My biggest challenge on the yoga teacher training course was always going to be the morning meditation because a). I hate mornings and b). I am useless at sitting still. At home there’s no point talking to me until I’ve had my morning coffee because I can’t summon smiles or sentences before 8am, unless caffeine is involved. However at Chandra Yoga I am caffeine free and waking up at 5:30am for my first class of the day: Meditation, Mantras & Pranayama.
As you can imagine, the first day was hard, particularly because I was still suffering with jet lag and the effects of high altitude. I didn’t even consider the latter until I found myself struggling to catch my breath on the steps up to my bedroom (although I must point out, this is 4 flights of very steep stairs! It’s going to be a real thigh and butt workout!) So I forced myself out of bed, feeling very dazed and confused (overnight I must have forgotten I was India) and slept-walked my way to morning meditation, finding a blanket and a corner to snuggle down into. Unsurprisingly, meditation isn’t as effective lying down because it often induces sleep, so I begrudgingly moved myself into an upright, crossed legs position (also known as sukhasana), with my hands on my knees in the gyan mudra position (index finger touching thumb, other 3 fingers pointing down). Yet, it wasn’t the chanting or the pranayamas (breath control techniques) that I found most difficult. It was sitting still. Who knew that sitting in one position could be so uncomfortable!?! After about 3 minutes my bum started to ache but I decided to push through the pain until- at approximately 7 minutes into the class- my right foot started to cramp. I tried putting one foot in front of the other, sitting on my side, pushing my legs out straight but regardless, every position seemed to cause me some sort of pain! The other day I was speaking to an experienced physical theatre performer who said that life modelling was by far the hardest thing he had ever done. And not because of the nudity but because of the strength needed to hold even the simplest positions for a length of time. (Apparently every beginner life model starts out a bit cocky but then quickly realises that even holding a basic twist is a huge physical strain after 10 minutes!) I now really understand what he means because I couldn’t even sit still for 5 minutes without feeling intense pain in my bum/leg/foot/back/etc…(so I think that’s my life modelling career out of the picture!)
Katy and I meditating in the sunrise (we definitely didn't pose for this photo!)
The chanting of the mantras was quite alien to me and I initially found the Sanskrit language challenging to grasp. Yet, by the end of the day I noticed myself unconsciously looping the mantras in my head and by day two they had completely sunk in. And then something rather odd happened: I started to enjoy chanting! Whilst chanting is nothing like singing it has the same therapeutic effect on me and gives a similar sense of community to that of a choir. Chanting’s monotonic quality is akin to church psalms and whilst at first it seemed dull and repetitive, it eventually created a sense of oneness in the room that I found profoundly energising. The chanting of mantras is regarded as the sound of yoga because it enables all of the sense to dissolve into one, allowing the mind to sink into itself. But the use of Sanksrit is vital because each Sanskrit letter has a sound that relates to a specific energy centre (or Chakra) in our bodies. The most famous sound is “OM” and is the sound form of the universal unconsciousness, which helps you to sink into silence and ultimately, to return to the Self. So perhaps we all need a bit more OMMMMM in our lives.
Yoga in its practical sense (asana) has always been my way into meditation because I am a kinaesthetic learner and have an inability to sit still (hence the lack of desk jobs on my CV!) Practicing yoga gives me the benefits of meditation because it enables me to focus my mind on the postures and the flow of the sequence, otherwise known as a moving meditation. For the past 3 years I have tried to practice meditation in its traditional form, only to inevitably give up and abandon yet another app that was supposed to ease the process. Perhaps I lack the self-discipline and willpower needed to master meditation, or maybe it’s just not how I best meditate. After all, one size never fits all. Yet, after a challenging yoga class I find that when I’m in shavasasana (the lie-down bit at the end!) my mind is calm- in spite of the stillness- because anything that tires out the senses is supposed help with meditation. What the West forgets is that classical Hatha yoga wasn’t developed as an exercise class but as a training to help people sit still for long periods of time. The ultimate goal for an ‘orthodox’ yogi is to be able to comfortably meditate from the lotus position (padamasana) for hours at a time. I’m still working on that one…
This is an example of meditation in padamasana (with the hands in the gyan mudra position):
In the morning meditation class we don’t just sit in silence for 90 minutes (although I thought as much!) but instead try out different techniques to help calm the mind. Some work better than others and that is fine, according to Dr. Sushil (our meditation and philosophy teacher). What came as a surprise was how physical some of these techniques are, co-ordinating the arms with the breath for a whole minute before sitting in silence for 1-2 minutes. One of these techniques involves bringing the arms in on the inhalation and pushing them straight out on the exhalation, at a fast pace. This enables you to breathe through both nostrils equally and helps to balance the body because the right nostril (pingala)- the sun nostril- heats the body whereas the left nostril (ida)- the moon nostril- cools the body. Shushumna nadi is when both nostrils are working together and enables optimum breathing, therefore assisting with meditation. When our breathing is imbalanced our bodies become imbalanced. For example, I tend to sleep on my left side and find that I usually get hot during the night. This is because I am sleeping in a position that favours my right nostril, which heats the body (and also causes hunger and thirst). When I eventually roll over on to my right side I typically reach for more of the duvet because I am favouring the left nostril, which cools the body (and also makes you feel tired and relaxed). After a minute of this very physical pranayama I find that I am able to meditate more easily (I went for a solid minute yesterday without thinking about breakfast!) which is probably because my breathing is better balanced. (Nb. If you're interested in the science behind this, check out the link at the bottom.)
There are several other techniques that help with meditation: ujjayi breath (sometimes known as “ocean breath”- deep breathing that makes sound); nasikagra mudra (focusing on the end of your nose); shambhavi mudra (focusing on the third eye-the space between your eyebrows); khechari mudra (placing the tongue above the soft palate); moola bandha (contracting the pelvic floor muscles). You can also combine several techniques so that you have even more to focus on (for example, focusing on your breath, with your tongue above the soft palate, whilst concentrating on your third eye!) However, I don’t think I'm quite this advanced yet as the beautiful view is still teasing my gaze away from the end of my nose!
Katy relaxing on the terrace after meditation:
The challenges of meditation change each day and the hardest part is not falling into a pit of self-criticism when it doesn’t work out quite as you expected. After finding day two quite a bit easier I strolled into class on my third day feeling fairly confident (and perhaps a bit cocky). It was by far my worst sitting as I just couldn’t focus at all and found myself dosing off on several occasions. Apparently the key is persistence, diligence and patience because it takes years to master meditation. Yet, the very act of trying to meditate- even unsuccessful- will help to train the mind. This is why Dr. Sushil refers to it as concentration/meditation because full meditation is unrealistic for beginners. Although beginners can still benefit from concentrating the ‘waves’ of the mind, as this will develop their capacity to control the mind and eventually reach a meditative state.
Saying that, I feel very ‘OMM’d out right now and have had all the meditation that I can manage in one day. My bum is aching so much today that I’ve actually gone out and bought a cushion…and scheduled a massage for this afternoon!