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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What is Meditation?

8.7.11 Sunday 7pm - Meditation based on Patanali's Yoga Sutras
Saraswati Andrea Lee and Chitra Jessica Sunshine Klein
Starseed Yoga and Wellness of Montclair, NJ

Hari OM call and response opening chant.  Introductions.

According to the sage Patanjali, Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. If we then look at the definition of meditation -- a clear, peaceful, one pointed focus on an uplifting object -- we begin to see how similar these practices are. The objective of both is to quiet the mind by re-directing our flow of attention. By nature the mind grasps on to different stimuli that it's introduced to by the senses. We hear something and our attention is drawn in that direction; perhaps it's a beautiful song and we are moved by its rhythm, or we hear an actor scream in a movie and we jump in shock. In both cases we react to external sensations and then develop thoughts and feelings about what we've experienced. As we practice meditation our minds go through the same process except that we train the mind to focus for sustained periods of time on a particular object. Instead of allowing the mind to flit about at will, we focus and re-focus it on something pleasing and uplifting. By doing so the mind loses identification with what is external and draws within.
Often our first introduction to yoga is through the postures and while this is an important aspect, it is only one part. In fact, the postures were originally practiced as a way to strengthen the body in preparation for extended periods of seated meditation. The idea goes, the less restless the body, the less restless the mind. With a steady and comfortable seat the mind need not be preoccupied with little aches and pains from a body unaccustomed to stillness.

What is meditation?  Anything that brings the mind to a state that is peaceful, clear, and one-pointed, is meditation.  The mind is like an untrained monkey jumping from one thought to another.  Or think of the tazmanian devil from Looney Tunes.  Do you remember how he would spin?  Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.2 :Yoga chitta vritti nirodha.  Vritti can be translated as spin or twirl. The mind is like that, constantly being pulled from one thought to another, as the senses pick up stimuli and perceptions are made in the brain.  Meditation is the stilling of this chatter.  It is developing the ability to focus on one task or idea at a time.  It is the art of being completely present with unwavering awareness.  It is a realization of unity and a deepened vision blending the individual with the Divine or cosmic energy.     Meditation can be brought into daily life, into all of our daily activities.  It helps us slow down and focus on one thing at a time.  It is also a feeling of innocence, like a child seeing things for the first time, all the time.  It is being fully present to actively participate in your life with joy and gratitude. 

Techniques and Hints
The four main techniques for meditation are:  1) breath, 2) mantra, 3) visualization, and 4) introspection.  You may wish to use one or a combination of a few to help keep your concentration.  Once you find a style you like, stick to it so you may dive deeper into your meditations.  

Once you are ready to sit down, there are a couple of helpful hints to consider and use as a checklist:
1. Sit in a comfortable crossed legged position (Vajadrasana, Virasana, Sukhasana, Baddha Konasana, Padmasana, etc).  The seat should be high enough to take pressure off your hips and knees, so hips are slightly higher or in line with the knees.
2. Sit with the spine erect.  Feel the side body grow long as you add space in between each rib.  Lift and spread the chest, relax the shoulders onto the back.  Let the head float on top of the spine with the chin level with the ground.
3. Begin with breath awareness.  Take five slow and even breaths through the nose.  Breathe into your abdomen and fill the lungs like a balloon.  As the breath slows down, the mind calms down as well. 
4. Opening chant - 3 OM's and any additional chant you may be working on or using in your practice.
5. Pranayama practice - Deergha Swaasam -Three part breath for three minutes. 
6. Meditation technique of your choice. 
7. Moment to watch the mind, feel the effects of the meditation with a nonjudgemental attitude.
8. Ending peace chants

Once you prepare well, you are ready to still the mind of the changing fluctuations.  And remember, preparations for meditation is meditation, so prepare well. 

Distracting Thoughts
During your meditation practice you will undoubtably come across distracting thoughts -- any thoughts that take you away from your object of meditation. They are a natural part of the experience and shouldn't be looked upon with judgement. They can be anything from organizing your grocery list or bank account to acknowledging a nearby scent or sound. There are two primary ways to relieve distracting thoughts: to ignore them or to analyze them. When we ignore these thoughts, which is the method used most frequently, we experience them like clouds passing in the sky. When a distracting thought enters, allow it to pass by without paying it much attention. You can even label it "thought" and then return your attention to your breath, image, or mantra.

One analogy our teacher uses is to imagine sitting in a movie theater in back of someone with a large hair-do. At first it may prove to be a large distraction but you find one spot where you can look through and see the screen clearly. You eventually become so engaged in the film that the person in front of you essentially disappears. If the distraction returns for a moment and you lose your focus, you know exactly where to turn back to. This is what you do with distracting thoughts. It's the same as if someone were trying to get a rise out of you and you choose to ignore them. Eventually they give up when the see they cannot grab your full attention. This will happen to your distracting thoughts the more you work to ignore them.

On the other hand you may have a thought that won't let up. It's as if you were sitting in your office and a voice outside keeps calling your name. You try to ignore it but it becomes even louder. At this point you can use the second method which is to briefly analyze the distracting thought. Ask it plainly what it wants from you and promise to give it your full attention AFTER your meditation. Sometimes your mind just needs to be assured that you'll deal with a particularly pressing issue when you're finished with your meditation.
Nadi Suddhi Pranayama - Alternate Nostril Breathing
Prana is the life force.  Prana comes from the sun, positive thinking, wholesome organic food, and nourishing breath.  Watching the breath is the most direct way to watch the prana flow in and out of the body.  The breath is the link between the body and the mind.  Pranayama awakens and soothes the mind which allows us to be present.  Where the mind goes, prana follows. 
Alternate nostril breathing balances the nadis or energy channels.  Specifically the ida and pingala nadis will be accessed.  Ida, left nostril, lunar energy; pingala, right nostril, solar energy.  These nadis helix their way around the sushumna or central spinal column. These nadis intersect at large energy spheres (chakras) along the spinal column (sushumna).  This pranayama technique balances these energy channels, soothes the mind and prepares one for deeper states of meditation. 
Mantra Meditation
Today's meditation will be a mantra meditation. The word mantra is a Sanskrit term that means "a thought that protects." A mantra can be used during meditation or throughout your day while you're completing other tasks. Some mantras have specific meanings and all of them have vibrational tones that effect the subtle energies of the body. The mantra we will be using today is OM Shanti  (the word shanti means peace in Sanskrit). While this mantra does have two basic musical notes to follow, you don't need to have a great singing voice because the emphasis is all on the vibration of the mantra and not on its tune.

We will begin by chanting the mantra out loud in unison like we do in the beginning of class. After a while we will chant silently with lip movements -- as if you were in silent movie, lips moving without sound coming out. Finally we will chant the mantra internally without lip movements going at your own pacing. I will signal this switch by saying "silently with lip movements" and "internally". If you at any point lose the mantra just tune into your in and out breaths.
Ending Peace Chants
OM Asaato Maa Sad Gamaya
Tamaso Maa Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Maa Amritam Gamaya
Lead us from unreal to Real.
Lead us from darkness to the Light.
Lead us from the fear of death, to the knowledge of Immorality.
OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Lokaah Samastaah Sukhino Bhavantu
May the entire universe be filled with Peace and Joy, Love and Light.

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