Yogis Do Meditate

A post at Elephant makes a bold statement: Why Yogis Don't Meditate. But Yogis DO meditate, because yoga, practiced correctly through the Eight Limbs, is the way to meditation.

The argument of the post is based on the first Sutra of Patanjali ("Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind")  and how there is very little reference to asana (poses) practice in them and how it is all about the "mind". The author then talks about excuses he hears from yogis he meets: "lack of time" which he considers not acceptable for a yogi "who has no problem taking time for asana" and finally tells us: "This is something that the yoga community needs to contemplate... we need to treat meditation with the same respect and rigor that we afford asanas and pranayamas".

Fair enough.

One of the comments turned the argument somewhat around: "Why Meditators Don't Do Yoga-Asana".  The person commenting talks about her personal encounter with a meditation teacher who had suffered from back pain for 10 years needlessly, as asanas could probably address and heal that.

I have also noticed this while at Vipassana meditation retreats where meditators are sitting in chairs or on the floor but with 12 to 15 little cushions everywhere to support a body that cannot maintain a straight back.

And so I contemplated:

"If you cajole the mind without practising yama, niyama, asana and pranayama it swallows you"

Says one of the most respected yogis of our times, he continues:

 "Therefore, with a background of the practice of the first four aspects Patanjali asks us to cajole the mind at the right time". BKS Iyengar

Pattabhi Jois: When asked by a student if he would teach meditation He responded:

"Mad Attention"?  

Patanjali: Sthira Sukham Asanam.  Pose, or sitting should be steady, motionless and comfortable.  How does one get to have a steady position?

I do not know about you but in my case I am only now able to sit and maintain a straight spine for one hour at the time.  Before I always wanted to lay down.   It is through asana and a long time of the practice of it that I got to a pose that is "steady" and "comfortable", a pre-condition for the mind to be properly cajoled.

Iyengar has a LOT to say on the subject, here are a few from "Light on Ashtanga Yoga" (Ashtanga = Eight Limbs)

"Those who say that asana and pranayama are external practices, I say they do not know the depth nor the value of them" 

"Asana is not just extending, flexing or bending of the muscles it is aimed at correcting the positioning of the cells, the mind and the intelligence in order to transform the student"

It takes a lot of practice to understand that. That asana is not an external practice but rather a "noticing" and "being fully aware" of each little movement, each tissue, each muscle.  The deep concentration that is required for asana is just a gateway to higher and higher levels of mind attention.

BKS Comments on sutra II-53:

"Why did [Patanjali] say that pranayama is not only an instrument to steady the mind but also the gateway for concentration? He could have said it in prahyahara [sense withdrawal]. But He said it in the earlier step because the actual process of internalisation begins in pranayama, that is how pratyahara evolves from pranayama"

I have not seen a better explanation of how one limb leads to another, how the science of yoga is well defined so that the student can actually reach proper concentration and fall into meditation:

"...In each asana you penetrate the attention... the sensitivity is carried on in pranayama where the outer body seems to be silent but the subtle senses like intelligence and consciousness work differently. In dharana [concentration] this contact is established further."

A long untinterrupted time in Dharana [concentration] leads the student to Dhyana [meditation!] [finally!]

BKS derives from Patanjali that the mind is not an easy to control organism.  Guess I could have told you that after sitting for 2 minutes. He believes this so much so that he uses the term: "cajole".  The mind needs to be "cajoled" and at the "right time".  

He also tells us that the previous practice "lead" to meditation, which convinces me that meditation is NOT a practice, but rather something that "happens" when the conditions are right.

The mind is a thief. Sitting for hours without proper setting could be successfull, but not for someone like me, so I guess as a yogi I use the eight limbs, and I trust that meditation comes when the conditions are right.

I am lucky enough to have been able to attend a few Vipassana/Shambhala courses.  I am also lucky that my asana practice is strong and that I am curious about pranayama and prathyahara enough to be investigating and to badly want meditation to happen. 

I would challenge only one thing about the article: In the author's mind, I wonder: what is a yogi? 

