularized in the west by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru to the Beatles. He believed the American people would be too lazy to practice asana, so instead he gave them meditation. He was right, and now meditation has caught on as something to do independent of yoga. What a shame!

My teacher, Mark Whitwell, studied with Krishnamacharya for many years and now his mission is to spread the teachings of his teacher. One of the phrases that ring in my ears from his classes is, “Stop trying to meditate,” and I can see why he says this.

Here’s how true meditation happens:

Yoga practice moves what yogis call prana through the body. Prana can be thought of as the life force which circulates throughout the human being. Think of a waterfall. The water moving through it is always changing, yet the waterfall maintains the same relative form and function. The human being is similar.

There is an “energetic map” functioning in the background that tells the body how to form itself. It’s this intelligent system that knows how to heal cuts and grow hair. We might call this intelligence DNA, and really, we could call it anything. The point is that this intelligence and flow of life force is undoubtedly functioning beyond the perception of our conscious mind.

For people who might think prana is spiritual mumbo jumbo, I would point to the experience of a heartbreak. There is a pain in the chest, yet a doctor with his instruments will not detect a physical problem. What is happening? The energy center in the heart is blocked and life force is not flowing through it. How painful!

When prana flow is blocked, there is disease, mental illness, and pain. When prana flow is unobstructed, the body is healthy and the mind is clear. So yoga practice is the 5,000-year-old science of unblocking the natural flow of prana—or life energy—in the human system. It is a proven method that yogis have utilized throughout time to create balance and vitality in one’s life.

So, there is no need to practice meditation, because as the pranas begin to flow naturally through the body, peace of mind manifests on its own—without mental effort. People who practice yoga may have had this spontaneous peaceful experience during savasana after a class. This is true meditation!

I can see why meditating as we know it is attractive though. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to sit on our asses than it is to move our bodies and breathe. But by practicing yoga this experience of meditation will arise as what is called a siddhi—a gift that results from practice.

So as my teacher would say, stop trying to meditate, just do yoga!


Author: John Miller
Image: Isabell Winter/Unsplash
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: 


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John Harrison Miller is a holistic business coach, Yoga Instructor, writer and entrepreneur. His mission is to empower people through useful and actionable knowledge. He is a former professional poker player who turned his life around after beginning a Yoga practice.

Shlomo P Ruse Jan 22, 2018 4:09am

it is definitely inaccurate to say that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi did not teach asanas. I was there. He did. Asanas were and are widely taught by his organization. They were always part of his teaching. “Time spend on Asanas and Dhyan (Meditation)is a golden time of the day. Each little bending is significant in reaching the goal which is enlightenment.” His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi His technique of Transcendental Meditation proves that you CAN teach people to meditate and that they can do so easy, spontaneously and naturally. This technique has proven in hundreds of scientific studies to work for everyone. " Even a little practice of this Dharma saves one from great fear."- Krishna in the Bhagavat Gita which has been proven in the modern context of PTSD, with a very recent study showing unprecendented reduction in PTSD symptoms in just one month! The people in these studies are not even taught asanas, so much more the benefits will be though when they are! studies like this(which are in the hundreds) are a modern scientific proof of the statements of Krishna in the Gita and that TM allows Samadhi right from the very beginning. LIkewise for the Yoga Sutras!: TAT SANNIDHAU VAIRATYAGAH “In the vicinity of Yoga (the experience of the Transcendental Consciousness, the Unified Field) hostile, conflicting tendencies are eliminated.” – YOGA SUTRA 2.35 proven over and over again in scientific studies published in reputeable peer reviewed scientific journals I invite the author to really understand fully what Yoga is: Maharishi's Yoga: The Royal Path to Enlightenment

Shlomo P Ruse Jan 21, 2018 2:00am

'Time spend on Yoga Asana is a Golden Time of Day' Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught asanas, you are imagining motivations about someone and something you know very little about. Transcendental Meditation is easy and works for everyone from the very beginning. It is the essence of true Yoga. It gives the experience of Samadhi directly. This has been verified in the lives of millions and subjected to decades of rigorous scientific research. Maharishi's Yoga: The Royal Path to Enlightenment

Karen Asconi Jan 17, 2018 9:56am

Thank you for sharing your experience. Whether it's on a yoga mat, or walking, or eating, or sitting, or knitting, true meditation is the meditation you show up for; the meditation that allows you to be aware of what is. And in doing so, the fluctuations of the mind are a pinch quieter and how we move through the world is tempered with a little more grace. Rock on.

