How to make classes more meditative

When one considers classical yoga, whether Raja yoga, Mantra yoga, Hatha yoga or Patanajali’s Asthanga yoga, it is clear that yoga practices of all kinds are inherently condusive to meditation. This does not mean that the student/practitioner will notice this without some encouragement. Here, then, are some elements that can be included in a class/practice session that will lead the student/practitioner to ‘pick up the scent of Samadhi’, the inner guidance to which a yogi eventually give themselves, the door to which is opened through meditation.

Let’s first recognise that meditation is not an external thing: i.e. sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, but an internal attitude where the mind has deepened sense withdrawal (pratyahara) and focused concentration (Dharana) to the point where both are complete and the mind is in perfect symbiosis with its object.

• Class format:
This will have a significant influence on whether the class is leading to a more meditative experience. Class format then can be broken down into several areas

the beginning, middle and end of yoga classes all need to have something of the flavour of the theme. It is pointless to talk about meditation just at the beginning of the session, it must be evoked throughout.

Evoking the theme can be done directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly.

2/Asanas: the asanas chosen to start and end a sequence can be chosen to indicate meditation. This could be, for instance, by overtly choosing introspective poses like Sukhasana, back to back Baddha Konasana, Siddhasana, Balasana, Supta Baddha Konasana, variations on Viparita Karani and so on. These poses instruct the nervous system to slow down, to settle.

The most important thing is to understand, first hand, the direction that one wishes to take the students, then the students can be observed to see which poses will take the student’s/class’s present energy in such a direction. In other words, for the journey to be possible, the teacher must know both the point of embarkation and the direction of the destination.

This will require some first-hand experience on the part of the teacher. For instance, it may be that a more dynamic asana like Adho Mukha Svanasana is taught first if the students need a little more stimulation, if they are dreamy or distracted. Adho Mukha Svanasana keeps the head low and the dristhi is restricted to a limited and local area which may help to settle the brain. Be creative, observe the student’s present condition, know the direction which you are travelling.

3/ Calming: One could employ other calming techniques to begin and end the class. General breath focus and release is always a good idea. One could also employ techniques such as mantra work, reflecting on the feel and sensation that the sound waves produce can help point student’s to the feel of the yogic/meditative attitude, which is very hard to point to using words alone as it is ultimately a wordless experience.

Other techniques such as Bhramari which extends the duration of the exhale, which is inherently calming, as well as including the benefits of mantra in terms of vibrations/sensations felt in the body.

Breath-centered body awareness in a formal meditation style can also help. Remember that meditative states arise from allowing and encouraging expansion, and that this is achieved through trust and surrender, in other words, reducing external pressure encourages an increase in internal guidance as long as attention remains robust.

4/ The wave effect:
is to do with the ordering of your sequence, not jumping from floor to standing or from inverted to standing upright without some sort of flow. This technique can also be described as ‘bridging’. It refers to the asana’s height from the floor, the getting and returning of equipment, a movement from one direction to another (i.e. forward bend to backbend or vice versa) as well as a movement of energy from passive/quiet to active/strong and back. It is naturally introspective as it conduces towards a parasympathetic response and fulfils the calming (samatha) aspect of the meditative experience.

• Yogic philosophy
As a teacher, it is important that some of the yogic philosophies are understood and then imparted either explicitly or implicitly. One must take care not to talk abstractly without guiding the students into a personal experience of what is meant. For this reason, then, the teacher must understand, through their own investigation (svadyaya) the experience pointed to by the yogic philosophy. Then the class/student can be led into an experience of the yogic principle without having to know its formal name.

1/ The Yamas: The five yamas, when incorporated into one’s attitude to practice always point to a meditative experience. For example, ahimsa, if applied to the experience of physical resistance in an asana, will allow the student to ‘hold’ the experience with a little more space. They will be able to be less reactive either trying to push through or back away defeated. This will reveal a deeper sensitivity and the student will feel the subtle changes and movements inherent in the body.

The more spacious attitude will also allow the nerve tissue room to extend, creating a more ‘intelligent’ experience of the pose, which is in itself more meditative. Any one of the five yamas can be used in a similar manner to both find new ways into more depth physically and also to draw the mind closer to its core (see niyamas – Ishvara pranidhana/Samadhi).

