Someone asked me recently:
What is the relationship between yoga and meditation practice?
The simple answer is that yoga prepares the system for meditation. Ashtanga yoga, in particular, is a systematised path to meditation.
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means eight limbs. The eight limbs of yoga are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
Asana – the physical yoga posture – is just one of those limbs. Yama and niyama, the first two limbs deal with ethics and behaviour—basically how to be a decent and disciplined person. Asana, is translated as posture, and from the point of view of the Yoga Sutras, means the posture of meditation. Popularization of yoga in the West has expanded this term to include all the fancy physical poses found in yoga studios these days.
But essentially, yoga is about learning to master the posture of sitting meditation by preparing the system, and then guiding the mind to stillness.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is the practice of deepening the breath in various ways, and learning to harness this power and put it to use in the service of meditation. Pratyahara translates as “withdrawing awareness of sensory objects.” It’s changing the allegiance from external reference points to internal ones and can be considered a primary step in learning to focus the mind. The last three limbs, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, sometimes called samyama together, are essentially more and more subtle levels of meditation, culminating in a state of mind free of attachment to the conditioned world. This is the awakening —the mukti, or liberation– all yogis seek.
One important thing to note: the eight-limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga, known as Raja Yoga, or Classical Yoga, is NOT Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. This is a confusing but very important point. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the system of physical postures designed and developed by Pattabhi Jois, that offers a set sequence of postures combined with a pranayama technique and certain internal mudras, or energetic awareness practices. Ashtanga Yoga in the classical sense is a road map: step-by-step process of preparing the body and mind to arrive at a state of awakening, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In this foundational text on yoga philosophy, only one yoga posture is described: that of sitting still for meditation.
Essentially, the entire path of yoga is a meditation practice.
If you look at all the yoga classes happening in studios around the world these days, you might not immediately see this connection. But these two approaches are compatible, and if you undertake both, you’ll have rocket fuel under your asana.
So here is the instruction:
First you prime and purify the body using the breath and awareness, through the physical practices of yoga, then you sit still to observe what arises once the mental obscurations are no longer deceiving you about the nature of reality.
So how do you do that? By developing a practice.
This path is a lifelong endeavour. If you only have a few hours a week to devote to it then you’ll have to choose how to proceed. Design a daily practice that fits your schedule and your needs, and stick with it, through thick and thin. You don’t have to become a celibate monk or yogi to benefit. All you need is a steady, dedicated practice.
How do you develop a practice?
Like this: one day at a time, including short periods of practice into your daily schedule. It means getting on your yoga mat each day and your meditation cushion each morning. It means at a certain point you’ll have to have a conversation with your family to let them know that this is something you are doing with your time, with your life. You’ll probably want a teacher or at least a guide – a live person to relate to about the path. It means that you have made a choice to undertake a training of your awareness, which is unknown territory.
Many people will not understand your choice. This is part of the path: learning to deal with going against the grain of accepting things at face value. Which brings up the question…
Why should you start or continue a yoga and meditation practice?
I mean really, what is the point? You may alienate your loved ones, encounter difficult emotions, add one more thing to your to do list. So what is the point?
I’ll tell you.
When you are able to be aware of and tolerate whatever is going on in the present, you delete an entire layer of suffering in your already stacked layer cake of life. Let’s face it: life is hard sometimes. We don’t want to know about all the suffering in the world, much less our own. It’s easier to go out and laugh with friends, have a few drinks, watch a funny movie. Go shopping. Find a new lover.
But what if, instead, you were to take your emotional drama to the yoga mat or the meditation cushion and watch the whole show, start to finish. Sit there in the audience of your own mind. Without popcorn. It doesn’t sound so fun does it? But it is so much better than fun. It is the key to releasing attachment to your storyline – the one that causes you to re-live your suffering over and over again.
By sitting still and observing the flow of that story – seeing how it develops according to your expectations, whether you want it to or not – allows you to see your part in the drama. It lets you see how you take part in your own downfall, so you can take responsibility for your actions. Then perhaps next time, you can avert the crisis and direct a more peaceful ending to the scene. Eventually, with practice, your perspective will shift to include a wider range of possible outcomes.