30 May

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'meditation'? Someone sitting cross legged with eyes closed? Someone with more time, energy and patience than you? 

In the Western world, we often think of meditation as something esoteric and inaccessible that 'other people' do. We tend to associate it with a degree of discomfort and difficulty. In reality, though, meditation doesn't require you to adopt the lotus position. You don't even need to sit down. And you certainly don't need to be any particular type of person. On the contrary, meditation is a state of mind, and one easy way to access it is through yoga.

Yoga, of course, doesn't have to be meditative. It can be no more than a set of exercises that stretch and strengthen the body, building muscle and stamina, and improving balance and flexibility. But to reduce yoga to this is to miss out on a wealth of other benefits, because the practice of yoga is as good for your mental and emotional wellbeing as it is for your physical health.

By practising Asanas (yoga poses) in a controlled, precise and mindful manner, you start to concentrate the mind, narrowing your focus to the single point of your experience in the present moment. Thoughts disappear as you direct your attention inwards, becoming more and more aware of your body and your breathing, and of the subtle changes you feel as you move in and out of each pose. 

With each tiny physical adjustment you make, aligning front heel to back instep, squaring the hips, or tucking in the tailbone, your breath is able to deepen and your mental state to settle. The mind stills, as you become absorbed in your practice and move more fully into the now. How does it feel when you press into the bases of the big and little toes and the sides of each heel? Can you feel the legs becoming more active, the knee joints opening? How about when you raise your arms and extend through to your fingertips? Can you sense the flow of energy through your spine?

Yoga develops the sense of proprioception, which is a form of spatial awareness, an understanding of the body's position in space. Over time, your sensitivity increases, so that you can tell exactly the angle of your right hip, or the placement of your feet, without having to look. And that heightened understanding causes a turning inward that quietens the mind and promotes a meditative state.

For example, if you are standing in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), to keep your balance, you need to stay fully present, grounded in your physical sensations. Your gaze must be steady, and your breathing unrestricted. If your mind starts to wander, you will wobble or fall. As you hold the pose, you are effectively meditating. You are not thinking of what you were doing earlier, or might be doing later. There are no thoughts beyond Vrksasana. You are in meditation.

Best of all, as your yoga practice deepens, those meditative moments can start to appear in other areas of your life. As your mind becomes accustomed to periods of stillness and calm, you might find yourself experiencing that relaxed mindset at other times. While you're washing up, you might notice the temperature of the water, the sheen of the bubbles, the smell of the detergent, and the clink of cutlery against plate. By engaging all your senses, you can become totally immersed in whatever you happen to be doing, however mundane it may seem. Anything can be a meditation.

You don't need a special cushion, an altar, or even a yoga mat to meditate. And you don't need to change who you are. All that is needed is for you to be present and to fully engage with life. All you need to do is be.

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