Meditation invites us to “be.” Rather than “doing,” meditation asks us to observe what it’s like to be in our bodies, to be in this world, and to be a part of something bigger.
Meditation: It isn’t what you think…
We can’t really talk about meditation without debunking a few myths first.
Most of the time, when the word meditation comes up, you and I think about a person sitting on their yoga mats in an easy seat, hands on top of knees in a mudra, eyes closed, and a slight smile on their face. From the outside, everything looks serene and peaceful. And we can just bet this person is really in the groove. They’ve successfully quieted their thoughts, shut out the world without them, and turned within.
Well, I’m here to say, this idea of meditation is basically a load of crap. Let me tell you about a recent experience I had with meditation.
I was sitting in a zoom room with at least a hundred other people, preparing for a 15-meditation with my teacher in France.
We were doing what she called a “sound meditation” where we literally meditate on the sounds around us. That’s right… we weren’t trying to breathe them away or find some super quiet place away from everything so we could really turn inward. The goal in this meditation practice was really to tune into what was going on around us and immerse ourselves in it.
I have a bird sanctuary in my backyard. I hear birds chirping away all day every day. When I sat for this meditation though, it was a bit like I was hearing the birds for the first time. I could hear the subtle differences in their calls. The highs and lows in their song. The “song” of birdsong really came alive for me in a new way.
My teacher said something that really hit home with me: we can’t separate our worlds from our practice. We can’t separate our inner selves from our outer worlds. Our yoga and meditation and breathing practices are meant to be a part of it all. Our practice gives us the ability to participate in life in a more present and authentic way… without having to run from the messiness of it all.
Sitting in Our Bodies: Being versus Doing
After the sound meditation, Kia opened up the room for feedback on the experience.
One woman’s experience really stuck out to me. She has children and while she was doing the meditation, her kids were home. She said that in her meditation, she could hear her kids interacting with one another. She listened as they talked and bantered.
She said that she was “seeing” them in a different way though. Usually, she’s “doing” when it comes to her kids. They either need or want something from her, or she’s an active presence in their activity. But while meditating, she was able to take a step back and just observe her kids as they were, uninhibited by her presence. She didn’t have to “do” anything, she could just “be” present and observe, and doing so gave her a new perspective.
Meditation gives us the ability to see things from a new perspective. When we don’t have to actively participate in everything going on around us, we have a clearer view. It is so good for us to be able to see things from a different angle. Meditation provides space in our lives just like our physical asana practice provides us space in our spines and pranayama gives us space in our lungs.
So if you’re feeling kind of stuck, or less creative than usual, or even claustrophobic because you’ve been spending so much time at home lately, I invite you to spend a little extra time just observing and being through meditation.
Using the Breath to Anchor Your Meditation Practice
In yoga, we define the breath as pranayama. It is a path to interconnectedness within one’s self and interdependence within the space we are in. It is not something separate from us; rather, it is the lifeforce of our being.
The practice of breathing can be really simple, and it can also be quite complex. It all depends on how we utilize the breath. For some, it might be through asana (postural) practice. For others, it may be how we drop into our meditation practice.
There’s a difference between the breathing your body does automatically and an intentional breathing practice, though. This is where pranayama comes into play. For one, bringing your attention to the simple act of breathing is a subtle form of meditation. An intentional breathing practice has the power to help ground and recenter yourself. It can be as simple as five minutes of breathing in and out softly with awareness or breathing in and out deeply with intention. It can also be as intensive as an hour-long practice where you explore several different breathing techniques.
Regardless of what pranayama techniques you implement, these practices can be used to enhance a meditation practice.
I’d mentioned in the first week of March that I was feeling fidgety, having trouble focusing, and struggling to sit for my teacher, Kia’s meditation on sound. I had a hard time getting my mind into a place of stillness so that I could drop into my body for the meditation.
Counted breathing is a practice I use often when I feel like this and am having trouble settling into my body. Counted breathing is a simple breathing technique that’s actually used to prepare for a deeper pranayama practice. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from all of this is to not chase. Simply be with whatever is there rather than searching and/or holding onto something else. This is how mindfulness cultivates within.
