The success of yoga in the West may have come at a heavy price. Many teachers worry that something special has been lost in yoga American - style, and that something is meditation. Meditation, not postures, is the heart of yoga, they point out. In Patanjali's India, yoga and meditation were nearly synonymous, yet meditation plays only a minor role in many American yoga courses. In others, it is not taught at all.

"Many important yogic scriptures say that hatha yoga should be practiced in the context of raja yoga (the yoga of meditation)," says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999), who has joined a growing chorus calling for American yoga to remember its heritage.

Some yoga students regard meditation as boring cultural baggage and appreciate learning postures without it. But what if your experience with yoga has inspired you to go deeper, into yogic spirituality? If your yoga teacher doesn't offer meditation guidance, how should you begin? Since yoga comes from India, should your meditation technique be Hindu or Buddhist? Is Zen Buddhist okay? Does the inner peace you already feel in yoga class count?

Meditation and its role in yoga are widely misunderstood topics, even in the yoga world itself. Before unearthing all the sectarian splits in meditation style, you first need clarification about what meditation means and its roots in human history.


The word "meditation" covers many disparate practices under one big and somewhat disorderly tent. Visualization, getting lost in a provocative book, thinking through a complex idea—in the broad sense, all these qualify as meditation. But in yoga and Buddhism, meditation generally refers to more formal practices of focusing the mind and observing ourselves in the moment.

Formal meditation is designed to carry us beyond the illusions created by our thoughts and senses so we experience everything in its truest form. It will carry the most advanced practitioners, sages contend, all the way to enlightenment—which to Hindus means a realization of our inner divinity, and to Buddhists a more secular sort of self-realization. Few will reach that exalted state, the masters admit, but meditation confers many benefits along the way, including inner calm, so everyone is a winner.

Many of the classic techniques involve an object for the mind to focus upon, such as a mantra (repeating sacred words or sounds), a picture, or the ordinary movements of breathing. Other forms, particularly Buddhist ones, advocate a more free-flowing type of awareness and inquiry into moment-to-moment existence. In nearly all styles, sensory input is kept to a minimum, usually by sitting in a relaxed, stable position, but also while walking or doing simple routines.

Meditation, however, is not prayer. Krishnamurti distinguished between the two by noting that prayer is a supplication or petition to God (or cosmic intelligence) by one who seeks gratification. In meditation, you ask for nothing and take what you get. And what you get some days is just a mirror view of your own busy mind.

One popular misconception concerns the supposed religious connotation of meditation. Although some Hindu techniques involve silently repeating a Sanskrit name for God, classical Buddhist methods involve such culture-neutral practices as counting inhalations and exhalations. This is why someone like Phil Jackson can get away with exhorting his Los Angeles Lakers to meditate to improve performance, or a corporation can teach meditation to spur employee creativity.

Let Us Get To Know A Bit On A Brief History of Om

Meditation was probably discovered by proto humans in archaic times, notes Sanskrit scholar Willard Johnson, author of the meditation history Riding the Ox Home (Beacon, 1986). Johnson suggests early humans may have stumbled upon meditation shortly after they domesticated fire and began using it for central heating. Huddling close to their bonfires for warmth, they probably spent hours staring at the hypnotic flames. At some point, they would have noticed that doing so could produce an altered state of consciousness.

Johnson guesses that archaic folks might have also noticed that certain plants, sexual orgasm, physical trauma, and near-death experiences produced unusual states of mind and invented meditative techniques to recreate them. Alternatively, poet and essayist Gary Snyder has speculated that meditation may have been developed by the earliest hunters. Without bows or other long-range weapons to bring down their prey, hunters might have trained themselves to quiet their minds so they could stalk wary animals.

Records of meditation as a discipline for lay people, as opposed to priests, first show up about 500 B.C. in both India and China. The first lay meditators in India came from that culture's Woodstock generation, who rebelled against the priests' monopoly over cosmic communion and created what we know as Buddhism and Hinduism. They may have been trying to replicate the soma ecstasies of India's Vedic age, just as the 1960s flower children adopted meditation as a natural high.

About 200 A.D. the Indian author Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutra, summarizing for mass consumption the "science of yoga." He did such a thorough job that the Yoga Sutra remains the primary source on the subject today. Contrary to what many yoga students believe, his text said little about hatha yoga postures, which weren't a widespread practice at the time. He defined yoga as "the (temporary) stoppage of the waves of the mind" (Johnson's translation). The direct route to this stoppage, he wrote, is regular meditation. The asanas described in his sutras referred to meditation postures, by which Patanjali meant anything that was relaxing and stable for both body and mind.

