What is Meditation
Meditation (Dhyana in Sanskrit)
Meditation is a conscious effort which involves mental focus and prolonged concentration on the object of meditation. It is a method which quietens the mind and serves for expanding spiritual energy leading the meditator to a state of bliss in which it’s possible to see life as it truly is, and accept it as a whole with all the ups and downs (BNS Iyengar TTC, 2019)
Ancient Traces Of Dhyana (Meditation)
About 3,500 - 1500 BCE in the Indus River Valley, in North India, the Harappan and Mohenjo Daro civilizations cultivated Yogic meditation practices. (Adamson, 2015, Lacerda, 2015).
The seal of Pashupati Mahadev deity (considered to be the precursor of the Vedic god Shiva) discovered by archaeologists at the Harappan sites displays a man in a posture which resembles a seated meditative lotus position (asana) surrounded by animals.
The seals, like the one in the image to the left, provide some evidence that Yogic meditative practices existed as far back as the Harrapan Civilization. You may wish to watch Yoga History by Debashish Banerji to deepen your understanding of the ancient Yogic practices and their origin.
Vedic Roots of Dhyana
Sometime between 1900 - 800/500 BCE the Harrapan civilizations diminished and people called the Aryans moved to the Indus Valley region.
The Aryans brought with them their religious rituals together with spiritual Hindu texts called the Vedas:-
The Vedas in conjunction with the later scriptures called the Upanishads provide the oldest recorded mentions of meditation and mindfulness practices.
Moving forward, sometime between 500 BCE and 400 CE the Sage Patanjali (an Indian author) collated, synthesized and organised knowledge about Yogic practices from the previously mentioned texts and oral history producing "The Yoga Sutras".
It is commonly accepted that “The Yoga Sutras” treatise on Yogic philosophy form a classical manual and a foundation of modern Yoga practices, and are commonly considered to be the definitive guidebook to practicing Yoga worldwide.
Patanjali, in his 195 aphorisms (some sources mention 196) defines the eight-step framework to self-realisation, contentment and attaining of an ultimate unity of body, mind, and spirit.
Yoga as defined by Patanjali is “Chitta Vriiti Nirodha", which means the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In this context one is in the state of Yoga when the mind is calm and still. To achieve this state of mind practice of Dhyana is required. (Notes from Indea Yoga TTC, 2019).
Dhyana is listed by Patanjali as the seventh of the eight limbs of Yoga
- Yama (how we interact with other people, social ethics)
- Niyama (how we take care of ourselves, weakening negative habitual patterns through self discipline)
- Asana (set of postures)
- Pranayama (rhythmic control of breath with the purpose of calming the nervous system)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal, tuning out the sensory perceptions so these do not distract us)
- Dharana (one pointed concentration, learning how to focus)
- Dhyana (meditation, mastering the ability to stay on the focus)
- Samadhi (total absorption where yogi experience total awareness, enlightenment)
Dhyana is a method to reach that state of higher consciousness. It requires a conscious effort which involves prolonged mental focus and concentration on the object of meditation. It is a method for expanding spiritual energy and leads one to the state of Somadhi, the state of bliss, where one is able to see life as it truly is and accept it fully, with all it's sufferings and joys. As so, in the ancient times Yoga was a way of living where awakened consciousness thrives and one feels bliss and the union of the self with the self, and of the self with the universe.
The bodily yogic practices such as Hatha Yoga or Vinyasakrama were developed by later generations of Yoga Masters who recognized the need for body revitalization, so the meditator can sustain meditative positions for long uninterrupted period of time. (Notes from BNS Iyengar TTC, 2019)
It has been said that when Dhyana is mastered, then it seamlessly transcends into the state of Samadhi - the quest of the soul, the state of bliss and enlightenment.
(Lacerda,2015, Bachman,2015, Indea Yoga Dhama TTC, 2019, BNS Iyengar TTC, 2019)
Although meditation has been practised for thousands of years in the East, it has only gained prominence in the West in the 20th century. “Before 1960’s meditation was virtually unknown in the West. Then Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced several well-known figures - most famously the Beatles - to the practice" (Godagama, 1997, P. 84).
