In the second of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, he states that yoga is the practice of calming the fluctuations of the mind -- Stopping the to and fro oscillations of our thought patterns, bringing a quality of calm steadiness to them. It is common for people to interpret this statement as the practice of emptying the mind, and for some this may happen but I do not personally believe this is what was meant.
We have a thinking mind for a reason, and I feel that if it were our job to stop thought altogether, our minds would work in a very different way.
Your Mind, The Pond
My favorite metaphor used to describe the calming of the mind is that of the pond. If the water is agitated in a pond, all the sand and rocks and other materials will be stirred up causing the water to appear murky. When the water in the pond is still, it will be clear and you will be able to see all the way to the bottom of the pond, able to observe all that inhabits that pond. You will be able to see the fish, the rocks, the plant life.
An agitated mind is much like an agitated pond. When you are irritated, when your thoughts are fluctuating, you will not have a clear vision for your life. In contrast, when you are able to steady your mind, you will be better able to practice self exploration - better able to see the things that are inhabiting the pond of your mind, and will most likely have a much easier time determining your next steps in life.
Creating a Calm Mental Pond
So how does one create a calm pond mind? Yoga offers several different techniques for this, one of which is the practice of seated meditation. Now let's get one thing out of the way first: there is no right or wrong way to meditate.
Meditation should be looked at just as diet, the practice should fit the individual. Your meditation practice is “right” so long as it brings you a sense of peace, calm, and helps you bring stillness to your thoughts.
How Do I Start Meditating?
Below are 5 different techniques to try if you want to begin a meditation practice. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but rather think of it as an awesome starter “cheat sheet.” I personally use a combination of all the following meditations depending on how I am feeling on any particular day. If you are totally new to meditation, I would encourage you to try each technique at least once, you never know which will be your favorite until you try!
Know that your mind will want to wander away from these practices while you do them. That is why we have to practice! If you can walk into these practices and maintain complete focus, then great! If not, that is totally OK. Be super patient with yourself and know that every time you choose to sit and practice one of these techniques, you are settling the waves in your mental pond and inviting more clarity into your life.
To begin any of these practices, sit or lay in a comfortable position where you know you can stay for at least 10 minutes. Use pillows, blankets, chairs, beds or any other props that feel good to you. You do not have to sit in full Lotus for meditation to be effective. Then, draw your eyes closed and focus on your breath for just a few moments.
Notice all the thoughts and feelings you are currently experiencing, thank them for being there and then tell yourself that you can go back to these thoughts and feelings (if you wish) when you are done with your meditation practice. You are just going to take a break. Giving yourself this permission to go back to your thoughts will often help relieve any anxiety about letting these thoughts and feelings go during a meditation. Then, you can move into your practice.
1) Mantra And/Or Affirmation
Mantra involves mentally repeating a word/s, sentence, or prayer a set number of times. Some popular mantras are “Aum” the cosmic all consuming sound, Sanskrit phrases like “Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrytyor mamrtam gamaya” which translates to "Let all beings everywhere be free and happy and let my life contribute to that freedom and happiness."
The serenity prayer is also a great mantra - “Allow me to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference." Affirmations include any positive statement that resonates with you and lifts your spirits. Some examples are “I am healthy, wealthy and wise,” “I attract only gentle lessons into my life,” “I fully love and completely accept myself.”
Repeating a phrase over and over develops focus, helping to bring stillness to the mind. It is a nice plan to sit with the afterglow of your mantra meditation for at least a few minutes to experience the calm state you have created.
The practice of watching your breath is one of the most popular forms of meditation for the modern yogi/yogini because this is a meditation style that can be easily weaved into asana practice. To practice this technique in seated meditation, start by just drawing your attention to your breath. Notice what qualities it has; is it fast, slow, shallow, deep etc.
Then, begin to attach a count to your inhales and exhales. Start slow, inhaling for a count of two, then exhaling for a count of two. Do this for a few rounds of breath and then increase your count to 3. You can stop here or continue on to a count of 4 if that feels good to you. Set yourself up to complete a specific number of rounds of breath and then again sit in the stillness for a few moments before coming out of your meditation.
3) Contemplation Of A Phrase Or Cohen
The practice of Zen brings us this awesome tool for mind stillness in the form of Cohen. This is a question that you are meant to sit and contemplate. An example of a Zen Cohen may be “who is moving around this body?” This question is meant to be something that you can contemplate for a long time, helping again to develop a sense of focus for your mind. You can also choose a phrase to focus on such as a bible verse, a sutra, or any other writing that speaks to you.
4) Focus On Divinity Or Other Higher Being
If you are one who connects with the idea of a higher being, sitting in contemplation of this higher being is an awesome way to bring stillness to the mind. This can look like focusing on the attributes and teachings of Jesus, The Buddha, or Lord Krishna. This can also mean focusing on a more vast definition of the Divine like drawing your mind to the interconnectivity of everything, the idea that we are all one from the same source, or the harmony that exists in the universe. This is a very expansive form of meditation that can feel really good.
5) Focus On Connecting With Your Core Self
We all have within us a core being that is perfect, whole, and complete. This “core” of you knows exactly who you are and why you are here. I personally believe that we are here to learn to re-connect with that “core.” Sitting in a state where you are intending to connect to this highest version of yourself can help bring calmness, steadiness, and peace to your mind. It can also help you to deal with any issues that may be arising in your present experience.
To do this particular meditation, first start by intending (either in your mind or out loud) that you wish to connect with your highest self. Then send your attention to the core of your physical body and allow whatever image comes to your mind of your highest self to appear. I personally visualize a core of light in the center of my abdomen when I choose to connect with my highest self. I draw my mind to this core of life and I sit quietly, allowing any words, thoughts, phrases or emotions to arise.
Long gone are the days when meditation meant sitting in a dark cave trying to empty your mind of all thought. There are so many more techniques to try, and places to go, with meditation. Find something that works for you and see where it takes you!