Meditation eventually appeared in the West, but it too may have blossomed from Hindu and Buddhist sources, says Johnson. Most of today's popular Eastern styles are Hindu or Buddhist - based because the Chinese Taoists—the other major meditation culture in Asia—never showed interest in promoting their practices to outsiders.


Studies about meditation being good medicine have appeared in popular presses since the 1960s. Research indicates that meditation lowers bodily stress—which can lower blood pressure—reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke by improving arterial health, and brings relief to chronic pain sufferers. Meditation has proven highly effective in treating psychological conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Many people also embrace meditation to advance their careers; artists, writers, and marketing execs alike meditate to woo the muse into their lives. If these pragmatic applications seem to mirror the same materialism that characterizes American yoga in general, remember that meditation has no intrinsic spiritual meaning.

By design, it pursues no goal. A goal, after all, is a thought, and in meditation we observe thoughts and don't try to generate them.

Meditation is a tool, not a project. That said, the grandest project, say all the major teachers, is the one that aims highest—the ending of human suffering. God dwells within you as you, say the Hindus, but until you experience the truth of this through meditation, the pain of existence will continue.

Buddhists take a more psychological approach to the same subject. The causes of your suffering can be understood, they say, through meditation and mindful living, making it possible to move beyond suffering to—in the words of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh—"joy, ease, and wonder."


At first glance, many meditation practices appear interchangeable. For instance, the Buddha dissed the yogic meditations of his day by saying that while they concentrated the mind and led to high mystic states, they didn't lead to "Ultimate Truth." What got him to the top, he said, was the technique he discovered: vipassana, or "insight into the nature of things."

Loyalties aside, do the differences between common techniques really matter? Cope, who is also scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, thinks they do. He makes the same distinction the Buddha did between techniques that promote concentration and those that expand awareness. The concentration styles are best for developing "a deep sense of stability, one-pointedness of mind, sweetness, calmness, and equanimity," he says. "They combat anxiety and a sense of fragmentation in the self."

Vipassana, on the other hand, can be disturbing at times, according to Cope. The mind must face the fact "that all experience is fleeting; there is no permanent abiding self under its own power. The self or ego experiences this as a threat." Discomfort aside, vipassana makes an irreplaceable contribution to spiritual development, he believes. Ideally, meditators should practice both concentration and insight just like the Buddha did.

Instructing you in those styles goes far beyond the space permitted here, but it's best to begin with the basics of concentration meditation. In "mindful breathing," a concentration technique within Theravada (South Asian) Buddhism, you observe your breathing while silently noting the "rise" and "fall" or "in" and "out" with each inhalation and exhalation, respectively. In beginning Zen, the breaths might be counted instead—one to 10, and then starting over. In a common Hindu form, a yogi silently repeats a Sanskrit mantra that is a name for God or has other sacred meaning. In tratak, you gaze at a candle flame about 20 inches away. In Tibetan Buddhism, you might stare at a mandala (sacred diagram) or recite a mantra.

What these techniques have in common is they give the mind something simple to do, so your consciousness—which is separate from thought—is freed from identifying with it. When you notice you are distracted from the meditation object, you refocus on it. This way you develop "one-pointedness" and also calmness, because the meditation object replaces the thought streams behind your anxieties.

To concentration, Buddhists add vipassana, which is a nonintellectual form of understanding and inquiry; roughly it involves "being there" at all times. This takes many subtle forms and extends beyond formal meditation to the way you attend to your life. Thus, it grossly oversimplifies matters to say all meditation is the same.

The right style for you may be a matter of taste. If you don't like "God talk," you may prefer Zen or the Theravada Buddhist forms taught by such well-known teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield. Zen and vipassana meditation reflect similar values. Hindu and Tibetan practices can be a trifle more elaborate, although the "so-ham" mantra style I learned from Swami Muktananda (saying "so" on the inhalation, "ham" on the exhalation) is almost like mindful breathing in its elegance and attention to breath.


Convenience may also determine how you choose to meditate. Many teachers of concentration styles feel you need to meditate for at least 20 minutes once or twice a day for it to make a difference. Vipassana sitting also takes time. If you can't clear that kind of space, don't try to force it; otherwise, you may find yourself meditating about what you're not getting done.

Instead, try overlaying meditation on your regular activities. Do your job with focus and heart. If you take regular strolls, walk mindfully, observing yourself without indulging in thoughts. When standing in a checkout line, watch your breath and do a mantra. As you lie in bed before sleeping, count breaths, not sheep.

