Meditation Practice in the Modern World: Exploring the Paths to Inner Calm

MOST MODERN-DAY YOGIS are introduced to the practice of yoga through asana classes offered at studios, gyms and health clubs around the country as yoga classes. Historically however,

Meditation Practice in the Modern World: Exploring the Paths to Inner Calm

meditation practice

MOST MODERN-DAY YOGIS are introduced to the practice of yoga through asana classes offered at studios, gyms and health clubs around the country as yoga classes. Historically however, yoga and meditation were considered one and the same, and the asanas were a means of enhancing the capacity of the body and mind so that the experience of yoga/ meditation was effortless. True Hatha Yoga combines the asana, mudrapranayama, and meditation practice, and brings about a state of harmony in the body and mind. Essentially yoga is the path of union, and through the practices we become aware of the connecting link between body and breath, breath and mind, mind and soul.

Until recently in the West, the mind and body were treated as separate. When yoga was introduced, the postures were much easier to popularise than the subtler practices of pranayama and meditation. The practice of asana became separated from meditation and stylised in its own right as “yoga”.

Over my years of practicing and teaching, I’ve realised that yoga is any pathway that brings people into a state of physical, mental and emotional connection and harmony. Meditation is a natural, effortless state that our body enters spontaneously when we are 100% engaged with an object of focus, while being immersed in a state of ease. This is the quality of sthira and sukha: steadiness with ease. We can tap into this state at will when we develop certain skills of attention, and the art of yoga/meditation is the cultivation of those skills.

The fluctuation of the mind in meditation practice

One of the difficulties people experience with meditation is dealing with the “fluctuations” of the mind. You might sit to meditate and come face to face with a barrage of thoughts, emotions, sensations in the body, and everything that is bothering you in your life. It’s very easy to make the false assumption that you are failing at meditation, as many of the traditional teachings affirm that yoga is “the stilling of the uctuations of the mind” (yoga chitta vritti nirodha), and suggest that we simply let go of our thoughts. Easier said than done when you’re living in the world, as opposed to being tucked safely away in a cave in the Himalayas.

When we meditate, our minds don’t drop into a vacuous state of bliss and stay there for the duration. Rather, our minds cycle through various states and stages of rest and activity. We often talk about the mind wandering, but actually it’s going on a journey! Meditation is not just one-directional movement inwards towards stillness. It’s a cycle where the outward journey is equally important, as your mind ows through emotions, thoughts and sensations — processing life and at the same time infusing restfulness into your entire being.

Cycles of meditation

Author and meditation practice expert Lorin Roche PhD describes the first few stages in the cycle of meditation as resting, relaxing, releasing tension and letting go of stress in the body. This space of ease signals to your body-mind system to review what you are tense about, repair the areas that are holding tension, and restore health in the body by improving blood flow and normal relaxed functioning.

Your mind will begin to rehearse the emotions of life while in a state of relaxation: making lists, sorting through details and rehearsing conversations. In this way, you are processing past habits and future actions, creating new ways of being from a relaxed space. During the process, you’ll feel the desire to leave your meditation practice and take action. You’ve probably experienced this: one minute you’re in a deep state of relaxation, and the next minute something pops into your mind (an email you forgot to send, the solution to a problem, the desire to check Instagram or wash the dog) and you feel a rush of motivation to go and do it right now. This is perfectly normal! The final stage in the cycle is where you remember that you’re meditating and use your favourite meditation technique to continue the cycle again until you’ve meditated for the amount of time that you’ve set aside.

Maintaining your meditation practice

The key to a healthy and sustainable meditation practice is using a technique
that you love. It may surprise you to learn that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of techniques or “doorways” into meditation. Your personal doorway into meditation must be something that you love so much that you will want to return to it again and again. Otherwise the impulse to leave your meditation practice and send that forgotten email or wash the dog will win out. If the impulses win time and time
again, you probably need to change your technique. Some people love mantra,
many love the awareness of their breath, while others are drawn to feelings of spaciousness, or the awareness of their body through asana, or any physical movement such as walking in nature or dance. Many of the yoga/meditation traditions will have you believe that their way is the only way. The secret formula to meditation is to be alert to the ways that resonate with you the most.

