Not Just Sitting – meditation inherent within yoga practice

yoga teacher Feb 05, 2021

Whether we are practicing or teaching yoga, what sets the physical aspects aside from mere exercise is the quality of attention that we bring to focus. The mindful attitude that brings us towards embodiment – inviting our mind to where our body resides in the present moment – allows us to fully tune in and gauge appropriate response. This ‘listening and responding’ is the basis of a meditative practice, and the route to registering safety through our whole system as the nervous system can settle. As in Patanjali’s Sutra 1:2 “…stilling the fluctuations of the mind”.

The importance of the pause

Within practice, we can slow down to truly feel the experience – yoga as ‘moving meditation’ – and also punctuate movement with places of pause, where we allow processing through tissues and integration of experience. Within the heightened input of information from the ‘doing’ of movement, points of stillness offer a chance to drop beneath the mind imposing its will or story upon our practice.

“The ultimate purpose of inquiry is that it allows us to pause. In the space of a pause, truth can shine through.” – Tara Brach

Whether this is in response to what has been (eg judgment, comparison or analysis) or what is to come eg (ambition, anticipation or expectation); a pause is a place for presence. This might be when we’ve noticed we’ve ‘checked out’, are changing planes such as moving from low to high) or observational enquiry between sides one and two of an asymmetrical position.

When a physical yoga practice simply keeps moving without any commas or full-stops (to continue the punctuation analogy!), we lose the opportunity to catch up with breath, to let the ripples of the motions settle and to integrate their effect. When teaching others, we can observe much within the pauses we offer students; slowing down to allow them to ‘simply be’, we can offer the space where instruction is more about mindful quality of the experience than simply where to move a foot or limb.

Creating familiarity with quiet and stillness

When students are more accustomed to the inner quiet of stillness from meditation practices, they can meet such pauses with more familiarity and peace. They can develop the resources to be less likely to grasp at more activity and drop beneath frustrations towards more subtle practices.

Asana practice was introduced into the yoga canon (via the Hatha Pradipika text) as a route towards meditation and the ultimate connection of Samadhi. When yoga is simply practiced as the modern, physically-focused mode, the deeply attuned awareness of still meditative states can be ignored. It is easy to run roughshod over more nuanced, subtle and refined states when we are rushing ahead. For many in the modern world, continuing to do more and faster is much easier than the challenge of slowing down to see the landscape.

Many routes to stillness…

It has been said that seated meditation may be the one most viewed as the ‘real deal’ as seen most prominently in esoteric and mystical imagery. Whether this has any truth, many people believe sitting to access connection with a larger consciousness as the ‘right way’.

Simply confining meditation to sitting not only misses a variety of ways in which to connect inwards, but can also be a limitation for those for whom a hunched posture is the norm from desk or screen use. Often this is accompanied by thrusting the chin forward, creating compression at the base of the skull, making it difficult to find open, spacious, awareness in the brain stem. Alternative positions not only offer a different viewpoint and experience, but (alongside asana) help unravel these patterns and move in the direction of rising up rather than collapsing down (in body and in experience) during meditation.

Four different states for mindfulness are described in the Buddhist text, the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta; “The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness”,

“….. a monk, when walking, knows that he is walking, when standing, knows that he is standing, when sitting, knows that he is sitting, when lying down, knows that he is lying down. In whatever way his body is disposed, he knows that that is how it is.”

This conscious recognition of ‘body as body’ within mindfulness cultivates clarity of what is internal and what is external; enough to know where things are, but not so much that it encourages “clinging to the world” and over-attachment to the purely physical.

Changing our relationship with the ground

Different body placing for meditation – sitting, standing, walking and lying – can not only reflect our changing needs, but also offer their own specific inherent qualities. The placing of our head, in relation to our body and both in relation to the ground has different implications for the nervous system; affecting the responses of our more primal, unconscious, instinctive, ‘old’ back brain and brainstem and the more modern, ‘evolved’ and cognitive frontal lobe where we can choose to consciously process what happens to us or what arises from our unconscious.

As we are bipedal (we stand upright on two legs), much of our neurochemistry is bound up in how we calibrate the curves of our spine vertically up from the ground. Changing the relative positions of our brain, spine and the ground creates shifts in consciousness and can keep us adaptive, responsive and open to change.

As much of my practice, teaching and research focusses on stress and trauma, I am always drawn to a foundation of grounding to help hold a space for meditative states and how to best find this for the individual – especially in the overstimulating, information-rich and ‘heady’ world. As I wrote in my book Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health;

“Grounding is to feel a full, physical sense of where we are, as we are right now, including our relationship to the earth that holds us up and gravity that pushes us down – the basis of trust in ourselves.”

Of these four states, three have the spine upright from the ground, which awakens the brain stem; resets the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system and allows us to move beyond fear and doubt. For some with trauma, sitting for long periods of time can be retraumatising as replicates a ‘locked-in’ physicality with no option for running away, so other upright options are helpful.