Because a yogi, as I understand it is someone who is interested in liberation.  It is someone under water about to drawn and wanting liberation about as much as she wants fresh air to breath. For a seeker with such intensity meditation will come, through the limbs through the study, through the practice. All is coming.

I would also make a suggestion that perhaps we move away from Sutra I-I...  There is also sutra II-I where Patanjali clearly sees that not all of us are ready to go straight into the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.   And for that he gives a different recipe.

3 Reasons Why I am Completely Sold on Vipassana Meditation
9 Reasons Why Vipassana is the Most Effective Meditation Learning Technique


  1. I don't have a sitting meditation practice. No particular reason; just never really felt the need to. I agree with Mr. Iyengar that asana and pranayama done properly is meditation. Come to think of it, that's probably why I don't have a sitting meditation practice; I read Mr. Iyengar's writings a lot when I first started practicing, and it has influenced my view of the practice in so many ways, including this. But this is just me; I'm sure other things work for other folk :-)

  2. "Because a yogi, as I understand it is someone who is interested in liberation. It is someone under water about to drawn and wanting liberation about as much as she wants fresh air to breath. For a seeker with such intensity meditation will come, through the limbs through the study, through the practice. All is coming." How many folks taking yoga as an exercise routine, or teaching it as such, are considering liberation? I don't think the author of the Elephant post was arguing that all yogis don't meditate - he was primarily questioning the mainstreaming of yoga into an exercise and health routine, which includes many teaching who were mostly trained in asanas.

    Also, I'm with you and Iyengar about asana being a form of meditation when properly practiced. But again, I don't think the average person in a YWCA yoga class is focused and attentive enough to every shift and movement in the way that is really called for.

    In addition, and this is probably where the Zen practitioner is coming out, but I've always had a bit of an issue about the use of the word "control" in the Yoga Sutras and other places. Is it an accurate translation? Do Westerners who view control as being about personal will power apply that definition to yogic mind teachings?

    As a Zen student, I was primarily taught to sit with whatever comes. To let it move through me. If the mind is wild, you stay still, watch it, and see how it changes over time. No need to do any controlling or monkeying around. Mind fluctuations will calm on their own if given time to do so.

    "Therefore, with a background of the practice of the first four aspects Patanjali asks us to cajole the mind at the right time". BKS Iyengar

    Perhaps he's talking about years of practice here, but perhaps he's also talking about the structure of a single day of practice. Maybe both to some degree.

    Being a dual practitioner for years - Zen and Yoga - I see a lot of splitting going on amongst both groups. Lots of Zen folks don't pay close enough attention to the body, and lots of yoga folks are stuck on the body.

    There is a percentage of folks like me who do cross the boundaries, but it's less common than you'd think. I wrote my own response to the Elephant article here.


  3. Hi Nobel, thanks for your story...

    Nathan, thanks for refering me to your response, it is interesting to see your perspective. I agree with your conclusion there is some people who do, some who don't and in general I suppose we are all going towards a certain center. Not perfect, a work in progress

  4. "mad attention"!! Love it.

    I can sit for 40m, with my holosync, but it is definitely not easy for me to sit that long. 20m is a more acceptable dose. I do find it to be vastly different that the kind of focus I practice during asana though. It's a matter of time for me. My advanced practice is over 2 hours. I work a lot to earn the rent money. I've got very little down time per weekday. Enforcing meditation time would feel like self punishment.

  5. Ramaswami stressed how Book 1 of the Sutras was for the 'born yogi' who didn't really have to work at it, kind of an ideal. For the rest of us , and he said 'us',including himself in this, we have Book 2 of the sutras, on practice.

    I'm starting to see a confusion around meditation. I think, in the west, if we haven't studied or practiced it, we tend to have a simplistic Zen model of meditation, as if any second we're going to experience nirvana which, on encountering yoga, we equate with samadhi. So as good yogi's we do our asana, our pranayama, possibly a little pratyahara and then settle down for meditation.

