I can just hear some people saying, “Isn’t meditation enough? Why do I have to do yoga as well?” Well, you don’t. But maybe you want to. Or at least consider practicing some yoga, if you are serious about trying out meditation.
Why? Well, for a start you have a body, and it does not go away in meditation. So consider the following.
Usually we sit upright when we meditate. Sounds simple enough, but it isn’t quite as easy. How often do we actually really sit upright in everyday life? And if we do, then that rarely lasts more than a couple of minutes before we get up, move, fidget…
But to meditate we want to sit quietly upright, erect, poised, our chest open – and at the same time relaxed. It is wonderful to sit like that, but we need to practice sitting like that, and it requires both flexibility and back strength. Yoga helps develop the back muscles so one’s posture is naturally more upright and so one can hold it far longer in comfort.
But why flexibility to sit up straight? Well, often our shoulders, chest, neck or back are stiff, which means we fight against ourselves physically to sit erect. Yoga postures make the muscles in these areas more pliable.
Naturally you do not need to sit in Lotus to meditate, but a lot of people do like to sit with some sort or cross-legs. To do this you need movement in your groins and hips if you do not want to damage your knees over time.
To meditate we need energy, and Iyengar yoga frees up lots of it! But some people may say, “I’ve got too much energy, so sitting still – or staying with the meditation practice – is difficult.” Yoga helps here too, since it does not just liberate energy. It opens up the right kind of energy.
It is no coincidence that yoga postures are seen as a prerequisite for meditation in some Indian traditions. How is that? They develop the appropriate energy, partly since they work subtly on the psychophysical organism. But at least as important is the beneficial manner of practising yoga, namely with awareness – being present in the body and posture, or at least trying to!
We need to refine our energies to meditate. Just imagine racing home from work after an argument with your boss, only to find the neighbor’s stereo blaring so loudly they can’t hear you hammering on their door: you’ll have lots of energy, but it’s probably far too crude for meditation. You need to refine it first. And this you can do with the yoga, starting with strong poses and working your way to calmer ones before you try to do sitting practice. In fact even without upsets, our minds are usually in a crude state that isn’t so conducive to meditation. And yoga helps refine it.
We can speak of meditation as the direct method of working on our mind, since we work on the mind with the mind itself when we do a meditation practice. But there are other opportunities to develop our consciousness that use other aspects of our life and being, such as interaction with other human beings, our normal behavour, and our body. These are indirect methods of working on the mind, affecting it via something else.
Yoga is one such indirect method, powerfully affecting the mind through the body. This it does not only by freeing up and refining energy as already mentioned but also by helping us cultivate mindfulness, which is crucial for our spiritual development in general and specifically necessary for meditation.
It’s hard to be aware of what the subtle elements of our experience are doing if we aren’t aware of what relatively substantial parts of our experience (like the body) are doing. This body awareness is traditionally regarded as the first foundation of mindfulness.
How often do you have to say, “I don’t know”, when someone asks, “How are you?” and you want to be honest? Well, yoga does not just enhance our physical awareness. Through the body we can become far more aware of what we are feeling.
There are forms of psychotherapy that depend on body-work to contact deeper feelings. Well, yoga is not therapy, but it certainly helps to get in contact with your feelings!
In the modern world most of us use our bodies primarily in a more-or-less automatic manner to service labor-saving devices at home or at work or in a limited way for pleasure. Our experience of the body is usually restricted to our head, chest, belly, and genitals – unless we have pains somewhere else. Yoga helps us extend our experience into the back, hips, legs, and – very important indeed! – the feet.
It’s no coincidence that the most fundamental posture in Iyengar yoga is “Mountain Pose,” just standing on your own two feet, grounded like a mountain. (In fact, you can learn to ground yourself more and more.)
By learning to feel the back half of the body and the lower half of the body, it may even seem like you’re discovering your body for the first time. And you feel – physical, energetic, and emotional sensations.
When you are more experienced, you can even develop more positive, subtler, or more pleasant emotions through your programor emphasis. For example, strong intensive backward bends done carefully and with awareness can bring out strong and kind feelings of joy. Or sequences of forward bends held for a long time can bring calm and peace.
Yoga really helps you discover what your emotions are, which is increasingly important for us modern people, who are not exactly famous for knowing what we feel unless it is of an overwhelming character. But self-knowledge is necessary for meditation: to work appropriately in meditation, you have to know what is happening inside you.
Over time when we meditate, we churn up the contents of our mind; this is not always pleasant. In fact, it can be quite disturbing. Iyengar yoga can strengthen our emotional robustness (for example, the intensive practice of standing poses).
We want to enjoy good health, and to meditate it certainly helps to be as healthy as possible. Yoga definitely improves our health. In the years before starting yoga, I suffered more and more from headaches and got colds easily. Within a few months of doing yoga, the frequency of both ailments dropped drastically. Such experience is common. You can meditate with a running nose, a sore throat, and a massive headache, but it is a lot easier without. And let’s face it: it’s a lot more fun to be healthy!
Yes, yoga can be a lot of fun. I enjoy it so much that I’ve been doing it daily since 1975. It’s great to experience yourself more and more as an integrated psychophysical whole, energy flowing, trying out new and old challenges, growing all the time. And we need pleasure. If we don’t get it in the spiritual life, we’ll go out looking for it ways that won’t exactly help our meditation practice. So why not try yoga?