Many of us have probably been told at some point that we need to start to meditate. Either we are super hyper and our friends are thinking this might pull us down a notch, or we are over-working and over stressing and we could use a new perspective. There is an old zen saying: “you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes each day, unless you are too busy in which case you should meditate for an hour.” Outside of the fact that we probably can’t sit still long enough to figure this meditation thing out (as per above!) is there a certain kind of meditation to do? How am I supposed to know if I’m doing it right?
In the 8 limbs of Yoga as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (450 BCE) we learn that asana or the poses is only 1 limb, a very small part of the overall practice of Yoga. 4 of the limbs are in fact dedicated to meditation:
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
Dharana – concentration (often on a sensory object)
Dhyana – our meditative mind
Samadhi – bliss state
Many will say that samadhi is the goal of Yoga. Samadhi is difficult to describe in words. It is where time ceases to exist, and also where everything falls into its perfect place. A sudden feeling of love or light washes over you – it’s the perfect moment. We may have experienced samadhi many times already: watching children play, a quiet moment with the one we love, looking out over a body of water. Samadhi can also be achieved through meditation, when we are totally tuned in and the rest of the world falls away. Much of the Sutras is written about this quest with meditation, however the most important part of this quest is in fact the journey itself.
When we first begin a meditation practice we experience pratyahara. Perhaps we’ve found a quiet seat. As we settle in we immediately begin to bring our attention inwards -sitting a little taller, deepening our breath and closing our eyes. This is the practice of pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses. From there we begin to focus, perhaps on our breath or a particular mantra. This is dharana, or concentration. Dharana can hold us through much of our meditation. As our attention drifts away it is dharana that will continuously bring us back. As we move towards our next stages of meditation dhyana and then samadhi, it becomes a little more complicated as these limbs can’t be taught or practiced they can only be experienced. Dhyana is our meditative mind, this is the space we move into when we are really meditating. Both dhyana and samadhi are fleeting. With experience we learn how to control our thoughts and stay in dhyana for longer periods of time – thus meditation becomes easier. Though I do believe that all stages of meditation offer wonderful benefits, it’s truly this state of dhyana where the real work happens.
There are many different ways to meditate. The easiest way to start is to sit down, close our eyes and start to focus on our breath. Seriously! We can sit on the floor or a chair. If we are sitting on the floor, I’d suggest finding a cushion to prop up the hips for more comfort in our lower backs and hips. Sitting up tall so we have lots of space for breath we can begin to count out our breath or just follow it in and out. This is a very simple way to practice dharana or concentration. I’d suggest setting a timer as well to keep you from continuously peeking at the clock. If you are new to meditation start with 1 minute, next day go to 2 and so on. When a daily practice has been set, you will quickly start to crave that time of peace. Practice anytime that works for you, often the beginning or end of the day are the easiest. We may need to practice different kinds of meditation to find the one that suits us best, in the same way that we practice different styles of yoga and different forms of cardio. When I first began my practice, I found I needed gentle music in the background so as my attention wavered – and it will – I was able to come back to the meditation by focusing on the rhythm of the song played. Different types of meditation include: TM (transcendental meditation) Mantra Meditation, Kundalini Meditation or Walking Meditations.
In Chakra Meditation, focus is brought to the attributes of one or several chakras as a way to bring healing and focus to this part of our Selves. We can meditate on the seed sound (single syllable sound) the colour, the yantra (visual mandala specific to each chakra) or anything else that makes us feel more connected to the chakra we are working on.
The chakras as described above, are part of our subtle body and are also connected to nadis or energy currents. There are 72,000 nadis that move throughout our entire body running in similar patterns to our nervous system. The sushumna nadi is the central nadi and runs up and down the spine, similar to our central nervous system (brain and spinal column) and connecting each chakra. We also have 2 other main nadis, the ida and pingala. These reflect both Yin (ida) and Yang (pingala) tendencies of feminine-masculine, cold-heat, calming-energetic. These two nadis start in the base of our spine or Root Chakra and interweave through each chakra.
In Meditation as Medicine, written by: Dharma Singh Kalsa, MD and Cameron Stauth, the nadis are discussed in terms of their connection to our brain: “Three nadis are of particular importance, because they are connected to the brain’s limbic system, which controls memory and emotion. It also coordinates the functions of the hypothalamus, and helps control the endocrine system’s master gland, the pituitary. These three nadis, the ida, pingala, and sushumna, have a tremendously important effect on the body’s biochemistry.”
This connection from eastern thought to western science is what is bringing more and more attention to the benefits of meditation. Among others, meditation has been linked to reducing stress by increasing melatonin and serotonin and reducing cortisol, to improve insomnia and decrease chronic pain. In a 2012 study published by the American Heart Association, TM (Transcendental Meditation) was shown to decrease heart attack and stroke by 48% for those diagnosed with heart disease. “We hypothesized that reducing stress by managing the mind-body connection would help improve rates of this epidemic disease,” said Robert Schneider, M.D., lead researcher “It appears that Transcendental Meditation is a technique that turns on the body’s own pharmacy — to repair and maintain itself.”
As per above, the easiest way to start a meditation practice is to just do it. What about now? Sit up in your chair, close your eyes and take 5 deep breaths in and out. Notice the shifts you feel mentally, energetically, physically. The best reasons to practice meditation are for those that resonate with you, as that will call you back again and again. Namasté.