Let’s Meditate: A Beginner’s Guide – by Mara Carrico (Yoga Journal)
Although you don’t need to formally meditate in order to practice hatha yoga—nor is the practice of hatha yoga mandatory in order to meditate—the two practices support each another. Through your practice of yoga, you’ve enhanced both your abilities to concentrate and to relax—the two most important requirements for a meditation practice. Now you can deepen your understanding of what meditation is and begin a practice of your own.
What Is Meditation?
An exquisite methodology exists within the yoga tradition that is designed to reveal the interconnectedness of every living thing. This fundamental unity is referred to as advaita. Meditation is the actual experience of this union.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives instruction on how to meditate and describes what factors constitute a meditation practice. The second sutra in the first chapter states that yoga (or union) happens when the mind becomes quiet. This mental stillness is created by bringing the body, mind, and senses into balance which, in turn, relaxes the nervous system. Patanjali goes on to explain that meditation begins when we discover that our never-ending quest to possess things and our continual craving for pleasure and security can never be satisfied. When we finally realize this, our external quest turns inward, and we have shifted into the realm of meditation.
By dictionary definition, “meditation” means to reflect upon, ponder, or contemplate. It can also denote a devotional exercise of contemplation or a contemplative discourse of a religious or philosophical nature. The word meditate comes from the Latin meditari, which means to think about or consider. Med is the root of this word and means “to take appropriate measures.” In our culture, to meditate can be interpreted several ways. For instance, you might meditate on or consider a course of action regarding your child’s education, or a career change that would entail a move across the country. Viewing a powerful movie or play, you may be moved to meditate upon—or ponder—the moral issues plaguing today’s society.
In the yogic context, meditation, or dhyana, is defined more specifically as a state of pure consciousness. It is the seventh stage, or limb, of the yogic path and follows dharana, the art of concentration. Dhyana in turn precedes samadhi, the state of final liberation or enlightenment, the last step in Patanjali’s eight-limbed system. These three limbs—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (ecstasy)—are inextricably linked and collectively referred to as samyama, the inner practice, or subtle discipline, of the yogic path.
Recall that the first four limbs—yama (ethics), niyama (self-discipline), asana (posture), and pranayama (life-force extension)—are considered external disciplines. The fifth step, pratyahara represents the withdrawal of the senses. This sensual withdrawal arises out of the practice of the first four steps and links the external to the internal. When we are grounded physically and mentally, we are keenly aware of our senses, yet disengaged at the same time. Without this ability to remain detached yet observant, it is not possible to meditate. Even though you need to be able to concentrate in order to meditate, meditation is more than concentration. It ultimately evolves into an expanded state of awareness.
When we concentrate, we direct our mind toward what appears to be an object apart from ourselves. We become acquainted with this object and establish contact with it. To shift into the meditation realm, however, we need to become involved with this object; we need to communicate with it. The result of this exchange, of course, is a deep awareness that there is no difference between us (as the subject) and that which we concentrate or meditate upon (the object). This brings us to the state of samadhi, or self-realization.
A good way to understand this is to think about the development of a relationship. First, we meet someone—that is, we make contact. Then by spending time together, listening to, and sharing with each another, we develop a relationship. In the next stage, we merge with this person in the form of a deep friendship, partnership, or marriage. The “you” and “me” become an “us.”
According to the Yoga Sutra, our pain and suffering is created by the misperception that we are separate from nature. The realization that we aren’t separate may be experienced spontaneously, without effort. However, most of us need guidance. Patanjali’s eight-limbed system provides us with the framework we need.
Ways to Meditate
Just as there are numerous styles of hatha yoga, so there are many ways to meditate. The first stage of meditation is to concentrate on a specific object or establish a point of focus, with the eyes either opened or closed. Silently repeating a word or phrase, audibly reciting a prayer or chant, visualizing an image such as a deity, or focusing on an object such as a lighted candle in front of you are all commonly recommended points of focus. Observing or counting your breaths and noticing bodily sensations are also optional focal points. Let’s take a closer look.
The Use of Sound. Mantra yoga employs the use of a particular sound, phrase, or affirmation as a point of focus. The word mantra comes from man, which means “to think,” and tra, which suggests “instrumentality.” Therefore, mantra is an instrument of thought. It also has come to mean “protecting the person who receives it.” Traditionally, you can only receive a mantra from a teacher, one who knows you and your particular needs. The act of repeating your mantra is called japa, which means recitation. Just as contemplative prayer and affirmation need to be stated with purpose and feeling, a mantra meditation practice requires conscious engagement on the part of the meditator. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) espouses the practice of mantra yoga.
Chanting, an extension of mantra yoga, is a powerful way to enter into meditation. Longer than a mantra, a chant involves both rhythm and pitch. Western traditions use chants and hymns to invoke the name of God, to inspire, and to produce a spiritual awakening. Dating back to Vedic times, Indian chanting comes out of a tradition that believes in the creative power of sound and its potential to transport us to an expanded state of awareness. The rishis, or ancient seers, taught that all of creation is a manifestation of the primordial sound Om. Reflected in an interpretation of the word universe—”one song”—Om is the seed sound of all other sounds. Chanting Sanskrit often and properly produces profound spiritual and physical effects.
