Stretch Your Mind: How Yoga Can Take Your Meditation to the Next Level
These days, when people talk about yoga, they’re more likely thinking about learning handstands than learning to meditate.
Yoga and meditation both now fall under the vague umbrella of “wellness,” but there’s a lot of confusion out there about the purpose of each one and how they’re connected. Many people consider them totally separate activities: one for the body, one for the mind. This is a complete misconception.
Yoga and meditation are intimately connected. They share a common purpose and improving in one naturally puts you ahead in the other.
In this article, I will attempt to clarify what exactly yoga is, how it works and how it’s related to meditation. With this understanding, we can then look at how to better integrate yoga and meditation.
This can improve your meditation and completely change the way you practice yoga.
What is yoga? What is meditation?
What do yoga and meditation have to do with each other?
These days, when yoga has been reinterpreted as a fitness activity, its connection to meditation is not so obvious.
Many people practice yoga for years without ever sitting down to meditate. Likewise (and this is nothing new), there are plenty of dedicated meditators who have never once popped a sun salutation.
However, with a closer look, we can see that yoga and meditation are inseparable.
In fact, you could say that yoga is meditation and meditation is a form of yoga.
Not sure what I mean by this? Let’s start from the beginning. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to join” or “to unite.” (The same origin as the English word yoke.) At its essence then, yoga means union, wholeness, bringing together.
It refers both to the state of unity (which is not actually a state but the nature of our existence), and the practices that leads to that realization. Any path or set of techniques that brings a practitioner to a direct experience of the true nature of reality can be called a yoga.
This is how we can understand terms like Tibetan dream yoga, the Six Yogas of Naropa, bhakti yoga and others – which have nothing to do with whether or not the practitioner can put his leg behind his head!
There are four main paths of yoga in the classical Hindu tradition. These are:
- Karma yoga: The yoga of action. Selfless service for the benefit of others, expecting no rewards and offering the fruits of one’s actions to the Divine. A method of turning every aspect of one’s life into spiritual practice.
- Bhakti yoga: The yoga of devotion. Channeling the intensity of personal emotion into an ecstatic, mystical love, usually directed towards the form of a deity but could also be to the formless Absolute or to one’s heart teacher. Prayer and chanting are central practices.
- Raja yoga: The royal yoga, or the yoga of expansion of consciousness. The path of harnessing one’s mental and physical energies, and transforming them into spiritual power that expands the mind beyond its normal limits, dissolving the false sense of a separate “I.” Hatha yoga and the eight-limbed system of Patanjali fall under this category.
- Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge. Jnana is specifically knowledge of one’s own self-nature, the realization that individual existence is an illusion within a higher Reality. This knowledge is experiential, not intellectual. Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj are the most famous jnana yogis of the 20th century, but the highest teachings of Buddhism, like vipassana and mahamudra, are also forms of jnana yoga.
A balanced, integrated yogi must draw from all four of these streams, in different proportions across his or her spiritual life.
As you can see, it’s impossible to draw hard lines dividing meditation from physical yoga and from practical, everyday action.
Hatha yoga (asana, pranayama and concentration techniques) is what most people are referring to when they say “yoga.” It was never intended to be separate from meditation.
The physical practice itself is meant to be a meditation, one that integrates the body and all its energies.
Some teachers of hatha yoga will even say that the physical practice allows for a deeper realization than sitting meditation alone, since it brings the highest wisdom into the most coarse and solid layer of manifestation.
Patanjali’s eight stages of yoga and meditation
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, composed somewhere around the 3rd century BC, has long been considered one of the fundamental treatises of yoga. It is one of the most influential texts on the subject, and probably the most famous.
In the Yoga Sutras, the author Patanjali outlines eight stages or limbs of yoga, the ashtanga system. (No relation to the modern style invented by Pattabhi Jois.)
- Yama: ethical standards, such as non-violence and honesty.
- Niyama: inner traits to cultivate, such as contentment, self-discipline and surrender.
- Asana: physical poses and stable meditation position.
- Pranayama: control or extension of the vital energy.
- Pratyahara: sense withdrawal, interiorization.
- Dharana: concentration.
- Dhyana: meditation.
- Samadhi: dissolution of the individual ego into cosmic consciousness.
While only the seventh stage is actually called meditation, stages 6 through 8 (the “inner limbs of yoga”) refer directly to meditation.
Usually we begin by interiorizing (stage 5) and concentrating our attention on a single, stable object (stage 6). At first, it’s very hard to maintain focus and we have to make a constant effort to return the mind to its object. But eventually, with a balance of intense concentration and relaxation, the attention begins to turn itself naturally towards the object.
Now we are in stage 7, meditation properly speaking. It’s a flow state in which the object is the only thing appearing in the mind, without any sense of effort, as if the mind has fallen in love with the object.
With enough practice and grace, the meditation can open onto a new dimension, samadhi: a glimpse of the true, non-dual nature of reality. This final stage is the goal of yoga.
The great Swami Vivekenanda even suggested that all eight stages are elements of meditation.
- Yama and niyama create the right conditions, peace of mind and environment.
- Asana quiets the mind by quieting the body.
- Pranayama quiets and directs the fluctuations of energy that would disturb the mind.
