“Although meditation still isn’t exactly mainstream, many people practice it, hoping to stave off stress and stress-related health problems.”Julie Corliss, Harvard Health Publishing
We here at PURE are no strangers to the very old practice of meditation in some way, shape, or form – most of us practice a 90 or 60 minute “open eye meditation” quite regularly. But some people may be unfamiliar with meditation, especially in the more traditional form, and it has never been a better time to take a look at it and even give it a try.
Mental Health Month is upon us, a time to bring awareness to mental health issues, and under the current world circumstances it has never been more timely to be aware of and take care of your mental health. Many people recommend meditating to help with that. In fact, findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.
“Our review indicates that meditation programs can reduce the negative dimensions of psychological stress. Mindfulness meditation programs, in particular, show small improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain.”JAMA Internal Medicine Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
So, the benefits are clear, but what is meditation all about?
MEDITATION ON THE HISTORY OF MEDITATION
It is uncertain how old the practice of meditation is. Some claim it to have been around for over 5000 years with actual documentation going back to 1500 BCE (Project Meditation.org). Traditionally speaking, yoga itself stated primarily as meditation and it’s original intent was to ultimately achieve “Samadhi”, or “enlightenment”, as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, a yoga “guidebook” dating back to over 1700 years ago (Richard Rosen, yogajournal.com).
From then until now its purpose and use has shifted. Nowadays, as cited above, it has more commonly been shown as being used to clear the mind, and therefore alleviate stress, tension, anxiety, depression and other mental ailments – all things that Mental Health Month focuses on bringing awareness to.
Alright, so how does one go about meditating?
Any quick Google search of “how to meditate” or “meditation basics” will bring up tons of sites with quick lists to get you started on meditating. A quick click on a few of those will show you that despite being thousands of years old, meditation is extremely simple. Most sites boil meditation down to 3 simple steps.
3 STEPS OF MEDITATION:
- Find a comfortable place to sit and sit in a comfortable position, typically upright.
- Find a spot of focus, typically your breath, and keep that focus.
- Continue this for as long as you can or like and slowly bring your focus back to your body and surroundings once done.
It’s as simple as that. There will be some variances to this general procedure, but typically these steps are always present in some form and this is important to note.
MENTAL HEALTH MIMAMSA
The importance of a comfortable body position and focus on breath are keys that never seem to be missed and that is actually keeping with tradition. In fact, the Yoga Mimamasa, a scientific journal on the benefits of yoga postures from the early 1900’s, emphasizes these points very specifically when talking about “meditative poses” – or poses designated for the purpose of inner focus, mental concentration, and potentially achieving Samadhi – in contrast to what they describe as “cultural poses”.
“The aim of cultural poses is to produce physiological balance in the different functions of the body, so as to give it the best organic vigour.”Yoga Mimamsa, July-October 1928
As defined by the Yoga Mimamsa, cultural poses would be any of the postures we would do in any of our yoga classes here at PURE – Cobra Pose, Bow Pose, etc. These postures are good for the body and its functioning, but not necessarily good for allowing you to reach a full meditative state. In fact, the Yoga Mimamsa remarks that cultural poses “render meditation difficult, if not impossible.”
Meditative poses on the other hand “offer a comfortable posture for Dhyana [intense concentration], etc. and they are as such as can be maintained for hours without much discomfort.” (Yoga Mimamsa, July-October 1928)
What are the characteristics of these poses?
Along with the three simple steps of meditation, another thing that is commonly seen when looking up meditation are the meditation poses. Actually, it could be said you would see THE meditation pose – singular. The most common visual representation of meditation, the one you would see if you simply searched “meditation pose” on Google, is so ubiquitous in popular culture that you likely already have it in your head without it being described. BUT it IS worth describing! Because, as common as it is and therefore as “current” as it may seem, it is rooted in Indian yogic tradition.
A simple description of a meditation pose would be that of a person sitting cross-legged, body upright, hands on the knees.
This is such a common image, such a common posture, and yet it still conforms to traditional meditative poses. It is almost comical, but the Yoga Mimamsa says of meditative poses that they are “in their final form, some form of ordinary sitting.”
According to the Yoga Mimamsa poses they list as being meditative poses such as Samasana, Svastikasana – which look very similar to each other and distinctly similar to any google search of “meditation pose” – all offer three key physiological aspects that lend them specifically to being good for meditation:
3 Physiological Aspects of Meditative Poses:
- Elimination of the possibility of the compression of the abdominal viscera.
- Minimizing the production of carbon dioxide in the body, so that the respiratory activity may be rendered imperceptible and may even ultimately stop.
- Getting a richer blood supply for the pelvic region so that the coccygeal and sacral nerves may be toned up.
-The Yoga Mimamsa, July-October 1928
The first two points on the Yoga Mimamsa’s list of important physiological aspects of meditative poses should really jump out – the first being about posture or the body position, the second about breath. Very similar to the basic steps of meditation you see today.
The Yoga Mimamsa first stresses the importance of not compressing abdominal organs by keeping the body upright and the spine naturally straight. They state this helps promote a better posture and in turn helps to maintain the health of your abdominal organs. It is also for comfort. The Mimamsa states that “During the period of meditation, the mind must be entirely relieved of the burden of the body.”
“That the meditative poses are easy and comfortable and can be maintained for a considerable length of time, is due to the fact that they involve a very very small amount of muscular activity.”The Yoga Mimamsa, July-October 1928
The Yoga Mimamsa secondly focuses on breath, as most meditative instruction would say to do as well. The Mimamsa recommends meditative poses for their comfort and their minimal muscular activity, and this includes the activity of the lungs. The meditative poses offer such comfort that lung activity and breathing may be reduced significantly, so much so that:
“If these meditative poses are maintained across a considerable length of time, say even for half an hour at a stretch, the breathing becomes as shallow and the heart beats are so controlled, that all the activities of the student appear to have come to a standstill.”The Yoga Mimamsa, July-October 1928
With the comfort of the posture combined with the focus of the breath the practitioner’s movement, muscular activity and breathing all become so minimal that it allows them then to focus inward.
The third point made by the Yoga Mimamsa of higher blood flow to the pelvis and sacral region of the body is related to awakening the divine Kundalini energy in the body – which is itself another “final” goal of meditation, just as with reaching Samadhi.
So, not only is the modern day representation of meditation well in line with tradition – it follows all of the physiological aspects that make meditative poses apt for meditation.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!!!
Now that you know a little bit more about meditation, it’s history, and the proper methods and poses to do it – as well as why – it’s time for you to give it a try yourself. And look no further than PURE for your meditative needs! All this month, as part of Mental Health Awareness month, every Monday for a half hour at 1pm CST we are offering a free meditation class led by Bishnu Ghosh 2011 and 2012 National Yoga Asana Champion and one of our Austin teachers, Afton Carroway (IG: @spafton), on our livestream platform YogaTV. Also, though not technically meditation in the traditional sense, feel free to work out your focus and try our 60 or 90 minute open eye meditation or relax and find your inner silence with some Yin yoga.