Ever since meditation has been increasingly valued and researched due to the recognition of its positive impact on the overall well-being of those who meditate. Now, meditation is widely taught worldwide as a way of reducing anxiety, stress, anger attacks, depression and self-healing.
Benefits of Meditation
Multiple studies and texts on meditation suggest that regular meditation practices can be an effective way of healing, purifying the mind, and improving the body’s immune system (Chopra, 2001, Cavallaro, 2014, NIH, 2019).
Meditation is accepted to be beneficial for overall health due to understanding that the brain impacts the body on a cellular level (Lazar Lab, 2019). Meditation, if practiced regularly can lower blood pressure, reduce the feeling of fear, anxiety, stress and has a positive impact on the the area of the brain which is responsible for learning, memory, creativity and decision-making. Despite the need for more research, it is also apparent, on the basis of the research findings, that meditation can slow down the age-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain and help with self healing (Bemindful, 2019, Chopra, 2001, Noonan Gores, 2018, Cancer Research UK, 2019)
The Harvard University researcher and neuroscientist Sara Lazar provides insights and publications on how Yoga and meditation influence the brain’s various cognitive and behavioural functions. You can visit Lazar Lab here to access the research findings.
The recording “Brain Wave: How Meditation Can Enhance and Elevate Your Mind” available here provides additional insight into the many benefits of meditation and provides some meditative techniques too.
There are various forms of meditation, a few have been listed below, which enable a meditator to tap into the peaceful space inside, the place not touched by worries and thought clutter:-
Transcendental meditation - this technique involves the loud repetition of a sound called a mantra, for about 15-20 minutes twice a day. Mantra is used in such a way that it transcends the meditator to the effortless state where focused attention is absent.
Autogenic training - this technique brings attention to normally unconscious processes, such as bringing breathing under conscious control.
Vipassana Meditation (also known as insight meditation) is a form of mindfulness meditation in which an individual brings clear and full focus (concentration) and awareness to what exactly is happening as it happens. It is about the complete awareness to the present moment, mindfulness of the focus and the immediate environment. You may watch a video about mindfulness here, find out about donation based Vipassana Meditation Courses here or visit BeMindful to find out more about mindfulness stuff.
Visualisation Meditation - this technique involves mental imaging practices.
Vinyasakrama (Krishnamacharya, 2013) as well as Tai chi, Qi Gong - a movement meditation technique achieved through synchronising of the movement with the breathing.
Contemplation of nature - this technique involves bringing presence and awareness to the present moment while being outdoors in nature. This cultivates sense of connection to the natural world and deepens connection with own sensory experiences and mind.
(Brown, 2008, Burack, 1999, Cancer Research UK, 2019, Cavallaro, 2014, Godagama, 1997, Krishnmacharya, 2013)
How To Start?
Meditation can be frustrating, boring or intimidating at first (Godagama 1997, Kaur Khalsa, 2012).
New meditators get easily distracted with their thoughts and their concentration lapses. Despite this, with continuous practice, and experimenting with different meditative techniques, even if only for a couple of minutes daily, the distractions become less problematic. From there the meditator can tap into the space where the brain gets into a meditative mode, the alpha mode where our braIn’s creativity lies, and then the practice becomes a pleasant, rewarding experience on which one can easily get hooked on (Godagama,2014, Chopra, 2019).
Now a few tips on starting and developing a regular meditative practice:
Develop routine - Choose a time that you can meditate every day and stay with it. Usually mornings before breakfast work best (the body doesn’t need to use energy for digestion and your mind is clear from distractions acquired throughout the day). You may either want to join group meditation, use some aids - as an example a meditation application, videos or ideally use the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you practice by yourself and more than once per day you should decide how many times and for how long you want to meditate. Make meditation your ritual and set a reminder for each day at the best time for you.
Find the quiet space and decide what to wear - find a quiet space with the atmosphere/ambiance you like and meditate there each day. Also, remember to wear clothes which are comfortable and have your phone switched off or removed from your meditation zone. A phone going off and clothes which are too tight or constraining will only create distractions.
