Sit still? For how long?

I have practiced yoga for nearly a decade now (yikes!) and taught yoga for almost 6 years.   Initially, when I started practicing yoga, I simply wasn’t that interested in meditation.  Sweaty vinyasa flow was more my thing.  Later, my curiosity was piqued by meditation and its reported benefits but I couldn’t seem to get my “monkey mind” to settle down for 5 minutes, let alone the 20-30 that are often considered a baseline for deeper meditation practices.  At my first yoga teacher training at the Sivananda Institute in 2004, we had a required 30-minute meditation practice at 6am and 8pm daily.  These were not guided meditations.  For a month, twice-daily, we sat in silence, cross-legged, on the floor of the ashram’s temple and were instructed to mediate on our heart center or the point between our eyebrows and to perhaps use a mantra if we knew one.  We were instructed to acknowledge thoughts if they arose but not to “attach” to them.  I tried the point between my eyebrows, a mantra, breath sounds, and “non-attachment” to no avail.  In the morning, I could sit quietly but I never experienced any of the profound or magical experiences my fellow yogis described.  In the evening, meditation was like torture.  I hated sitting still and resented each and every minute.  I would become anxious, at times even panicked.  My mind raced.  Emotions washed over me.  On occasion, I had to use every ounce of discipline not to walk out of the temple.  As someone who prided myself on being a good and eager student, I was incredibly disheartened.  I felt like a failure at meditation and so it became something I dreaded.  Naturally, after I left the ashram, my practice fell away.  From time to time, I would meditate during class or teacher training.  A few summers ago, I vowed to start a consistent practice and started hiking to stream in Rock Creek Park and sitting on some rocks for a few minutes of meditation.  I managed to do it semi-regularly.  Perhaps because it was entirely by choice, it was a little easier to sit still and to appreciate the quality of that stillness.  But, I still did not feel like I was “getting anywhere”.  Once again, my practice lapsed.  This summer, I went to the Land of Medicine Buddha for two weeks of Yin Yoga teacher training with Paul and Suzee Grilley.  At the welcome session, Paul and Suzee invited us to come to morning meditation.  It wasn’t mandatory.  But, the “good student” in me felt compelled to go.  And, again, a little feeling of dread arose.  But, this time the experience was different.  Perhaps because of the long, static holds common to a Yin Yoga practice, I noticed that it was no longer so difficult for me to sit still.  I didn’t feel any of the anxiety I had previously experienced.  But I also couldn’t feel my chakras or sense the flow of prana or access the more authentic self that skilled meditators describe.  As a fellow student put it, I wasn’t shooting light beams out of my belly!  So, again, I was discouraged and felt alone in my struggle.  But, over those two weeks, after some guidance from Paul and Suzee, I learned some techniques that did begin to alter my meditation experience.  I did start to feel and sense energy and could begin to move it in my body.  I started to feel some of the things others had described, like a shifting of the boundaries between my physical body and the outside world.  I dove deep enough during some sessions that it took effort to pull myself back to the room I was in.  And, for the first time, I was actually reluctant for mediation sessions to end!  One of the tips that Suzee gave me that I found most helpful was to become less rigid in my approach.  In other words, she invited me to let my mind wander without scolding myself.  Sometimes, she counseled, the mind is wandering for a reason.  It has something to show you or somewhere to take you.  And, in the quiet of meditation, you can follow it.  After all, she pointed out, if you have a daily practice, every day’s meditation doesn’t have to be the “ultimate” meditation.  It is just one of many.  She also suggested I be more free with my breath, not trying to control it but simply breathing naturally and noticing not just the breath but the space between the breath.  Ironically, when I imposed fewer rules and restrictions on my meditation practice, I actually became more focused.

In the “real world”, it is difficult to meditate daily.  But, I recognize that a consistent practice has much more to offer than an occasional one.   And, in the holiday season, when our senses are constantly bombarded, it seems even more important to take refuge!  So, I’ve decided to challenge myself to 30 straight days of daily meditation and to blog about each day’s experience.  Perhaps it will offer some insight or encouragement to others like myself!