John Backman Jan 15, 2018 1:12pm

Rosalind Atkinson, thank you for the kind words. I'm so glad you raised that point--breaking down "the notion there is anywhere to get to at all"--because you're right, it's marvelous, and by the time I got to the Comments section I had forgotten it! The hazards of getting old, I'm afraid. ; )

John Backman Jan 15, 2018 1:11pm

Mark Reilly, thanks for your response. You hit on the other undercurrent in John's article that I thought I was picking up: a criticism of yoga as popularized in (at least) Western culture. From what I've seen of other faith traditions and practices (I know little about yoga, I'm afraid), the gap between "serious practice" and popular forms deserves that sort of scrutiny--if for no other reason than the "serious practice" is usually quite beautiful and causes one's life to bear all sorts of fruit.

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 6:22am

It's Mony Python's People's Front of Judea all over again! This would make such a brilliant comedy sketch!

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 6:19am

sorry Rosalind, I couldnt help myself - I just copied a reply from above and posted it to yours. It is hilarious seeing all these meditators and yogis having a full-on brawl!

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 6:16am

You come in and leave a message that is attacking, reactive, and pompous, and then leave "what's the point" . Are you serious?! Your pretentious undertone is definitely not needed, and clear signs of your ego at work.

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 6:04am

Wow, are you an extra-terrestial too?

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 6:01am

Brian James is "maestro" the fruits of your arrogance and presumption? :)

Nigel Hill Jan 15, 2018 5:47am

Sorry, but this is nonsense. I have practised yoga for almost 25 years and believe it is incredibly good for your body and mind, but it is not a substitute for meditation. Meditation requires a different skill-set. Unquestionably, yoga assists in more readily picking up that skillset, but they are not the same. I too have struggled with meditation over many years (notwithstanding extensive yoga practice) and I have had to try many different techniques. I did a 10 day vipassana meditation a few years back and that was what really assisted me in the proper practice, but it requires a lot of diligence to keep going and developing that practice..and that diligence is not the same as doing a series of salutes or headstands or something similar. ...and, I should add, just to stir up someone below and for a bit of a laugh: Namaste!

John Thomas Casey Jan 14, 2018 5:58pm

Postscript on my more lengthy comment: The fact that the Elephant Journal has entitled this article "The Truth Bomb about Meditation that Nobody seems to Know" is, in itself, very disappointing. I had previously held a high opinion of the journal's editorial staff, but to suggest that this article constitutes a "truth bomb" displays a singular lack of knowledge, expertise, and judgment concerning the subject material at hand. Or, perhaps it indicates a willingness to engage in a form of cheap sensationalism that seems antithetical to the professed ethos that informs the publication. Either way, it exhibits an unfortunate decay of standards at the journal. Just saying...

Sean CP Jan 14, 2018 2:31pm

There sure are a lot of egos in here. "This is what yoga is"... "This is what meditation is"... I love how everyone is so sure that their point of view is the correct view. Silly humans.