Position - Find a comfortable position. Allow the spine to be straight and seat bones to be grounded. Decide if you need any accessories as cushion, block, bolster or anything else. For example chairs can be suitable as well for meditating if you have knee or hip issues. If seating turns out to be too uncomfy you can always lie down on the mat.
Set a timer - use a timer so you can fully focus to the practice itself and you don’t have to get distracted with checking the watch or thinking how much more time you should be meditating.
Make it personal - Experiment with different methods and choose the one which resonates with you best. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. It’s fine to get distracted and find your mind wandering (this is what minds do). When that happens just bring your mind back to the meditative state without judgement and carry on.
Set your expectations - No practice is ever wasted and whatever happens you are doing it right. Your mind will get distracted and move between thoughts, and it is absolutely ok. When the mind wanders just bring it back and start again without judgement. “Put aside your expectations about what you want to happen and what you think is supposed to happen when you meditate and simply accept whatever happens” (Cavallaro, 2014, P.62).
Engage other/s - practicing with other person/s can provide a great source of extra motivation and inspiration. I meditate together with my good friend and we check on each other's practice daily.
(Brown,2008, Chopra, 2001, Godagama, 1997, Gaia.com,2019, Cavallaro, 2014, Cancerresearchuk, 2019 & own experience)
Learn From The Experienced Instructor
There are various books and online recordings available for you to start your meditation journey at home. Despite that, it is commonly agreed that meditation should be learned under the guidance of the experienced instructor.
BNS Iyengar and I hosted advanced meditation workshop with the experienced meditation instructor Srimathy.
By viewing the video lecture you will learn about origin of Dhyana and systematic methods/techniques to practice Dhyana as explained by Patanjal in ‘The Yoga Sutras’.
Yoga and meditation expert Srimathy from Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in Chennai is exceptional teacher with over decade of experience. She created the lecture for those who already have prior experience with Sanskrit terms and meditation. Therefore, students who are new to the concept of traditional Yoga and Meditation may find the teaching too advanced and complex to understand.
During the teaching, Srimathyl explained directly from Chennai:-
What is Dhyana?
Dhyana’s origin from the Vedic period.
Systematic methods and techniques to practice Dhyana, as explained by Patanjali.
More about Srimathy & her Impressive experience
Srimathy is a post-graduate diploma holder in Yoga Studies from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), Srimathy’s association with yoga began in the year 1997. In 2003, after a long stint as a teacher in KYM, Srimathy began learning and practicing the classic Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Having learnt the ropes from Guruji K Patthabi Jois himself, she now continues with Shri. Sharath Jois and Mrs. Sarashwathy.
Srimathy has studied yoga philosophies, “Yoga Sutras of Pathanjali” and “Hatha Yoga Pradhipika” under Shrivatsa Ramaswamy who was a student of Shri Krishnamacharya for more than 3 decades. Srimathy has learned vedic chanting from Shri T.D.Krishnamachari, and continues to learn from Smt. Akhila Ramasubramaniam, a vedantic scholar. She also continue to study YOGA philosophy and theory, and the practice of PRANAYAMA (controlled breathing) under Shri B.N.S. Iyengar, Mysore. To find out more about Srimathy Yoga Shala in Chennai click here.
Regular meditation can offer many health benefits, such as:- improved self- esteem, feeling of calmness, reduced stress and anxiety, greater sense of awareness, happiness and even self-healing.
There are various ways to meditate, such as focusing on an object, breath awareness meditation, mantra, movement meditation and more.
It is best to experiment with various meditation techniques to find which one suits your individual needs, and to start meditation under the guidance of an experienced instructor. Saying that you can start your meditation journey with the help of books, videos, audios or applications which are accessible online.
I look forward to hearing your feedback on this article and the meditation workshop that we created for you.
Namaste, love and peace :-)
Caveats & Other Business
Obligatory caveats regarding the above article.
I’m not an expert in the area of neuroscience, meditation, healthcare or Indian philosophy. Where possible I’ve cited sources (see below) for the information I’ve given, although without full access to academic databases I appreciate that some of this information could be superseded by new research.
As always if you’re interested in the topics raised I encourage you to supplement the above with your own research. I’m just one person and one person is always prone to mistakes.
If you do spot any mistakes please reach out to me and I’ll be happy to correct them.
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