Meditation gives you what nothing else can give you: it introduces you to yourself.
The mind is the lens through which we experience both the inner and outer worlds—it is the source of distress as well as the means for illumination. This is why the yogis tell us, “The mind alone is the cause of bondage and of liberation.” This insight led to meditative practices that incline the mind toward clarity and encourage self-awareness. They calm mental turbulence, and through their steadying, purifying, and harmonizing influence they help us discover the true nature of the self.
We all know that whenever we become overinvolved with the flow of outer experience our inner balance is disturbed. Our natural serenity is replaced by attachments and agitation. On the other hand, when our inner life is balanced the forces of attachment are weakened, the mind becomes calm, and there is a clear field into which the light and energy of the self can radiate. We are composed and naturally joyful. When we are fully anchored in this state, the sage Patanjali tells us, “the self abides in its own nature.” When we learn how to meditate we will find our own true self shining beneath the disturbance.
The mind is the lens through which we experience both the inner and outer worlds—it is the source of distress as well as the means for illumination.
Meditation offers a way to accomplish this. Like watching the flow of a river from its bank, a meditator learns to maintain a watchful, inner stance, and from that perspective the stream of outward events can be experienced while the meditator remains centered and relaxed. This process gradually leads to a deeper core of self-awareness. Thus learning how to meditate is both a way of enjoying life more fully and a way of gaining self-knowledge—direct, immediate, and without distortion.
At the heart of meditation practice are two inseparable skills. The first is concentration, the ability to rest your attention on a focus. The other is mindfulness, the ability to observe your personality with compassionate detachment. These two work together to create a clear and one-pointed mind.
Developing a Sitting Posture
Meditation requires preparation. We do not simply sit down and enter the deepest state. Because physical discomfort and mental chatter are intertwined, the first step in calming the mind is to stabilize and quiet the body. But anyone who has tried to sit perfectly still for any length of time will testify that it is not easy to find a stable and comfortable sitting pose.
Consider the spine. It is not perfectly straight, but has a natural curvature that reduces the likelihood of injury and fatigue and adds resiliency to the skeletal structure. But this means that to sit steadily and comfortably for any length of time the head, neck, and trunk must be aligned directly over the base of the spine. Sitting straight actually means aligning and balancing the spine along a vertical axis ascending toward the skull. Distortions are not only uncomfortable and destabilizing, they also block the flow of energy at subtle levels.
Sitting straight is not as simple as it sounds. Most of us have habitual muscular tensions, stiffness, and/or weakness in the spine, the pelvis, the legs, or the shoulder girdle that hinder our efforts to sit straight. For example, if the shoulders are rounded and pulled in toward the chest it is difficult to straighten the upper back and open the chest. Another common problem is pelvic alignment. A steady, stable posture requires that we sit squarely on the base of the spine.
Regular work with hatha yoga postures improves alignment and comfort in the sitting poses by developing flexibility in the legs, hips, and spine; strengthening the lower back; opening the chest; and increasing self-awareness. But there is no need to put off your meditation practice until you have perfect flexibility and strength. There are a number of sitting postures which, when properly executed, keep the spine straight, the body comfortable, the subtle energies collected and directed, the breath steady and smooth, and the mind calm and clear. Here are three:
There are a number of sitting postures which, when properly executed, keep the spine straight, the body comfortable, the subtle energies collected and directed, the breath steady and smooth, and the mind calm and clear.
1. Sitting on a Chair (Maitryasana)
Those whose knee, hip, or lower back flexibility is compromised by old injuries, arthritis, or other persistent conditions may find that sitting on a chair is the solution to establishing a steady and comfortable posture that keeps the spine straight. Our muscles are accustomed to sitting on chairs, so this pose makes no unusual demands on the knees and hips.
- Find a chair with a firm, flat surface. Sit forward on it with your knees straight out from the hips, feet flat on the floor and pointed forward. The height of the chair is important. In all the seated postures (except perhaps the easy pose) it is useful to have the hips slightly higher than the knees. Then the thighs slope gently downward, and strain in the legs is minimized. A cushion can be used to raise the height of the seat if necessary. If your feet aren’t solidly on the floor, place a phone book or some other flat support under them.
- Close your eyes, press down through the base of the spine, and lift up through the top of the head.
- Lift your shoulders, roll them up and back, and then drop and relax them.
- Allow your hands to fall naturally on the thighs, and join the tips of the thumbs and forefingers. The chair doesn’t create any difficulties for the body; it can be used by anyone who is not comfortable on the floor.
2. The Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
The chair is comfortable, but the linear support it provides to the base of the body is not as stable or grounded as the triangular foundation created by sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cross-legged poses have the additional advantage of drawing the legs and feet in toward the torso, which collects our energy and directs it inward. In addition to helping straighten the spine, bending the knees and crossing the legs create “locks,” which have subtle but profound effects in the pelvis and lower back.
