Science is now confirming what yogis have known since ancient times: a meditation practice can literally change the brain's pathways - helping us relax, centre and, with time, change unhelpful thought patterns and ways of relating to the world. Lucia Cockcroft offers tips for Just Sitting.
In the West, we have a very ‘physical' approach to our yoga practice. But traditionally (and certainly according to seminal ancient text, the Yoga Sutras), the physical postures, or asanas, are only one small aspect of yoga.
Meditation is another essential element of yoga - and one that is integral to the practice, rather than separate from it.
There are plenty of myths surrounding meditation, but essentially it is a simple practice that can, with practice and commitment, be transformational.
Science is now confirming what yogis have known for millennia: that regular meditation can literally change the neurological pathways of the brain (‘neuro-plasticity').
This can result in better focus, less stress, lower blood pressure, and relief from the destructive, habitual patterns of thinking that can lead to, or contribute towards, depression.
There are many techniques for meditation (or Just Sitting). All aim to re-train the mind in a subtle, gentle way.
Here is a suggested sequence for a 10-minute practice:
Find a comfortable sitting position, spine tall (more on this below), shoulders relaxe, chin and head in neutral alignment.
Take a minute or two to scan your body, and become aware of how each part of you feels. Begin with the face, softening the forehead, eyes, skin around the eyes. Let the jaw and then shoulders relax. Then the arms, spine, pelvis. Feel the legs drop into the support of the Earth.
Try to take your Awareness away from your 'thinking mind', into your body. How does your body feel right now? Just notice whatever you find. See if you can start to let go of thoughts, worries, concepts. Aim to 'Just Be'. Try and find your current 'feeling tone'; the essence of you that is beyond thought.
Begin to become away of your breathing - noticing how the breath is today, and where you can feel that the breath is most alive in the body (ie in the nostrils, chest or belly). Take a gentle, persistent attention to each breath.
As you notice thoughts arriving, and as you become aware of becoming lost in a train of thought, you can choose to let go of that thought or worry, as if it were encapsulated in a balloon, and you are releasing the balloon into a clear blue sky. Come back to the breath with patience and compassion .
After a few minutes, gently allow each exhale to be gradually longer than the inhale (to an eventual ratio of 2:1). Keep the breath soft, smooth and natural - wave like, without force. Continue for up to 20 breaths, then relax the breath completely.
Shift your focus back to your natural breath. Notice, without judgement, the
quality and tone of the breathing. Be curious and receptive.
Come back to this practice every time you are aware of becoming entangled in thoughts or worries. Notice if any of the thoughts are recurring (these ‘grooves' of the mind are called Samskaras). Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Come back without judgement, and with much patience.
• As with the asanas (physical postures), little and often is the ideal: begin with 5 minutes a day, and increase this, if you can, to 10 minutes within a month or two.
• Find a comfortable sitting position which you can fairly easily maintain. Sitting astride a bolster, for example, or crossed legs sitting on up to three blocks/cushions. The spine must be tall and relaxed; the hips, higher than the knees (to avoid lower back strain).
• Try to sit at the same time each day - ie early morning, We place lots of focus on looking after our bodies, such as brushing our teeth. It is just as essential to nurture our minds.
• Cultivate patience! Try not to get bogged down in thoughts of 'I can't do this'. Learning how to meditate takes time and commitment; it's a discpline that can be transformational. It's certainly not easy - but will become more so in time. Llet your meditation practice become a habit. Bear in mind that a new habit takes months to form.
In essence: we are aiming to invite space into our minds, cultivating a more relaxed, open and receptive state of being. Be patient and committed; challenging our habitual mental habits may be life-changing, but this is also a profound, life time's practice.
Lucia, Yoga Abode's editor, is a writer and yoga and meditation teacher. She teaches classes and retreats in London, Essex and Suffolk, and specialises in restorative yoga and yoga & meditation for stress. See www.luciacockcroft.co.uk and www.ya-retreats.co.uk