Yoga is a pretty good place to start learning meditation, actually.
Real yoga, I mean. Not the pretty models in expensive tights (or not) in ad-filled magazines that are the image of modern yoga. Not the uber-gymnastic physicality that goes along with that. Not even the ‘let’s all get healthy and feel better’ kind of yoga that permeates all the yoga classes I’ve seen. Real yoga is very different, and is all about meditation, spiritual attainment, enlightenment.
The original forms of yoga are pretty much lost, (there’s even one school of thought that attributes modern yoga postures to some Swedish exercise system) but it’s clear that whatever postures and exercises those ancient Indians were doing, the purpose was to strengthen the body externally and internally so that one could pursue a rigorous meditation practice. Even Wikipedia, our authority of last resort here on the Internet, says this: The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
But don’t go running down to your local yoga studio looking for someone to teach you how to find the state of perfect spiritual insight. They’ll just roll their eyes and smile, and usher you into the shop to pick out just the perfect outfit, mat and accoutrement. Funny to me how marketers have even figured out ways to sell us things to do yoga. All you really need is little clear space and a blanket, maybe a cushion…
(To be fair, I think there are some people who still teach real yoga in the US. They just aren’t all that high profile and might prove to be very hard to find.)
But that’s a bit off the subject. If you are in reasonably good health, reasonably flexible and strong, you have all the physicality you need to learn to meditate anyway. Yoga’s primary contribution to my meditation practice is that it re-taught me how to sit cross-legged on the floor in good posture. Which is nice to be able to do, but not essential. You can meditate sitting in a chair, or even on a couch or bed or other furniture.
The critical element of posture in meditation is really your back.
It doesn’t really matter what position your legs are in, but it does matter how your back is aligned. To meditate effectively, even for a few minutes, your back should be as straight and as perpendicular as you can get it. This seems to facilitate the energy flow in the body as well as make it possible to sit in relative comfort for longer periods of time without moving.
One way to think of this is to imagine that you are lifting everything upward, reaching for the ceiling with the top of your head. A little gentle rocking side to side and front to back will help your body find the vertical – and come back to vertical when you drift off during the process of meditation.
So the first step in the process is simply to find a good, fairly firm seat. Then sit with straight back, your neck and head straight above the shoulders, head reaching upward. The preferred way is on the floor, on a mat, with a cushion under your butt and your knees on the mat, or on some other firm supportive surface. Or prop up your knees with small pillows, blankets or whatever it takes to get yourself into a solid seated position. If this doesn’t work for you, sit on the front half of a chair with feet flat on the floor, keeping your back straight, not leaning back on the chair.
Then, just relax.
Yes, that may seem impossible, but with practice the body learns to do this. Reductionists would say, what I really mean is, relax all the muscles that are not essential to maintaining this position. Yes. But let’s not get technical. It’s simple. Just sit up straight but don’t tense up.
It’s a process. The wonderful thing – one of the many wonderful things, I should say – about meditation is that meditating teaches you how to meditate. That’s why Zen teachers always say, “YOU are the teacher!” And, too, that’s just how Zen teachers like to talk. More of that later.
For now. let’s just say, if you want to take a yoga class, great. It will help. It won’t likely teach you much about meditation, but it may help you learn to sit up straight and relax.
And, it will teach you how to breathe. Just don’t take all that yoga breathing too seriously. It can mess you up.