Many beginners find using a mantra in their meditation very effective and relatively easy. Chanting, on the other hand, can be intimidating for some people. If you feel awkward chanting on your own, use one of the many audiotapes of chants on the market, or participate in a group meditation where a meditation teacher leads the chant and the students repeat it. Although chanting in Sanskrit can be powerful, reciting a meaningful prayer or affirmation in any language can be effective.
The Use of Imagery. Visualizing is also a good way to meditate; one that beginners often find easy to practice. Traditionally, a meditator visualizes his or her chosen deity—a god or goddess-in vivid and detailed fashion. Essentially any object is valid.
Some practitioners visualize a natural object such as a flower or the ocean; others meditate on the chakras, or energy centers, in the body. In this type of meditation, you focus on the area or organ of the body corresponding to a particular chakra, imagining the particular color associated with it.
Gazing. Another variation on the use of imagery is to maintain an open-eyed focus upon an object. This focus is referred to as drishti, which means “view,” “opinion,” or “gaze.” Again the choices available to you here are virtually limitless. Candle gazing is a popular form of this method. Focusing on a flower in a vase, or a statue, or a picture of a deity are other possibilities.
Use this technique with your eyes fully opened or partially closed, creating a softer, diffused gaze. Many of the classical hatha yoga postures have gazing points, and the use of drishti is especially emphasized in the Ashtanga style of hatha yoga. Many pranayama techniques also call for specific positioning of the eyes, such as gazing at the “third eye,” the point between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose.
Breathing. Using the breath as a point of focus is yet another possibility. You can do this by actually counting the breaths as you would in pranayama practice. Ultimately, however, meditating on the breath just means purely observing the breath as it is, without changing it in any way. In this instance, the breath becomes the sole object of your meditation. You observe every nuance of the breath and each sensation it produces: how it moves in your abdomen and torso, how it feels as it moves in and out of your nose, its quality, its temperature, and so on. Though you are fully aware of all these details, you don’t dwell on them or judge them in any way; you remain detached from what you’re observing. What you discover is neither good nor bad; you simply allow yourself to be with the breath from moment to moment.
Breath observance is the predominant technique used by practitioners of vipassana, commonly referred to as “insight” or “mindfulness” meditation. Popularized by such renowned teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, this is a form a Buddhist practice. The word vipassana, which literally means “to see clearly” or “look deeply,” is also interpreted to mean “the place where the heart dwells,” and reflects the premise that thought arises out of our hearts.
Physical Sensations. Another way to meditate is to watch a physical sensation. Practice this with the same degree of detail as you would when watching the breath. In this context, you will look deeply at, or penetrate, a particular sensation that draws your attention, such as how hot or cool your hands feel. The increased sensitivity you gained due to your asana practice may provide you with other points of focus: the strength of your spine or the suppleness you feel in your lower body, for example. Observing a particular emotion or any specific area of discomfort is also a possibility. Whatever you choose remains your point of focus for the whole practice. You may find that observing a physical sensation can be more challenging than observing the breath. For most beginners, mantras, chants, and visualizations offer more tangible ways to replace or calm the scattered thoughts of our minds, which seem to be perpetually on sensory overload.
Sitting. Although you can meditate, or become fully absorbed in any activity or position of stillness, sitting is the most commonly recommended posture. There are a number of classic seated poses, but Sukhasana (Easy Cross-Legged Pose) is obviously the most basic. More flexible meditators prefer Padmasana (Lotus Pose).
Sitting in a chair also works. It’s no less effective and certainly no less spiritual, and it’s often the best choice for beginners. The most important things are that your spine remain upright and that you feel steady and comfortable, the same two qualities necessary for performing asanas. To maximize comfort on the floor, place a cushion or folded blanket under your buttocks to elevate them and gently guide your knees down toward the floor. This helps support the natural lumbar curve of the lower back. Some people prefer kneeling “Japanese-style.” You can buy small, slanted wooden benches for this position.
Relax your arms and place your hands on your thighs or in your lap, with the palms in a relaxed position facing up or down. Roll your shoulders back and down and gently lift the chest. Keep your neck long and the chin tilted slightly downward. Depending upon which technique you are following, the eyes may be opened or closed. Breathing is natural and free.
Walking. A moving meditation—highly recommended by many teachers—may be an enjoyable option for you. The challenge of this form is to walk slowly and consciously, each step becoming your focal point. Destination, distance, and pace are all incidental. Relax your arms at your sides and move freely, coordinating your breath with your steps. For instance, you might breathe in for 3 steps and breathe out for 3 steps. If that feels awkward or difficult, just breathe freely. Although you can practice walking meditation anywhere, choose a setting you particularly love—the ocean, a favorite park, or a meadow. Remember, getting somewhere is not the issue. Rather, the complete involvement in the act of walking becomes your meditation.