    However, Ramaswami reminds us that the 'meditation section' of the limbs comprises three elements the first of which is concentration (Dharana). That's why he talks about japa mantra meditation (repeating a mantra over and over) as a concentration exercise, but also chanting or focussing on the study of an appropriate text, all concentration exercises and that the previous limbs help prepare us, get us in a fit state for concentration, not for liberation, not yet, just concentration.

    Only once our concentration is sufficiently developed are we able to then focus it on the divine or absence of self ( Dhyna) and supposedly achieve liberation.

    Current SKPJ Ashtanga then makes more sense, the stress on tristana as a concentration exercise, tristana as dharana. It also explains perhaps why Jois didn't think we were ready for meditation because what we were really talking about was Dhyna not understanding the importance of the previous step Dharana ( concentration) that we were already working on in the practice. Same with Pranayama, Ashtanga, with it's strong ujaii and uddiyana seems to be trying to work on the tamas at the same time as the rajas which I guess are supposedly being reduced as the practice goes on, it's a clever approach.

    Vinyasa Krama seems to keep the different limbs separate, a little asana for health and to reduce rajas, pranyama for the tamas, pratyahara to withdraw then senses THEN Dharana/concentration practice ( japa or chanting or text study).

    Vipassana of course works on Concentration/Dharana, through the focus on the breath, sensations, emotions, thoughts. maybe we like it in the west because it also seems to work as an inner shrink. Pranayama too in it's own way.

    The question then shouldn't be whether gym yogis are working on meditation but are they working on concentration and does their practice prepare them for it.

    This is how I'm understanding it at the moment, seems to be making a little more sense.

    Sorry Claudia long comment but I've been wanting to get my current thoughts on this clear in my head for a couple of days (as you know: ).

  6. I also find it interesting that Zen Buddhists don't seem to do consider asanas (or exercises in general) to be important. Maybe they consider pain in their bodies at an old age to be part of their zen training?

    Ashtanga helped me ease into meditation practice. I'm still a beginner but at least now I breath more evenly and can focus on my breath (however briefly). Took me months to get to this stage. I also always had an interest in meditation but just didn't know how to get into it.

    I don't think everybody wants to meditate and gym yoga doesn't help with meditation. I don't see why everyone who tries yoga has to get into the 8 limbs unless they become interested in it.

  7. @Boodiba, yes those are very real reasons, it is important to pay the rent... I agree that doing what one can is good and 20 minutes is great!

    @Grimmly, yes I suppose that is another way to pose the question, is "whatever yoga you may be practicing (including gym) preparing you as in "helping you with concentration". That is a good point. I enjoyed your discourse, will re-read as there is a LOT there. I am becoming more and more interested in learning more about Vinyasa Krama and the way Ramaswami teaches it. Not that the blog will change name or anything ;-)

    @Yyogini, yes, the gym context is a different place, agreed. That is the reason why I was exploring what is the definition of "yogi", as in my mind yogi is that who wants to be liberated... but you are quite right in noting that not everybody needs to, and not everybody does...

  8. "we tend to have a simplistic Zen model of meditation, as if any second we're going to experience nirvana which, on encountering yoga, we equate with samadhi." This is one challenge. Another is that people who know nothing about stories of samadhi and enlightenment tend to think meditation is about being totally calm the moment you sit still. That if their minds are noisy, or of it's somewhat uncomfortable, they are "doing something wrong."

    I also agree that building concentration is important, and could occur in a gym yoga class if it was conducted with such a focus.

  9. Claudia, I see what you mean. Those who happen to incorporate yoga poses into an exercise routine might not fit the definition of a "yogi".

  10. @Nathan, yes I would agree that is another challenge.... it is not wrong, it is normal. I sure know! seems like the norm :-)

    YYogini, thanks, yes I suppose it is always about what angle we are looking at it from, felt good that you understood my point :-)

  11. Very nice blog about meditation you have maintaining am really appreciate it. There are so many meditation techniques to get fit our mind and body. So many benefits are there by doing meditation


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