Sunday, March 6, 2011

No Meditation for Those Yoga Folks?

There's an excellent article and discussion over at Elephant Journal about yoga and meditation. Author Philip Goldberg opens with the following:

I’ve always found it odd that so many dedicated yoga practitioners don’t have a regular meditation practice. More puzzling is that yoga teachers who can practically recite the Yoga Sutras by heart don’t sit regularly either, and they know that Patanjali gives hardly any attention to asanas but has a whole lot to say about the mind. In fact, the whole text can be seen as an elaboration of the second verse, in which the sage defines yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (I prefer “cessation” to “suppression” and other terms that suggest force.) You would think that hundreds of scientific studies on meditation, not to mention the surge in yogic literacy, would have made meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. Instead, a great many yogis are like the teacher with the New Years resolution: they know it would be a good idea, but they don’t get around to it.

Why don’t they? There are many reasons, of course, perhaps chief among them the rebranding of yoga as a physical fitness regimen and the almost exclusive identification of yoga with asana. But that doesn’t explain why people who know better neglect Patanjali’s dharana, dhyana, samadhi denouement.

The comments that follow the article are really engaging. One of the interesting points a few people made is about meditation students who neglect their bodies, and how it might be harder for long time meditation practitioners to start up an asana (yogic posture) practice. I have, from the beginning, had both asana and meditation practices, and in recent years, have added elements of pranayama practice and other pieces of the yogic path, while also expanding into writing Zen poetry forms and maintaining this blog as a practice as well.

So I'm probably not the best person to speculate on whether or not going from years of meditation to a more active physical practice like yoga asana is really difficult or not. One thing that is true though is that the older you get, the harder it is to add new body practices - whether that be sports, exercise routines, or spiritual practices like yoga. This isn't to say that people can't - older folks are doing so all the time. It's just that it's like learning new languages - the younger you are, the easier it often is to pick up.

Back to the original issue of yoga students not doing meditation, in addition to the obvious packaging of yoga as a money making exercise regimen, there are other factors in why so many yogis and yoginis don't make the connection.

1. Students are trained to pay close attention to their breath while doing the postures. The couple of more exercise-based yoga classes I experienced years ago were all about getting "your groove on." The loud huffing and puffing in the room had nothing to do with directed breath work, and had everything to do with developing hot bods.

2. Teachers fail to do justice to Savasana, which is essentially a form of lying down meditation. My Iyengar teacher regularly had us in savasana for a good 15 minutes, sometimes longer, knowing that it not only gives the body a chance to integrate the active work that had just been done, but also because he saw practice as a continual flow between active and receptive, between movement and stillness.

3. Teachers aren't, themselves, experienced in meditation, and aren't trained to view yoga practice as the whole 8 limbs, not just asana. And anyone who has taught anything before knows that it's hard enough to figure out how to teach what you know. If a yoga teacher isn't a regular meditator in some form or another, they just aren't going to go there - so the students in their class won't either, at least in the yoga context.

Saying this, it's certainly true that there are plenty of yoga practitioners out there doing the whole works. And also many others like me who have strong Buddhist meditation practices and also are yoga students. But it's interesting to consider how the dominant trends go along with the general mind/body/spirit split that permeates Western cultures. A split that is beginning to be broken down in many ways, but still bogs us down in so many other ways.


dragonfly said...

Thank you for another great post, Nathan. I agree with the key factors you've picked out. I often think about this myself - I've spent the past year developing a meditation practice, and I picked my teacher training program in part because of the focus on meditation and learning to lead meditation. Master teachers I've worked with often put a strong focus on meditation but in your common studio class, not so much. One of my peeves is giving short shrift to savasana, which I think should be 30 minutes or longer, although frankly I often only do 15-20 at home myself. :) Less than 5 minutes, though, is really not that valuable in my experience.

Unknown said...

As stumbling meditator and a fledgling yoga practitioner, I have found that applying both to my morning practice has been beneficial. The yoga engages my body to my breath and the zazen engages my mind to my breath.

On a practical level, I work an office job now rather than teaching (which is anything but an office job). While leading an active teaching lifestyle I was able to sit zazen every morning without issue. But since my activity level has lessened, the zazen is hard on my back and causes more strife in my day than is needed.

Adding yoga allows my practice to continue without pain and also adds an added element of the physical that shouldn't be neglected.

On another note, meditative walking in the morning was also helpful.


Robyn said...

It is funny that you write this because just last night I tried an experiment with my class, which is only one hour long, so not really long enough. I led them through approx. 40 minutes of vigorous asana, then about 10 minutes of instruction/practice of pranayama and 5 minutes seated meditation, then savasana (a short one). I wasn't sure if savasana was best done last, but that's what we did and it seemed okay. People seemed to feel good about their physical practice because they sweat and worked hard and then they got the benefits of the other limbs.

As a "beginner" class I have been cautious about asking too much from them but I could see that there was a different level of energy last night than on other nights. It was good. Plus I felt better about teaching more of what I believe than when I just teach asana straight without any mention of other things. We even talked about rajas, tamas, and satvas in terms of the class. It was fun and people were definitely ready to take in information about yoga beyond asana. Perhaps we sell our students short when we just teach asana?

Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Thank you Nathan, for another thought provoking post!

This comment comes from perspective of one who was a very 'serious' yoga practitioner for many years before I took meditation practice, at which point I abandoned yoga completely.

From yoga, I got my first intimate experience of feeling embodied. Mindfulness meditation, and particularly practicing with Ruth Denison, helped me take it a step further. It is now my privileged door to refined consciousness. I just recently resumed a daily yoga routine, but I use it mainly as a way to take care of my body. The language of yoga meditation is one that does not speak to me. It is all a matter of personal resonance . . .

Was Once said...

I have one of my many teachers who makes a point to say every class "that the whole reason for the asanas is to prepare your body for meditation." He inspires a few to meditate before class begins, by arriving early.

Algernon said...

In some parts of the country, cultural misunderstands about meditation may also provide a commercial disincentive.

For instance, where I live is essentially the Bible belt, and a lot of folks who grew up around here heard little good about meditation, if anything; and there are pastors who preach against it.

So some yoga teachers could be making a safe commercial choice, which is one more example of the commercialization of dharma teachings and yoga.

Brikoleur said...

My devoutly Lutheran late grandmother was convinced that yoga is Satanic. She was very upset when my mother started first practicing and then teaching it. I can only imagine what she'd think about me practicing Zen.

Nathan said...

"So some yoga teachers could be making a safe commercial choice..."

This is an interesting point that you and Petteri bring up. It does make me wonder if there are a percentage of teachers and students dealing with being cultural outsiders by cutting out anything "spiritual" - and in doing so, incurring less hostility and suspicion.

It reminds me of the early Asian American immigrants who organized their Buddhist communities as "churches" and changed some of the structures to look more like the Christian communities they were surrounded by. It was an effort to "fit in," while maintaining their culture and spiritual life. Different issues, but similar in terms of the shifts involved.

Nathan said...

Robyn's example is also important because she's been working with this group for awhile, and has been able to develop enough trust to incorporate more of the 8 limbs into her classes. A great example of working where people are at and also pushing them a bit when the time is right.

Brikoleur said...

Lots of people have a very strong negative reaction to anything that smacks even faintly of woo. My mother started out like that: yoga as a purely physical discipline, a way to get and stay fit and limber. Meditation only entered the picture half-accidentally, through breath practice, and that maybe 15-20 years after she started with it. She's been getting more into it over the past five years or so, though.

Conversely, I think there's rather too much interest in the "spiritual" aspects of yoga from some circles, turning it into a New Agey mishmash of angels, astrology, tinkly crystals, and mood music.

I think one problem is that the religious ground from which yoga springs is rather alien to our culture, at least superficially. Even Buddhism is a better fit, at least in some of its less baroque forms. Hinduism is just... alien and different. I'm sure there have been attempts to reinvent the more universal Advaita stuff without the devotional trappings that are so closely bound to Indian culture, but it doesn't look like that's caught on much.

So, the menu is a bit limited. Either it's yoga as a form of gymnastics, or the full-on exotic cocktail of Ganesh and Hanuman and Kali and Siva and Krsna and shaktipat and puja and so on and so forth. Since the latter will necessarily have a bit of a limited appeal, we're mostly stuck with the former.

Nathan said...

"Conversely, I think there's rather too much interest in the "spiritual" aspects of yoga from some circles, turning it into a New Agey mishmash of angels, astrology, tinkly crystals, and mood music." Eh, none of that stuff has anything to do with yoga as a spiritual path. It's all added on. I agree that when it is added on, it's a turn off.

Also, yoga's history is diverse. There are Buddhist forms of yoga. Hindu forms of yoga. And Indian indigenous influenced forms of yoga. The level of focus on the pantheon of Gods and the rest depends on teachers and contexts. The Yoga Sutras, for example, aren't concerned really with all of that.

Brikoleur said...

That's true, but you don't see it here. If there's any religious/philosophical background attached to yoga, it's Hindu and Advaita. Yoga as a spiritual path just isn't done here, except in rather nasty cult-type settings like Gurumayi's Siddha Yoga or the Hare Krishna movement. Other than that, it's either gymnastics or woo.

Or if it is, it's very, very, very marginal.

And yeah, I think that's kinda sad.

Nathan said...

Geez, that is kind of sad.

Linda-Sama said...

unfortunately I think not too much attention has been paid to Buddhist yogis such as Frank Jude Boccio, Sarah Powers, Jill Satterfield, Patricia Sullivan, Mark Coleman.

I was in the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock, Calofornia, the first training of its kind anywhere in the world to combine classical yoga, Buddhism, and insight meditation. Buddhism, meditation, and yoga has never been separate entities for me. And I have been practicing since the '70s.

There IS a mix of Buddhism and yoga, you just have to look for it.

and frankly, when I start my own teacher training, a 10 day vipassana retreat WILL be a requirement to get the piece of paper.

Nathan said...

Yeah, they have never been separate for me either. I sometimes am still surprised at the level of angst towards even tiny periods of meditation some yoga students have. It shouldn't surprise me, but given the circles I travel, that resistance isn't something I all that often.