- Pratyahara brings the energy of the senses to leave external objects and rest in the internal experience. And the final three stages, we’ve already covered. These last stages of yoga have close equivalents within Buddhist traditions of meditation.
- Dharana is the equivalent of samatha, calming and stabilizing the mind by concentrating on a single point of focus. This is often done with the breath. Once sufficient concentration has been established, it is applied to systematically chip away at the illusory appearance of self and phenomena, bringing insight or vipassana.
- The yogic dhyana is more concerned with states of deep absorption, but resting in the void of consciousness will ultimately bring the same insight.
- Deeper states of meditation and samadhi are the equivalent of the nine jhanas taught by the Buddha.
How yoga will help your meditation
Now that we have a sense of the big picture, let’s take a look at how practicing yoga will directly improve your meditation.
First, the most obvious benefit of yoga for meditation: it helps you sit better for longer! A flexible, relaxed body will be much happier sitting still during long meditation sessions.
But the relationship between hatha yoga and meditation goes much deeper than that. Yoga is a highly refined system to prepare your body, mind and energy for meditation. Eastern spiritual traditions teach that our body is not just the material structure we can see and touch. We also have a “subtle body,” a network of energy that underlies the physical body, forming an interface between the physical and the world of thoughts and emotions. This energy is known as prana in India and qi in the Far East, as in qi gong.
The yogic tradition actually defines five bodies: the physical body, the energy body, the astral or emotional body, the mental body, and the bliss body. They are profoundly interconnected, with the more internal containing the blueprint for the more external. What happens in one, especially in the deeper subtle layers, affects all of the others.
Yoga works to balance the entire subtle body. The postures direct prana to charge specific chakras (energy centers) and open the nadis (energy channels). This flow of energy purifies and harmonizes these subtle structures, gradually creating both freedom from negative patterns and openness to higher experiences.
Specifically, hatha yoga directs energy into the central channel that runs along the spine and opens the upper chakras. This is exactly the energetic configuration that allows for deep states of meditation.
Usually, most of our energy runs through the left and right side channels (ida and pingala). These nadis are associated with selfishness, ignorance, greed and anger. Sushumna nadi, the central channel, carries the energy of wisdom, clarity and compassion.
When we are balanced there, meditation comes naturally. It allows us to open both the heart and the upper chakras, related to transcendent experience.
Maybe this all seems a bit abstract for now, but when you practice yoga with awareness for a while, as part of your meditation, you will start to feel and understand it from the inside.
I want to mention here that it’s very important to stay a long time in every asana. Most contemporary takes on hatha yoga make it very dynamic. It’s all flowing movements from one asana to another, never staying more than a few breaths in any pose. This is not the classical way to practice yoga.
If you’re always moving, you’ll never really feel what the asana is doing, and you won’t learn how to make the mind go still in an asana. You must stay in an asana for a few minutes at least to allow the prana to build up. Only then you can start to experience the deeper aspects of the asana practice.
Building continuity between yoga and meditation
If you’re not used to yoga from this perspective, you might be wondering how you can put this understanding into action, to make your yoga a real meditation.
A natural and essential first step is to always meditate after your yoga practice. You've spent all this time building a ladder, why not climb up it? Many people coming from busy lives also like to meditate for a few minutes before yoga, so they can drop the outside world and go into a meditative state.
Even if you go straight into asanas, take just a minute before you start to center yourself. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and feel your entire being – body, energy and emotion – without reacting or judging what you feel. Just be present.
As you practice, stay as much as possible in this neutral, centered awareness. You can always come back to the breath or the heart as a reminder.
Stay long in every asana, feeling a deep relaxation even while your body makes an effort to hold the pose. Commit to each asana as it happens, not thinking about the next asana but feeling like this asana right now is your true destination.
While you are in the pose, release any thoughts about what you should be doing and simply notice what is actually happening. Between asanas, rest in a state of presence like a micro-meditation before moving slowly and purposefully into the next posture.
Continuity is key: treat the entire practice just like a sitting meditation, where you try to maintain awareness and concentration without interruption. Ideally, you can study from an authentic lineage of yoga, where the more profound, esoteric teachings have been maintained.
These include the Bihar School of Yoga in India, Agama Yoga in Thailand (and other locations), Hridaya Yoga in Mexico, and the lineage of Lady Niguma, Yantra Yoga of Namkhai Norbu Dzogchen linage and Yogi Bhajan Kundalini yoga.
Lady Niguma yoga works from the lower chakras towards the higher, focusing on opening the nadis so energy can flow upwards. It’s unique in that it was developed by a woman and for women over 1,000 years ago.
As in any spiritual practice, the guidance of a qualified teacher is essential if you want to go further into it.
The relationship between yoga and meditation is quite complicated, and we've just scratched the surface here. Unfortunately, the idea of yoga in Western culture is mostly based on misconceptions, thinking that the purpose of yoga is nothing more than physical fitness and maybe some relaxation.
This blocks many people from realizing the full potential of their own yoga practice. In fact, yoga is an extremely powerful set of tools for helping us understand the nature of reality and become better people. It’s both a meditative path in itself and an amazing support for any meditation practice.
I hope you've been inspired to explore more! I encourage to keep, learning, reading, taking classes, and most of all, running experiments within your own laboratory: yourself.
Personal experience is the most valuable teacher of all.
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