The easy pose is the cross-legged sitting posture that requires the least flexibility in the knees and hips.
- To assume the pose, sit on a cushion or folded blanket and cross the legs. If possible, allow each leg to rest on the opposite foot.
- Align the upper body and shoulders directly over the base of the spine and rest the hands on the thighs.
Experiment with different cushion heights until you feel comfortable. Make sure the cushion is not too soft. Firmness at the base of the spine is important not only for long-term support and comfort but also for stimulating and directing subtle energies.
Frequently the knees, hips, or back are irritated by sitting cross-legged in this pose for any extended length of time, and if you choose this posture for meditation you can relieve discomfort by placing a cushion or rolled blanket under the thigh and knee to support the joint and alleviate the stress. Remember, we are searching for both comfort and stability, and one follows the other. Even if only one leg is problematic for you, it is better to provide support under both legs—be careful not to disturb the symmetry of the pose by propping one knee too high.
Remember, we are searching for both comfort and stability, and one follows the other.
3. The Auspicious Pose (Svastikasana)
The auspicious pose is more stable and collected than the easy pose because it folds the feet and legs more tightly together and closer to the torso. It also allows the thighs and the knees to rest on the floor, and positions the feet near the pubis. The tighter locks in the legs, however, require more hip, ankle, and knee flexibility than the easy pose.
- To assume the pose, place the sole of the right foot against the left thigh.
- Tuck the left foot between the right thigh and calf.
- You may pull the right foot up a little so that it is between the left thigh and calf. The ankles are crossed in front of the pubic bone and the feet are sandwiched between the opposite thighs and calves.
- Align the upper torso over the base of the spine, using a cushion at the base of the spine as necessary.
When the legs and ankles are locked in this pose the spine is naturally lifted, and the flow of energy in the legs is directed into the base of the spine. If you are comfortable in this posture you will feel your attention drawn inward and your mind quieted.
Regardless of which posture you choose for your meditation practice, perfecting it leads the body and mind into ever deeper states of stillness. A perfectly stable posture focuses the body in the same way that an object of concentration focuses the mind. All the energies flow in one direction; the posture is held effortlessly, and body awareness no longer impinges on the mind. You will also notice that the breath becomes stable and effortless—more regular, smooth, quiet, and subtle. Then you are ready to enter a phase of concentration in which the mind itself is ultimately the object of attention.
A perfectly stable posture focuses the body in the same way that an object of concentration focuses the mind.
The preliminary practices of stillness, diaphragmatic breathing, and relaxation are all forms of concentration. Physical stillness brings our attention to the sensations of the body and rests it there; diaphragmatic breathing narrows the focus, bringing awareness to the ceaseless flow of the breath; systematic relaxation further refines the focus by releasing deep muscle tensions and merging awareness of the body and breath into an experience of internal wholeness. These practices lead us progressively inward.
But to meditate we must shift our attention to an even more subtle dimension of personality: the mind itself. By choosing an appropriate object for concentration we can calm the mind’s habit of moving restlessly from one experience to another. And then we will know the mind as we have never known it before—observing and guiding its play of thoughts with a natural sense of inner detachment.
Two objects for concentration are commonly used; each furthers the inward movement of awareness. The first is the touch of the breath in the nostrils, which is a highly refined sensory experience. As you focus on the sensations of the breath the other senses are rested, their activity is naturally quieted, and they withdraw. This withdrawal of the senses leads in turn to an even more inward concentration: focus on a mantra, a mental sound. Let’s look at each of these stages in detail.
The Breath in the Nostrils
The touch of the breath is delicate—it would be difficult to produce another sensation as gentle as the soft touch of the air in the nose. When you exhale, the breath is warm and moist; the inhalation is cool and dry. You will need to make only a modest effort to experience these two sensations. They are inherent in the act of breathing and can be brought to awareness any time you choose.
Try the following exercise:
- Sit in your meditative pose and make yourself comfortable.
- Close your eyes and turn your attention to the touch of the breath in the nostrils, observing it continuously for several minutes. Feel the cool touch of the inhalation, and the warm touch of the exhalation. As the breath changes direction do not lose your focus—this is a time when it is easy for the mind to wander off. Relax and follow the breath carefully, sensing each inhalation and exhalation as well as each transition between breaths.
- As this process continues you may find that your mind oscillates between relaxation and restlessness. It may decide that you have focused on the sensation of the breath long enough. It may wander off, seeking pleasure from some other activity. It may not see any benefit or derive any exciting experience from the practice. Through all the mind’s distractions your task is to remain relaxed, letting the thoughts come and go.
- When your awareness does wander, gently bring it back to the breath. Do not criticize yourself or expect your mind to stop thinking. Simply continue with the practice until even the effort to concentrate begins to relax.