If you can set aside time to sit for meditation, recall Patanjali's words and choose a comfortable posture, which may mean sitting in a chair. And don't think the Full Lotus is the posture of choice for meditators. Indian yogis have historically meditated in Full Lotus only because "that's the way Indians sit anyway," says Johnson. The same is true of the kneeling posture in Zen.

If these positions are painful, don't feel compelled to grin and bear it. "Our practice should be intelligent," writes Thich Nhat Hanh, which means comfort for body and mind. He sometimes recommends lying on your back, arms loosely at your sides. If you can stay conscious that way, it's as good as any.

Both Hindu and Buddhist teachers traditionally advise meditators to do their sitting in a clean, pleasant space. The power of a neat office desk has the same effect at home, but if you're comfortable surrounded by creative clutter, then so be it. Incense and mystical art create an atmosphere that may help orient your consciousness to the task at hand, but, again, they are not necessary.

Quiet? Preferred but optional. When I began meditating in the mid-1970s, I lived two doors down from an auto body shop. The air hammers started at 6:30 a.m., about the time I began meditating. No problem—although the racket dominated the neighborhood, it was no louder than the noise in my head.

Will Meditation Help My Asana?

You may already feel a sense of peace from your yoga practice. You may feel that you've already attained some of the other meditation benefits described above. There's a good reason for this: In Buddhist terms, asanas are their own type of meditation; to perform difficult postures, you have to focus awareness on your body and breath and relax into the pose. Being mindful of your body as you occupy it is a classic technique prescribed by the Buddha.

In classical yoga, too, meditation and postures go hand-in-hand. "It's actually the same thing," says Cope. "With postures, you're also training equanimity, and you're training the mind to become focused. You're using the body as the object of that focus.

"You're also training awareness," he adds. "You're conditioning the mind to scan to see how things shift, to see the ebb and flow of energy in the subtle body. These are the same skills we're training in meditation. "But not necessarily to the same degree. Often, the more profound your meditation, the more intense the yoga. Cope has experienced this firsthand. "When I'm in a meditation retreat, my practice of postures goes much deeper. My flexibility is greater. The conditioned states of the body are seen through. It's powerful."

In the classical yoga tradition, hatha yoga is practiced as preparation for seated meditation. So over time, you might naturally find yourself drawn inward toward more contemplative practices.

To give meditation a try, sit comfortably, set a timer for 10 minutes, and explore one of the following strategies. And consider yourself forewarned: Meditation is a delightfully simple practice, but that doesn't mean it's easy!

Just sit. Commit to doing nothing more than sitting quietly and watching what happens. Don't pick up the phone, don't answer the doorbell, don't add another item to your to-do list. Just sit and observe the thoughts that arise and pass through your mind. You will likely be surprised by how difficult it is to sit quietly for 10 minutes. In the process, though, you may learn something important about the qualities of the restless mind and the ever-changing nature of life.

Listen to the sounds of life. Close your eyes and tune in to the sounds percolating both within and around you. Open your ears and adopt a receptive attitude. At first, you'll likely hear only the most obvious noises, but over time, you'll discover new layers of sounds that you had previously tuned out. Challenge yourself to observe what you hear without clinging to it or resisting it. Notice how the world feels more alive as your awareness of the present deepens.

Practice bare attention. Notice the raw sensations of the present moment—feelings of warmth and coolness, hardness and softness, pressure and ease. Which parts of your body are in contact with the earth? How does the shape of the body shift with each inhalation and exhalation? How does your experience change over time? Cultivating an awareness of the present moment will foster a more serene and attentive mind, one that is able to settle into the here and now.

Follow the breath. Attach your mind to the breath. While you're breathing in, note that you're breathing in, and while you're breathing out, focus on the exhalation. Don't manipulate the breath in any way; simply watch it with your mind's eye, just as you would follow a tennis ball bouncing from one side of the court to the other during a particularly engrossing match. When you find that your mind has strayed, as it inevitably will, gently refocus it on the breath and begin again.

Use a mantra. Choose a favorite word, phrase, prayer, or fragment of a poem, and repeat it slowly and softly. Let its rhythm and meaning lull you into a quiet, contemplative state of ease. When you notice that your mind has wandered off to other thoughts, simply redirect it back toward the words you've chosen as your touchstone and rededicate your awareness to them.

Practice kindness. As you sit quietly, focus your inner attention on someone you know who might benefit from an extra dose of kindness and care. In your mind's eye, send this person love, happiness, and well-being. Soften your skin, open the floodgates of your heart, and let gentle goodwill pour forth.