Connecting to your eternal essence

A healthy meditation practice honours both the inward and the outward flows in the cycle, and helps to free us from old restrictions and habits. The yogic model of the koshas (sheaths, or layers of our existence) describes this beautifully, as we move through the awareness of body, breath, thoughts, mind, emotions and bliss. Flowing into awareness and self-enquiry is not so much a linear progression as a cyclic dance, and this eventually leads us to the realisation that within this cycle there is something that is limitless and unchanging. This idea forms the basis of all yoga, and becomes more apparent as we explore the subtlety of our practice and connect to our unchanging, eternal essence, known as Atma.

The mind body connection

A common myth is that meditation happens only in the brain. Meditation is actually a brain-body or mind-body experience, because the process of thinking is a brain-body experience, and looks something like this:

• You have a thought that induces a biochemical reaction in the brain in the form of a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter.

• The brain releases specific chemical signals to the body called neuropeptides.

• The body receives these chemical messages which evoke a response through the release of hormones that are directly in alignment with what the brain is thinking.

• The body sends a message back to the brain to con rm that it’s feeling exactly the way the brain is thinking.

Author Dr Joe Dispenza describes this in his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, as the brain’s continual process of monitoring and adjusting the way the body is feeling. He writes, “Based on the chemical feedback it (the brain) receives, it will generate more thoughts that produce chemicals corresponding to the way the body is feeling, so that we first begin to feel the way we think and then think the way we feel.”

Understanding this cyclic loop is empowering when we recognise how different elements of our practice such as asana, mudra and pranayama, can have a direct effect on our mind. The body becomes a powerful tool in helping to break the cycle of habits (samskaras) and create new ways of being. The practices of mudra (hand gestures or whole body mudra as asana) and pranayama use the body and breath as a pathway through the process of meditation.

Yoga – a moving meditation

As a teacher of meditation and Vinyasa Yoga, I’ve experienced that during an asana practice, we’re actually owing through the cycles of meditation from moment to moment. If taught with skill, a yoga asana class can have all of the qualities of meditation, and is a powerful tool of meditation. Attention to alignment in asana can initiate the mind-body feedback loop, where the awareness of the sensations in the body becomes the tool of thought.

Enquiring into emotional and feeling states with a calm awareness (particularly in moments of pause in the practice) awakens intimate states of connection to one’s essence.

When natural rhythmic breathing is used, it cultivates mindful observance of the flow of prana. Once the rhythm of breath is set, the ow of awareness from body to mind to essence and back again is infused through the whole practice, harmonising all of the layers of our being. A yoga class that guides people to a more subtle level of attention of this rhythmic dance is an experience of meditation. I’m a passionate believer that yoga teachers can make wonderful meditation teachers because the instincts are already present in the love of the practice.

The reason the practice of meditation causes so much debate is because meditation accesses a field of limitless wisdom that everyone has their unique connection to. It’s expressed differently in everyone. There’s no one practice or experience that’s best for everyone. Explore different ways of nding your own unique connection, and when you find one, embrace it. Love is the magic ingredient, because what you love is what connects you.

The real secret to this cyclic dance of yoga and meditation is to be open and ready to glimpse the limitless space within which life exists. Meditation is not separate from yoga … it’s the eld within which yoga exists.

The Radiance Sutras offers this teaching on love, connection and union which, for me, describes the state of meditation: “No inside and no outside —Only the delight of union.
The mind releases itself into divine energy, And the body knows where it came from.”

About the author:

Rod Galbraith is the co-founder of InYoga in Sydney’s Surry Hills. He is passionate about teaching meditation, and equipping yoga teachers with the tools and language to guide students through a fluid experience of body, mind and breath into deeper connection.