Standing. Standing is another meditation practice that can be very powerful. It is often recommended for those practitioners who find that it builds physical, mental, and spiritual strength. Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-distance apart. Knees are soft; arms rest comfortably at your sides. Check to see that the whole body is aligned in good posture: shoulders rolled back and down, chest open, neck long, head floating on top, and chin parallel to the floor. Either keep your eyes opened or softly close them.
Reclining. Even though lying down is associated with relaxation, the classic corpse posture, Savasana, is also used for meditation. Lie down on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing upward. Touch your heels together and allow the feet to fall away from one another, completely relaxed. Although your eyes may be opened or closed, some people find it easier to stay awake with their eyes open. A supine meditation, although more physically restful than other positions, entails a greater degree of alertness to remain awake and focused. Therefore, beginners may find it more difficult to meditate in this position without falling asleep.
The Benefits of Meditation
Research has confirmed what the yogis of ancient times already knew: Profound physiological and psychological changes take place when we meditate, causing an actual shift in the brain and in the involuntary processes of the body.
This is how it works. An instrument called an electroencephalograph (EEG) records mental activity. During waking activity, when the mind constantly moves from one thought to another, the EEG registers jerky and rapid lines categorized as beta waves. When the mind calms down through meditation, the EEG shows waves that are smoother and slower, and categorizes them as alpha waves. As meditation deepens, brain activity decreases further. The EEG then registers an even smoother, slower pattern of activity we call theta waves. Studies on meditators have shown decreased perspiration and a slower rate of respiration accompanied by a decrease of metabolic wastes in the bloodstream. Lower blood pressure and an enhanced immune system are further benefits noted by research studies.
The health benefits meditation produces naturally reflect the mental and physical effects of this process. At the very least, meditation teaches you how to manage stress; reducing stress in turn enhances your overall physical health and emotional well-being. On a deeper level, it can add to the quality of your life by teaching you to be fully alert, aware, and alive. In short, it is a celebration of your self. You are not meditating to get anything, but rather to look at and let go of anything you do not need.
Starting Your Own Meditation Practice
We highly recommend a period of daily meditation. Add it to the end of your asana practice, or set aside another block of time. The important thing is that you find a time that works best for you. Don’t do too much too soon; you’re apt to get discouraged and stop altogether.
When and Where to Practice
To establish consistency, meditate at the same time and in the same place every day. Choose a place that is quiet, one that is pleasant, where you’ll be undisturbed.
Traditionally, the morning is considered the optimal time because you are less likely to be distracted by the demands of your day. Many people find that a morning meditation helps them enter the day with a greater degree of equanimity and poise. However, if a morning practice is a struggle, try an afternoon or early evening meditation.
If you are new to yoga and meditation, you may find adding five or 10 minutes of meditation at the end of your asana practice enough. When meditating independently of your yoga practice, a 15- to 20-minute time frame seems manageable for most beginners.
Choose a position that works for you. If you prefer sitting, either on a chair or on the floor, keep the spine erect and the body relaxed. Your hands should rest comfortably on your lap or thighs, with the palms up or down. If you choose to walk or stand, maintaining good posture is also critical, with your arms hanging freely by your sides. When lying down, place yourself in a symmetrical and comfortable position with the appropriate support under your head and knees if needed.
Decide on your point of focus. If sound appeals to you, create your own mantra, silently or audibly repeating a word or phrase that is calming to you, such as “peace,” “love,” or “joy.”
Affirmations also work. “I am relaxed” or “I am calm and alert” as you breathe out. Using a tape of chants or listening to a relaxing piece of music are also options.
If you choose imagery, visualize your favorite spot in nature with your eyes closed, or gaze upon an object placed in front of you: a lighted candle, a flower, or a picture of your favorite deity.
One way to observe the breath is to count it: Breathe in for three to seven counts and breathe out for the same length of time. Then shift to simply observing the breath, noticing its own natural rhythm and its movement in your torso.
Whichever posture and method you choose, stick with them for the duration of your meditation period. Indeed, once you find what works for you, you’ll want to maintain that practice indefinitely.
Do not be surprised or discouraged by how frequently your thoughts wander. When you realize that your mind has become distracted, simply return to your chosen point of focus.
How Do You Know If It’s Working?
At the beginning you might feel uncomfortable meditating—sitting for 20 minutes may cause your legs to fall asleep or cramp up, walking slowly may bring up feelings of impatience or agitation, and reclining poses may merely make you fall asleep. Conversely, you may have some profound experiences the first few times you sit, only to spend the next few frustrating days trying to duplicate them. Relax. Meditation shouldn’t cause you to feel unreasonably stressed or physically uncomfortable. If it does, reduce the length of your practice time or change your position (from walking to sitting; from sitting to standing). If that doesn’t work, go back to incorporating a few minutes of meditation into your asana practice instead of holding onto a formal practice. After a few days, try returning to your normal meditation routine.
If you continue having trouble with your meditation practice, you may need to seek the guidance of an experienced teacher or the support of a group that meets regularly to meditate together. Indications of your progress, with or without a teacher or group, are feelings of mental calm and physical comfort, and the ability to be present in all your experiences.
by Mara Carrico, courtesy of Yoga Journal