So here we are, at the penultimate limb of yoga. Dhyana, or meditation, is described as the “continuous flow of cognition” toward an object – the object being the one we’ve been concentrating on from the last limb, dharana. But as teachers will tell you, there are lots of ways to practice meditation, and as many different objects to focus your attention on – inward or outward mantras, the breath, a physical item, or nothing at all besides the space between your ears. Meditation is a spectrum in itself, and can fit all sorts of different definitions. So you don’t necessarily have to become “one” with the object of your attention (although it would certainly be nice to experience that from time to time). But rather, meditation can be as simple as spending a few minutes observing your mind every day, coming back to the same physical practice, or just spending a moment each day in appreciation of the universe.
Sri Dharma Mittra of the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, who’s taught students for some 45 years, says that what’s initially important is the coming back to – that return to something, every day or every week, whatever that something may be (within reason, of course). “All these are facets of concentration,” he says. “All of these are better than the other one where you just sit there and you don’t know where you are or what’s happening to you.” He talks about students who come to class every week without fail for over a decade, and of people who simply spend a minute of each day remembering god. “That is concentration,” he says. “That is the very definition of steadiness. So, to meditate is more about steadiness than it is about how you sit or the quality of your concentration or anything else. This steadiness in concentration brings fruits.”
So that is one form of practice. Another way is, of course, to sit in stillness, or to “retire in solitude,” Sri Dharma says, which allows your brain to reboot. For this, he advises people to sit for five minutes and work from there, just being still and watching your mind as an observer. “It is in the absence of mental activities that you get recharged, that you come to operate on higher levels.” If your mind is just too restless and you can’t do it yet, not to worry – you can go back to concentrating on something specific, and work from there: “if you are not ready for this,” Sri Dharma says, “you may concentrate on a picture or a diamond, the sun, a flower, or anything. But, the best thing is to sit comfortably for this with the eyes almost closed. There you remain unconcerned, watching the activities of the mind… This is not this kind of meditation that you lose your consciousness. No, it’s just to sit quietly and keep watching, observing.”
One of the loveliest points he makes is one that’s true when we’re meditating and when we’re not. He urges people to remember that “We are not the body or activities. So it is good always to sit quietly like a witness watching the activities of the body and mind. You realize through this that everything is passing away all the time.” The idea that we’re not our bodies, our reactions, or even our thoughts, is sort of mind-blowing, and it may be one of the most important messages that yoga can impart.
So, however simple or barebones our practices may seem at first, the reality is that we can all meditate in some way. It’s not easy to quiet the monkey mind – and thankfully, everyone, even the most practiced teachers, agrees on that – but it gets incrementally easier the more you try. Sri Dharma ends by saying this: “Meditation is available to anyone regardless of where you are starting from. For those who are not in good physical condition, lie down. Lie down in a very comfortable position, but don’t fall asleep! And there you stay, also trying to be unconcerned just like a witness. All these techniques lead to what: for the mind to become sharp. And then you’ll be able to find answers.”
How do you meditate? Do you notice that it gets easier over time? Please share your thoughts below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.