John Thomas Casey Jan 14, 2018 10:04am

While I can agree with the author that meditation, in and of itself, is not something that it is "done," and that it is something that, in a certain very real sense, arises spontaneously, I feel that the article as a whole is rather misleading and contains a few assertions that simply cannot hold up to scrutiny. As to our points of agreement, I would say that the culmination of meditation is, in fact, a "non-doing." Assuming that one can regard the author of the Yoga Sutra as a trusted authority, we can note that Patanjali defines "yoga" as "cessation of mental processes"—a rather radical state of non-doing or, more positively expressed, a state of sheer being. Furthermore, I would suggest that many people spontaneously experience such states, but also generally quite momentarily. The yogic contemplative traditions have developed methods of cultivating the ability to enter into such states voluntarily and in a sustainable fashion. Whether these methods are predominately mental or physical in emphasis, they are, in essence, methods of deliberate "doing" that enables a state of radical non-doing. As to my points of disagreement with the overall message of the article, to assert that the entry into a state of pure beingness can only be attained through the physical methods of hatha yoga is to ignore the fact that the earliest Indian contemplatives did NOT employ the extensive physical methods of asana and pranayama. Although some effective physical practices must certainly be of rather ancient origin, these methods seem to have become systematically developed only since about the ninth century of the present era. Patanjali's reference to "asana" is in terms of developing a comfortable and stable "seat" for meditation practice. The earliest use of the term "yoga" in a spiritual sense is seen in the early Upanishads, around the sixth century BC (Taittiriya and Katha Upanishads), where it clearly means harnessing attention to the spiritually liberating insight that one's deepest identity is the Divine itself. It had liitle or nothing to do with physical practices, per se. So, to assert that "without physical asana and pranayama practice, true meditation will not happen" is simply uninformed and based on reliance on the author's interpretation of a single teacher's opinion and on the author's personal experience, while ignoring the long historical record, which is a far larger and more inclusive spiritual testament. The author's assertion that "True meditation is the gift one receives by committing to a real yoga practice. ... It is not an activity, but rather an involuntary experience" suggests two things: First, it assumes that "real yoga practice" is only what he himself has learned as yoga, which sounds like it may be somewhat limited in scope. (Which is not to say that it has been ineffective for him. Although, I would question whether the author is implying that he has, in fact, achieved moksha, spiritual liberation, consummate Enlightenement, or Self-Realization...) Secondly, the implication of the article is that meditative discipline is useless and misguided and that "true mediation" is only achieved as a secondary "involuntary experience" or "gift" as a result of asana and pranayama practice. Such an asssertion rather entirely ignores and disregards 2500 years of the very advanced meditation experiences and realizations recorded by vast numbers of Buddhist practitioners in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Southeast Asian cultures. Many, or even most, of these adepts achieved their Awakening without resort to the extensive physical practices that the author considers absolutely necessary for the "gift" of "true meditation" to be "received." To summarily negate the value, importance, and effectiveness of well-guided contemplative discipline and practice seems to be a totally untenable assertion. So, while I am pleased that the author has found a teaching and practice that works well for him, the sweeping, misleading, and dismissive assertions expressed in this article display a level of spiritual presumption and intellectual naivete that is more than a little surprising, coming as it does from one who seems to consider himself to be an advanced, well-seasoned, and knowledgable yogin. Early in the article, the author states that he taught daily meditation classes, but his comment a few lines later suggests a rather shallow and limited understanding of meditation: "Of course, spending my time meditating was a lot better than sitting at the bar. But, the point is, what I was doing wasn’t meditation. I was just trying to concentrate." Sounds like the voice of a dilletante rather than a master. "Caveat emptor — Let the buyer beware!"

Lise Liddell Jan 14, 2018 1:20am

I'm happy for anyone to get what they get out of formal meditation. But I thank you so much for this article. I've been practicing yoga for 25 years. I beleive it is one of several things that saved my emotional, spiritual and physical lives. But meditation is not one of those things. I've had a seperate teacher for meditation for perhaps 15 years, and I know she'd not like to hear me say this, but I am BAD at meditation and I don't like it. My mind never calms down. Because I've done so much yoga, I can physially sit for an hour meditating, but my mind and heart are miserable. I still go see my meditation teacher a couple of times a year because I love her. She's a great woman and meditation has changed her life I believe. She doesn't do yoga, but she can literally meditate for hours. Out of respect for her, when I visit her I always meditate with her, but I quit making myself do it by myself a long time ago. I agree with you, that for at least you and me, real meditation is spontaneous, and yoga unblocks our stuck prana so that from time to time, we are gifted with a pure moment of peace and freedom. Thank you for writing this!

Scott Kilpatrick Jan 13, 2018 11:34pm

I'm sorry that you misuderstand the nature and practice of meditation. It seems someone has attempted to overcomplicate it for you. There is no shame in error, but try not to misinform others. Keep practicing.