2/ The Niyamas: The five niyamas can be use in the same way as tha yamas. Here, it can be noted, that the niyamas have an even more specific and honed in focus. The niyama contentment (santosa), works the same way as the yama, ‘not taking the un-given/developing generosity’ (asteya), which in turn connects deeply with the principle of ‘total surrender to inner guidance’ (ishvara pranidhana), as generosity and surrender, are, in essence, the same, when applied to attitude in asana.

But here the niyama ishvara pranidhana links us directly to the end game, samadhi. Both represent an irresistible pull into a non-personal but deeply local and internal experience of being led or ‘intuitive guidance’. The former, though, is just as much a pointer about how to employ the right approach, as to where it will lead, revealing the inherently practical nature of both yama and niyama.

3/ Sthira Sukham Asanam: this is one example of the clear practical pointers given to us from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Simply put, it refers not to a balance between two principles, sthira and sukha (steadiness and alertness and the ability to remain comfortable and light) but a union and a birth of a new hybrid, that illustrates an attitude in practice that will conduce towards meditation.

This is true for many of the aphorisms in the sutras. These aphorisms are purely practical aids to practice and say so directly by referring to asana practice in particular. This is a balance that one can notice in one’s own practice as well as trying to evoke in both the spirit and the form of the class, as well as simply putting it out there for the students to recognise and work with.

Other such direct instructions for asana include ‘pryana saithilya anata samapattibhyam’ or ‘when the effort to perform the asana becomes effortless, then perfection in the asana has been attained’. It goes on to say ‘tatah dvandvah anabhighatah’, meaning ‘from then on the practitioner is undisturbed by duality’s’. This further indicates that if practice is to lead towards meditation, then it not needs to be not violent and impatient but intelligent and trusting. It indicates that, not only is there such a way into the poses, but also that that is the correct path.

4/ Pranayama and pratayahara: If we want to know how to progress towards a more meditative state, we can feel rest assured, since the path has been formulated and tried and tested before us and this is expressed by the Astangha path. These two stages, stage 4 and 5, express a way on, both within and beyond asana.

Pranayama: moving into and out from poses with the breath as well as a focus on the breath as guide will also draw the mind towards meditation as it is inseparably entwined with the nervous system. Using the right breath to come in and out of each pose will help to develop a sense of smoothness and ease to the practice.

Whilst for many asanas there is a right and wrong way to do this, there are also many where it is possible to swap the order about. The different emphasis may be on calmness when coming into a pose on an exhale or awakening when coming in on an in breath, there again it may be softness in certain muscles on the out breath or lift and extension, in others, on the out. Again the onus will be on doing what is best to take a student or a group of students on to the next stepping stone from where they are.

Pratyahara: senstive adjustments, sensitive lighting, encouragement to work from the internal, discouraging comparing oneself to others and conscious awareness of dristhi (the feel and direction of the gaze) all will contribute to a better sense of drawing inwards.

• Exemplification
Naturally the deportment of the teacher has an effect on the flavour of the class. The yoga teacher is necessarily a focus point for the class. The space that a teacher communicates from, is as, if not more, important than what is said. Mere parrot fashion repetition of the ‘right things to say’ does not have even half the gravitas of a few words said from a place of present knowing. Communication is not merely auditory but also visual and even energetic.

So when a teacher is talking about meditation or yogic practices conducive to it, this will be backed up to a greater or lesser extent by their body language, facial expression and the general feel of their presence in the room.

1/ Vocal tone: vocal tone is another area where a teacher will effect the mood and the attitude of a class. As with all good teaching, much of the pitch and tone of the voice will reflect what is observed of the student’s current condition, and will be tailored so as to take them from there towards meditative states. This may mean adjusting the feel of the voice to wake up, direct or soothe, as seems appropriate to take the student onwards. In this way, as with some of the other focus points mentioned above, one needs to think in terms of stepping stones. Not thinking how to take the student from where they are to Samadhi, but what is the next step in that direction from where they are.

2/ Clarity: on the back of a focus on vocal tone, it is worth considering the value of clarity. Once more, observation can be used to check the level of understanding that your students have for what you’re saying. Clear, uncomplicated instructions that are progressive, starting from the gross, leading on to the subtle, will mean that the students will get less involved in their ordinary mental processes, minimising, doubt, irritability and tension, all which can be avoided through accessible, clear teaching. This does not mean, throwing the baby out with the bath water and only teaching the basics and rudiments of practice but simply observing and checking that students are ‘with you’. In this regard, it certainly is worth while to simply ask students if they understand a point so that you can rearticulate it another way
(that is presuming that you have understood the essence of what you have said yourself!)

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— Buddha