When you want to meditate but are feeling anxious or need to focus but can’t keep your mind from wandering, I encourage you to try a simple breathing practice.
Counted Breathing Instructions
Come to a seated position something like an easy seat with legs crossed. Sitting on a meditation cushion or a block is helpful to elevate the pelvis. This allows the hip joints to relax, the pelvis to slightly tip forward and the spine to be supported with it’s natural curves. You want your spine nice and tall, but you don’t want to stress by actively engaging your muscles. You want to be comfortable, and attentive.
Focus for a minute on the external and internal sounds around you. Really focus in on them to help tune out your thoughts, and then let those sounds fade into the background.
Now focus in on your breath. Don’t change your breathing yet… just observe it. What does the breath feel like moving in and out of the nose? Do you notice any temperature changes? Can you feel it leaving the nostrils? Do you notice your rib cage and belly changing shape? Can you tap into the softness of your natural breath? Sit in this space of being present with your natural breath for about 5 minutes.
Once you’ve settled in the space of your body with your breathing, begin to elongate the breath. Start with a simple breath practice matching the length of the inhale to the exhale.
Count in for 3 and out for 3
Count in for 4 and out for 4
Count in for 5 and out for 5
Do this for 10 rounds.
Now change the breath pattern by exhaling double the length of the inhale. To do this one must make the inhale richer and fuller and the exhale long and fine. Play with the different ratios until you find what’s suitable for you. Once you find the ratio, inhale through both nostrils. At the top of the inhalation close off the right nostril with your right thumb, and then begin the long exhalation through the left nostril only. Try this for 12 rounds.
Count in for 3 and out for 6
Count in for 4 and out for 8
Count in for 5 and out for 10
Let your breathing return to normal. Sit in stillness, pause, reflect and absorb the residue of your practice. Lay down and take a 2-5 minute savasana before returning back to the room or place you are in.
What did you observe? Was there a change in your present state? Were you able to be fully present with the breath moving through your body?
Community and Conversation: Our Practice is Meant to be Shared
These things we’ve been talking about for the last couple of months… holding space, the practice, meditation, breath…these elements of our lives don’t exist in a vacuum, and taking in the learning isn’t a linear process either. (If you’ve missed any of this month’s newsletters, you can check out the blog post on my website, which includes all of this month’s writings). It can seem like it is. After all, the Ashtanga practice has a set set of asanas and a schedule. Meditation and breathing exercises are typically regimented by specific instructions.
The idea then, is that with consistency, your growth in these practices should always move in a forward motion, right?
This week, I’d like us to explore something a little vulnerable. From the outside looking in, it might appear that everyone’s growth looks like steady forward motion, but I can tell you now, that it’s not that way. Not for me, and likely not for you either.
And this is why it’s so important to share our experiences with one another.
We’re a part of a sacred Sangha. When we share our experiences—the good, the bad, the messy, and the revelatory—with one another, we help each other. And yes, even as a teacher, I have things to learn, and I look to my Sangha for knowledge and support.
We take care of each other when we’re willing to be vulnerable enough to share our experiences, our struggles, our setbacks, our triumphs, and our moments of clarity.
We are all really busy. If we get too “caught up” in the busyness that sometimes, the yoga or meditation practices take a backseat to everyday life. It’s not an oversight that things are hard right now for a lot of us.
And I know that so many of my students want to practice well and with intention, and that sometimes that means that if you don’t have the time or energy or space you think you need, you might not practice at all. This can create a downward spiral of filling up that space with other “busyness”.
Instead, give yourself permission and relieve some of the pressure off yourself of having to do it all. If you don’t have 90 minutes to dedicate to your practice, then do what you can with the time you have. If all you have in you is five Sun As, then by all means, do those sun salutations with all your heart. Or do 5 minutes of breathing meditation, sound meditation, or savasana.
And then share.
Share your experiences of practice with your community and your teacher. Don’t just take the teachings for granted, take them to heart.
Your community wants to support you. Your teacher wants to support you. When you share your experiences, you give others permission to do the same, and you allow yourself to be supported in the process.
I want to hear about it all—from the trudging to the triumph—and I know the rest of the Sangha wants to as well.
Show up for yourself and for your community, and let’s support each other.