- Learn to rest in a silence that coexists with the inner dialogue of your mind. Some meditators describe this as similar to the experience of slipping beneath the surface of the waves when you are snorkeling or diving. The waves have not disappeared, but they have lost their power to toss you about. Continue with your practice every day, fixing your attention on the breath and then relaxing your effort.
Some meditators describe this as similar to the experience of slipping beneath the surface of the waves when you are snorkeling or diving.
Breath awareness will lead you to a remarkably relaxing state of mind. Your concentration will be serene, you will be attentive to your mental processes in a soft and yielding manner, and when the mind becomes distracted a natural inwardness will bring you back to your center of awareness. This is meditative concentration.
The next step in meditation training is to unite the touch of the breath with a mantra, a sound which takes the form of a word or group of words. The two syllables of the Sanskrit word mantra give important clues about its meaning. The first syllable (man) is the verb “to think” (and is the source of the English word “man,” a creature who thinks). The second syllable (tra) is related to the verb “to protect, guide, or lead.” Thus a mantra is a thought that protects, guides, and leads. A mantra can be chanted aloud, or recited quietly, but it is most effective when it is allowed to reverberate in the mind without being externalized. The internal repetition calms thinking and refines concentration.
In the beginning, students are taught a mantra that can be coordinated with breathing: the mantra soham (pronounced “so-hum”). It is said that soham is the natural sound of the breath and that, simply by breathing, everyone is unconsciously reciting this mantra throughout the day. But bringing soham to awareness within the mind, yogis say, makes the inaudible vibration of this mantra audible so the mind can rest in it during meditation.
As with mantras in general, there is no one precise translation for the soundsoham. We can gain a sense of its significance, however, if we remember that the central theme of yoga is the journey toward the self.
Soham is a compound word, the union of the words sah and aham (the sound sois modified from the sound sah). Sah is the Sanskrit pronoun “that,” but in this case “that” does not refer to a temporal object—it refers to our own pure self. The wordaham is the personal pronoun “I”; it represents all the powers and forces that comprise the individual personality.
Sah is the Sanskrit pronoun “that,” but in this case “that” does not refer to a temporal object—it refers to our own pure self.
When these two words are combined they may be translated “I am That,” affirming that deep within us is an identity that transcends the temporary pleasures, sorrows, and expectations of the external world. The mantra soham reminds us of that identity and helps us center ourselves and create a relationship with that deeper self.
The sound of the mantra soham (or any mantra, for that matter) is the literal expression of an inward energy that leads to an inward state of consciousness. The true meaning of the mantra is the new perspective that it gradually unveils to those who recite it. Repeating its sound with dedication and openness to its energy invokes its guiding and nurturing potential.
Try this exercise:
- Sit in your meditation posture and gradually bring your attention to the breath touching the inside of the nostrils.
- Relaxing your effort, allow your thoughts to come and go without disturbing your attention.
- Now, during the inhalation, let the sound “so . . .” resonate in the mind. During the exhalation, hear the sound “hum . . .” in the mind. Each sound lasts the length of the entire breath. The sounds are not made audible. They quietly reverberate in the mind, flowing along with the natural movement of the breath.
As you experiment with this exercise, don’t make the mistake of altering your breathing in order to accommodate the pace of the two sounds in the mind. Even though the mantra soham is calming, and can be imprinted upon the breath, it is much better to let the breath flow at its natural pace and to hear the two sounds of the mantra as if they were accompanying it. Soon your breathing will relax and the sound itself will calm and center you.
It is not necessary to have blind faith in the yoga tradition in order to do this practice. All that is needed is a sense of respect and a genuine willingness to let the sound become the relaxed focus of your attention. That will allow the coordination of breath and sound to have its natural effect on the mind and personality.
A Personal Mantra
The mantra soham may be practiced by anyone.
The mantra soham may be practiced by anyone. But many mantras used in yoga are given by a teacher to an individual student through a process of initiation. The mantra then becomes the student’s personal mantra—a word or phrase revealed specifically to the teacher for the initiate during the process of giving the mantra. It is said that, following initiation, the energy of the mantra guides and protects the initiate.
Is there a basis for these beliefs? Yogis say there is. But perhaps it is wisest to allow the practice of meditation to unfold naturally so that when we are sincerely inclined we can experience the effects of mantra for ourselves.
When you are resting your attention on the breath or on a mantra you will still be aware of what is passing through your mind. Sometimes the experience is tranquil; at other times thoughts and images may lift your mind on crests of excitement, lower it into troughs of lethargy, toss it about in storms of emotion, and turn it first toward one desire, and then another—it can be difficult to maintain any sort of stability. Throughout your meditation, mindfulness, the natural companion to concentration, can help you.