Here we focus on standing, sitting and lying meditation as less usual routes to Dhyana for the yogi. They can be practised as dedicated still meditation positions or places to come to pause between a moving practice.

Standing Meditation

Standing is a wonderful, embodied and grounding way to practice, offering presence and strength in the legs, especially within the prana or qi (chi) of nature.

It may be more associated with Daoist-based practices such as t’ai chi and qi gong. Whether referred to as ‘stand like a tree’ or ‘standing pole’, practitioners hold standing postures to cultivate mental and physical relaxation, tranquillity, awareness and power. They train the body to use muscles in a ‘postural’ way (to hold and contain stillness), rather than a ‘phasic’ way where muscle is used for movement. As with any polarity, moving and stillness are neither more or less important than each other and we constantly move between them. Standing still is where they meet and as our postural muscles must continually react against gravity to keep us up, there is an inherent action here that keeps us internally awake.

This might appear to be similar to tadasana (mountain pose) in yoga, but the form has more softness through the knees, feet hip-width apart and a sense of settling in for the duration. A common instruction in t’ai chi or qi gong is to imagine there is a balloon between your knees, and your head is suspended by a piece of string. The mindful focus can then continually notice and modulate when posture can tend to collapse or become rigid or tense.

Positioning the feet underneath the sitting bones has a natural stability that also allows width and softness in the lower back. Here you can notice whenever you may shift to weight on the balls of the feet (ready to go forward) and rather drop back towards the fronts of the heels where the tops of the thigh bones can organise themselves above the ankles; shoulders above that and ears above shoulders. This is where we can naturally rise up through the front spine and feel buoyancy in the chest as we breathe; a holding to sense the continually shifting back to the centre line through gravity as a mindful focus. Feeling this standing can help us bring it to sitting.

Punctuating asana (yoga postures) with standing meditation can allow the ripples of the previous practice to be felt wholly and integrated – it is coming back to the midline, the central axis and sushumna, offering the space to ‘be’ after the ‘doing’.

Walking Meditation

Walking meditation has a very clearly defined focus of concentration and as such can draw us into mindfulness. When walking, we need to navigate our path, even when letting go of the need to get somewhere. This means awareness of the next foot placement, when to avoid obstacles (such as walls, rocks, holes or people) and when to shift course.

This can be very useful for those who struggle to settle into a still body and who feel a disconnect between a storminess of mind and a stasis of body; indeed they might become more physically locked to contain such forceful and chaotic winds if not used to directing them adeptly. It can be a route to settling if the body moves with these internal movements and as such, walking can be a wonderful precursor to sitting. During periods of intense retreat, where seated meditation may be held for hours during a day, sitting may be alternated with periods of walking meditation, often within nature.

The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta refers to walking meditation where, “a monk applies clear comprehension in going forward and in going back.” Walking has shown to awaken creative ability – further heightened in a meditative state, or even meditating after walking (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2014;40(4):1142–1152) as it requires the simultaneous use of multiple parts of the brain; leaving less room for rumination. This can be very helpful in those with trauma, who may also need the conscious act of orientation – knowing where they are. The eyes tend to be open, so that a steady gaze (drishti) can offer this reassurance and, like standing, having the legs engaged also offers the safety of being able to leave if needed, rendering it less likely.

At first the focus may simply be on the felt sense of moving and placing of the feet and legs. This can then move to sensing lightness of the foot when lifting it, movement of the foot pushing forward, heaviness when it descends and then the touch of the heel on the ground. These stages are associated with the four essential elements (in Pali, dhatu); earth, water, fire and air respectively.

Lying Meditation

In the yoga canon, lying meditation is of course known as savasana or corpse pose. Stating this is a meditation reminds us that it is an invitation to dharana – concentration, single focus and steadiness. Throughout the physical practice that comes before, we are differentiating and focusing on specific body parts, savasana is where we integrate and bring ourselves ‘back’ to the whole that we always were.

Savasana can be practiced at the end of a physical or meditative time, or as a standalone practice if we are exhausted and in need of this restoration. A daily 20-minute savasana practice can provide the nurture that many are crying out for. Also permeating an opening or closing lying, moving practice with periods of savasana can help movement process through body tissues and refine awareness through the physical body and other layers (koshas).

If a person falls asleep in savasana, they probably needed it and may need more regular quality sleep and rest.

Dropping into a calm, soft, parasympathetic nervous system state is completely possible sitting or standing, but for a brain on heightened alert responses, these may trigger habits of doing, seeking information and difficulty switching off that make relaxation states impossible.

In savasana we are looking to find that balance between dropping into the parasympathetic with enough active, alert sympathetic mode to remain awake (bodhi) and attentive, so that when we can come out feeling refreshed, not groggy – a ‘conscious nap’.

For many, the surrender of lying down can be as uncomfortable as the relinquishing consciousness that happens nightly when we go to sleep. More than sitting or standing, lying down asks of us surrender, which can bring up great waves of fear in those who prefer to stay in control. Side-lying savasana can offer a reassuring alternative to stay and meet whatever arises for us.

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