Learning to meditate.

Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’

Great, I said.

The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’

I’m sorry, I said.

The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’

Hmm, I said.

I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?

Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.

Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.

Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.

Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.

In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.

But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.

It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.

So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.

That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.



Just what does a teacher know?

In the last few months, I’ve had the neat fortune to meet a variety of new students. Cool students. Nice students. Funny students, highly intelligent students, friendly students who daily teach me that I know almost nothing. These students are also generous enough to trust me to work with them. It’s a privilege and I appreciate them. They teach me about my blindspots—about what I don’t know, which is too much—and keep me more than a little nervous that I won’t be able to help. And I want to help. That’s in my nature as much as causing trouble and talking too much.

The truth is: I worry. I worry about these people—body, mind and soul. They come to yoga because they want something. They want for something. It might be a physical yearning for flexibility that gets them in the studio. A hope for strength or balance. Or it might be a suspicion that the life they’re leading could be different. Somehow.

Regardless of how acceptable yoga has become—in gyms, churches, schools—it carries the legacy of mysticism. I don’t write that lightly. Exploring the mystic is at the very heart of yoga. Acknowledging the students’ curiosity into this union between intellect and the divine is probably the greatest, and most delicate, responsibility of the yoga teacher.

And that’s why I worry.

I don’t want to sound precious, but yoga ain’t just moving around. When someone wants a guide to usher them toward something interesting and deep, the guide better have at least a small torch. With extra batteries. And maybe a compass that isn’t broken.

Which increases the responsibility of the teacher, doesn’t it? Because the yoga teacher is helping bodies breathe then move and align as appropriate. From there, she invites minds to notice the breath and movement and alignment so the experience becomes internal. And if she has the will, she invites the spirit to observe the interaction between the body and mind.

To teach, then, means to be willing to look into these areas personally. And that’s not always easy. I don’t think I’m kicking a sacred cow when I acknowledge that yoga teachers are, with a few rockstar exceptions, poorly paid for their work. Most of them are just a teacher training ahead of their students, and that training may not have included much more than a sequence, a script and a little exposure to anatomy. The first teacher training I attended, in the way back, spent five hours on lining up trikonasana, another hour on music choices but only a short morning session on the Yoga Sutra limited to the yamas and niyamas. (I’ll always be grateful for my disappointment with that course; the utter banality of it got me to India—a trip that taught me to always study the self as carefully as the guru.)

As a teacher, I want folks to find a way in yoga that will endure as long as they do. As long as they have an interest in yoga, I want to provide some insight and knowledge for their consideration. And I find this challenging, to be candid. Because I don’t know everything I’d like to know. And I don’t have all the insight I want. Not for myself, and certainly not for others. But I try to admit what I don’t know. I wish I could chant without blushing and recite the Sutra and meditate really peacefully. I wish I could offer prayer without first questioning its value. I wish I could breathe without losing count, that my body didn’t occasionally hurt and my mood didn’t occasionally sour.

But this is me. And the best thing I can offer, I think, is my absolute conviction that a little bit of yoga, carefully done (no playlist required, folks!), with connection to the breath and a generous and enthusiastic heart, is going to calm the mind. First, a little. Over time, more and more. And then even more.

And I remind myself that it’s a matter of happiness and will and faith and finding stability in what I know. Also, that my own teachers are flawed and funny. And unabashedly aware of it.

We are all a mess with an instinct to become art. As I interpret Patanjali (visoka va jyotismati, 1-36), finding joy despite or because of this may just give us a peaceful place to rest.