You may not always think of it this way, but when you roll out your yoga mat at home or at your weekly class, you’re entering a meditation practice.
Countless articles have been written about our western culture’s fascination—obsession, even—with the physical aspects of yoga. The poses. The asanas. They make us stronger, more flexible, and they offer visible evidence that we are achieving something in our practice. Many of us are initially drawn to yoga for its physical benefits. I went to my first class because my hips were so tight I had trouble sitting on the ground in “circle time” with the kids I taught! Other people seek relief from injuries, or they want to lose weight, or they haven’t touched their toes since third grade, and so on.
But as those physical changes kick in, they notice something different happening. There’s a feeling that sticks with them after practice; maybe a sense of lightness, a different way of seeing their surroundings, or other subtle shifts in sensory perception. Whatever it may be, it’s clearly different from the runner’s high or the weightlifting-induced adrenaline rush they’ve experienced in other workouts. And that’s where a deeper curiosity about Yoga (with a capital “Y”) starts.
“It’s all about paying attention.”
There’s a simple phrase that has stuck with me, from a teacher in one of my first yoga classes—a Power Yoga class, no less. It doesn’t matter whether you practice a vigorous style or a gentle one (see Yin Yoga, for example); your brain just works differently in asana than it does in other physical endeavors, especially if your teacher is guiding you properly. If you leave out that critical element of paying attention—and doing so in a very specific way—you’ve stopped doing yoga and have moved on to what can more accurately be described as…gymnastics. In other words, the practice of asana teaches you to meditate.
Old Guys in Caves
There’s plenty of speculation on how asanas developed. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras reference asana only a few times, with far more emphasis on other aspects of yoga practice, particularly meditation. That’s a pretty good indication that yoga is about much more than physical exercise. Many of the asanas we practice today are in fact modern creations in a continually-evolving western expression of an ancient tradition. As Alanna Kaivalya poetically puts it in a Huffington Post article, “basically, we’re all just making this shit up.” But even a new, “made up” pose has to prove itself if it’s going to endure and truly be considered an asana. If it doesn’t connect the yogi to that deeper meditative experience, it becomes a callisthenic exercise—maybe a good stretch or an opportunity to show off, but not much more from a yogic perspective.
In a workshop I took at Kripalu Center, yoga teacher and writer Stephen Cope shared the theory that asanas actually began as spontaneous physical responses to countless hours of meditation by ancient yogis sitting in caves. I like Cope’s explanation because it says that each asana has at its core the seed of meditation, and that these two elements of the yoga tradition are intimately linked.
So, where is this all leading? In the next few articles we’ll explore a variety of ways that our on-the-mat practice, from centering through savasana, not only prepares us for meditation, but is itself a meditative experience.