Points of Entry

Finding the right concentration technique for your meditation practice means opening as many doors as possible.

In my early years of meditation, I wasted countless hours wondering which technique to use. The teachers of my lineage offered several basic methods: repeating a mantra, focusing on the space between breaths, witnessing the thoughts. But an early mentor had told me to decide on one technique and stick with it, and I reasoned that if I had to choose one practice, it had better be the right one. So I worried. I worried about which mantra to use, about whether to meditate on the Witness—the observing awareness that remains ever-present through all the fluctuations of our moods and mental states—or follow my breath. I worried about when it was permissible to leave the technique behind and just relax. It wasn't until I stopped making techniques into icons that I began to discover how liberating it can be to work with different practices at different times.

We use techniques in meditation for a very simple reason: Most of us, at least when we begin meditation, need support for the mind. A technique provides a place for the mind to rest while it settles back down into its essential nature. That's all it is really, a kind of cushion. No technique is an end in itself, and no matter which one people use, it will eventually dissolve when their meditation deepens.

I like to think of meditation methods as portals, entry points into the spaciousness that underlies the mind. The inner spaciousness is always there, with its clarity, love, and innate goodness. It is like the sky that suddenly appears over our heads when we step out of the kitchen door after a harried morning and glance upward. The Self, like the sky, is ever present yet hidden by the ceiling and walls of our minds. In approaching the Self, it helps to have a doorway we can comfortably walk through, rather than having to break through the wall of thoughts separating us from our inner space.

Most of us already know which modes of meditation feel most natural. Some people naturally have a visual bent and respond well to practices that work with inner "sights." Others are more kinesthetic, attuned to sensations of energy. There are auditory people, whose inner world opens in response to sound, and people whose practice is kindled by an insight or a feeling.

Once we become aware of how we respond to different perceptual modes, we can often adjust a practice so it works for us. Someone who has a hard time visualizing can work with an image by "feeling" it as energy or as an inner sensation, rather than trying to see it as an object. A highly visual person might get bored with mantra repetition when he focuses on sounding the syllables, but feel the mantra's impact if he visualizes the letters on his inner screen. One person might experience great love when repeating a mantra with a devotional feeling, while a friend's meditation only takes off once she lets go of all props and meditates on pure Awareness. Each person needs to find his or her own way.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about any practice is to keep looking for its subtle essence. Every technique has its own unique feeling, which creates an energy space inside. For example, when repeating a mantra with the breath, a person might feel a sensation of prana (vital force) moving between the throat and the heart, as well as a subtle feeling of expansion or pulsation in the heart space when the mantra syllables "strike" it. Focusing on the space between the breaths, one might begin to feel the breath moving in and out of the heart and notice a subtle expansion of the heart space. One might notice that certain parts of the inner body are activated by a particular practice; the space between the eyebrows, for example, might begin to pulsate when one imagines a flame there. Following the rhythm of the breath might make a person especially aware of the currents of energy flowing through the body.

That energy sensation, or feeling-sense, is the subtle effect of the method and its real essence. It is the feeling-sense a technique creates—rather than the technique itself—that opens the door into the Self. For this reason, one effective way of going deeper in meditation is to keep one's awareness moving "into" the feeling-space created by the practice: into the sensation created by the mantra as its syllables drop into one's consciousness, into the sensation of the breath as it pauses between the inhalation and the exhalation, or into the vividness of the object being visualized.

Meditators who have received practices through a lineage of enlightened teachers usually find that these practices are especially empowered—infused with an energy that yields relatively quick results as they work with them. Those without a lineage teacher find that the sages of meditation have offered us countless techniques—such as mantras, visualizations, practices of awareness—that open up into the Self as one explores them.

I suggest spending some time experimenting with a particular practice; work with it long enough to get a sense of its subtleties and see how it affects meditation over time. When we clearly understand that a technique is not an end in itself but simply the doorway into the greater Awareness, we can begin to sense which doorway is going to open most easily at a particular moment. Some techniques energize while others kindle love or help quiet an agitated mind.

Of course, we don't want to become technique junkies, flitting from one method to another and never going deeply into any single method. However, playing with different practices helps us get to know ourselves and discover what works best. Everyone's road is unique, and ultimately no one else can tell a person what he or she needs. That's why there aren't any rules about the "best" way to meditate, except that a practice should soothe the restlessness of the mind and make it easier to enter the interior silence. This is discovered only through practice.