Mindfulness is a refinement of awareness. When we are mindful we are aware of the mind in its entirety: we see both the focus of attention and the distractions that arise in seeming competition with that focus. The focus is maintained; the distractions are allowed to come and go. Mindfulness permits us to have no reaction—to simply observe the content of the mind and let it pass. We are traveling through, not into, the mind.
In its early stages mindfulness is not so much a state of being as it is a collection of skills that can be learned and practiced. These include:
- Recognizing the critical, judgmental self-talks that we apply to our thoughts and feelings, and setting them aside.
- Witnessing the thoughts and emotions that pass through the mind instead of identifying with them.
- Becoming one with the thoughts, and thus accepting ourselves as we are.
- Remaining flexible in the face of the wide variety of thoughts and feelings that demand action or attention.
- Sensing the depth of emotion that has prompted a given thought, and working with that emotional energy sensitively and patiently.
- Remaining in the present rather than journeying to the past or future.
- Recognizing and maintaining the focus of concentration, knowing that this focus is the antidote to being caught up by the train of thought.
Ultimately the combination of mindfulness and concentration evolves into the deeply penetrating state of meditation—an experience that relieves mental pain and nurtures non-attachment.
Ultimately the combination of mindfulness and concentration evolves into the deeply penetrating state of meditation—an experience that relieves mental pain and nurtures non-attachment. It is an experience focused in the present moment, and it is free of expectations. During this phase of practice the effort to concentrate is fully relaxed. Replacing our conscious effort, the meditative focus now seems to draw us naturally inward toward a stillness that rests our emotions, clears our thinking, awakens our intuition, and provides a sense of abiding peace. This experience is intrinsic to our nature, and with practice we can return to it whenever we choose.
Collapsed Lower Back
If the lower back is stiff or if the hamstrings or inner thigh muscles are tight, these muscles tug on the pelvis, distorting the natural curve in the lower back: the lower back collapses and the upper back rounds forward to counterbalance the feeling of falling backward.
Overarched Lower Back
The pelvic foundation can also be distorted by overarching the lower back in an attempt to sit up straight. This thrusts the pelvis forward, creating tension in the spine as well as in the hips, thighs, and neck. It often leads to pain in the muscular attachments below the shoulder blades as well.
Using a Cushion
A simple prop offers dramatic improvement for the collapsed lower back. Placing a cushion or a folded blanket under the buttocks elevates the base of the spine, compensating for limited flexibility and restoring the natural curve. To correct an over-arched lower back, release unnecessary tension in the pelvis.
Guidelines for Practicing Meditation
- Practice once or twice every day at about the same time.
- Practice before meals, not after.
- Early morning, late afternoon, and before bedtime are good times for practice.
- Empty your bladder before practicing.
- Create a pleasant space for practice, one that is neither cluttered nor confined.
- Start with 10 minutes and increase the time gradually until you enjoy sitting for 30 minutes.
- Observe your mind’s capacity and do not fight to sit longer.
- Reinforce your practice with reading and contemplation.
How to Refine Your Concentration
In the process of refining your concentration there is a gradual transition from the focus on the breath in the nostrils to the focus on a mantra. This transition takes place in four stages:
- First rest your awareness on the breath in the nostrils with no mental sound.
- Next rest your awareness on the breath in the nostrils along with the sound of the breath (soham).
- Then rest your awareness on the sound soham with only the merest awareness of the breath.
- Finally, rest your awareness on a personal mantra that transcends breath awareness.
An Outline of Practice
Here is a summary of all the steps to learn how to meditate.
- Develop a still and steady posture.
- Bring the flow of breath into your awareness. Don’t concern yourself with mechanics at first—just soften your lower ribs and abdomen, and feel the cleansing and nourishing movements of the breath again and again. Then allow the breath to become diaphragmatic.
- Shape the breath. Let it be deep, smooth, even, without sound, without pause. Let it flow without effort.
- Relax your body from head to toes, and toes to head, breathing and releasing tension. Then breathe as if the whole body breathes.
- In a sitting posture, focus on the touch of breath in the nostrils. Be patient as you gradually narrow your attention, detaching from passing thoughts.
- Deepen and lengthen the time spent with your focus on the breath. Do not condemn distracting thoughts; let them be.
- Relax your mind further and merge the sound of the breath—the mantra soham—with the touch of the breath. Let the sound of the mantra flow effortlessly at the natural pace of your breathing.
- Center your awareness in the sound where it arises in your mind, with only the merest awareness of the breath.
- Rest in the mantra and in the center of your being, allowing waves of energy and thought to come and go. The waves are circling around the center, but they are not at the center. You are a relaxed, inner witness, dwelling in the presence of your own being.
Excerpted from Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik, Himalayan Institute Press 800-822-4547.