TR Evans Jan 13, 2018 11:20pm

There is an inherent danger in dissociating from our natural state of being by placing an external requirement of needing a specific path to achieve it. Many will attest to moments of supreme spiritual clarity while engaged in the most mundane of activities off the meditation cushion or yoga mat. I agree that it isn't so much about doing meditation as an activity. The idea is more like becoming meditation, becoming yoga, becoming aware of the prana that flows throughout our bodies. And these experiences of becoming can be had while simply practicing the yoga of washing dishes or the meditation of picking up the poop left on the sidewalk by Fido. And, at the same time, it's good to have a disciplined practice and an experienced teacher who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, to help us get beyond our own ego silliness. And it’s good to recognize that, within the majesty of an infinite universe, we really don’t know doodly-squat.

Rosalind Atkinson Jan 13, 2018 9:45pm

Hello John Blackman, interested to read your obvious intelligence... in answer to your question I would say, ‘start on the way to where’? The radical aspect I enjoy of this article is how it breaks down the notion there is anywhere to get to at all. It is all a great question into what ‘Yoga’ and ‘meditation’ really is... words that have so often been warped to indicate the search for something other than the wonder of what is already here.

Rosalind Atkinson Jan 13, 2018 9:39pm

I don’t understand how a dharmic disagreement is leading to vitriol against the author himself. I see it as a clear explanation of his own experience by which meditation arose for him. If people are truly enjoying a meditative practice, I would hope one of the fruits would be a little more kindness. Otherwise what’s the point?

Rosalind Atkinson Jan 13, 2018 9:35pm

Taking meditation from its Vedic Yogic context is a disservice to meditation and a disservice to Yoga. They belong together hand in glove. And not the Yoga that has been popularised in the West in the last few decades.

Rosalind Atkinson Jan 13, 2018 9:31pm

In my understanding based on my experience, Yoga and meditation is intimacy with reality itself, the natural. Not an attempt to get somewhere, as if I’m not the wonder of life itself- all the time, already given. Not as a result of effort. The prevalent idea of meditation as an attempt to get somewhere (however peaceful) in spiritual idealism has been put on humanity by patriarchal power structures. I see this article as a kind offering to help release people from this imposition of patriarchy. Even the assumption that Asana must be done to achieve some state is the same misconception. Asana, pranayama, meditation and life are a seamless process of participation. Not effort. But if efforts seem to give results, people get very attached to them, not realising that the whole idea of improving oneself is violent.

Petra Youngberg Jan 13, 2018 9:07pm

O please. Practise meditation to know what is so. Many cannot do yoga, nor is it a panacea for all. Basic simple sitting meditation can remove obstructions, mental fabrications such as this & wrinkles in your life & face. Goforit

Hilary Easton Jan 13, 2018 6:07pm

Travis May Absolutely. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that there are 84,000 paths to the truth. The idea that there is only one is completely risable to me.

Travis May Jan 13, 2018 5:51pm

Totally agree. I think this article is terrible and an embarrassment to this site.

Mark Reilly Jan 13, 2018 4:37pm

Happy to read your words, John Backman. I can’t speak for the original poster, but I feel he is addressing the modern context of Yoga and all of its shortcomings. I do agree that it is not necessary for every person to follow the same prescription and this is why classic Yoga is purely one-on-one or small groups. Yoga, meaning the transmission of the unspeakable knowledge and state of Oneness that down the ages had been passed from Guru to student. The West, generally, is not ready for that kind of dedication. Probably the Modern East isn’t either. In my limited research and even more limited understanding, most “attained” beings I have learned about went through the basic Asana/pranayama/Hatha Yoga regimine before they went into extensive meditative practices. This is true of the IndianVedic Tradition, the Buddhist tradition, and most if not all of the Tantric traditions. The original post, I feel, is encouraging people to develop a well-balanced approach to and practice of Yogic tools, namely Asana and Pranayama (Hatha Yoga), which may or may not set a good place for meditation to naturally unfold. The world of modern Yoga definitely needs that so as to see how fragmented the practices have become. And perhaps it also lends itself to other traditions such as the Buddhist tradition. Mark has helped to make the basics of these practices available to all backgrounds and religions in ways few can or have, though certainly others are doing similarly great work. It is really important to talk about and such a valuable discussion because the sacred texts themselves, such as the Yoga sutra, offer so many paths to the one goal.