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Meditation gone flat? I bet we can change that!

What a winter! Particularly in the north and northeast, winter is a time of contraction, bundling up, bracing against the cold, hunkering down and pulling the covers over my head. Seems like an appropriate time to talk about a practice gone flat.

A few weeks ago while teaching the Dynamic Gentle Yoga program a student took the time to write me a careful letter about a particular challenge she was facing in her practice. Her meditation practice had gone flat. A yoga teacher in her 50’s living in a rural town, we’ll call Susan.

Susan had practiced TM (Transcendental Meditation) in her 20s and found it exceptionally helpful. “I began TM at 19” she explained to me “I consider it one of my great spiritual practice accomplishments. Religiously I sat for 20 minutes twice a day and this practice carried me through college and well into my mid 20s. It greatly reduced my anxiety and depression.”

Susan went on to relate that she went through many life-changes in her 30s, and by her 40s she became a member of the legion of depressed folks who found necessary relief in prescribed anti-depressants. She didn’t say how, but she managed to ease off the medication after relying on it for about ten years.

Now in her 50s, she still devotes as much as 30 or 40 minutes a day to meditation. Yet she hasn’t been receiving the same benefits from meditation that she did in her 20s. She explained that she knew the importance of letting go of expectations, dropping attachment to results and allowing her practice to evolve over time. Yet she wondered, “what’s the matter?” She’s even wondered if the anti-depressants had ruined the sensitivity of her brain cells in some way and had dulled her meditation.

I wondered where to start? What does it all mean? I didn’t know much about the effect of the anti-depressants on brain cells and how that might effect someone’s meditation.

I explained that there was a good deal that I did not know but this much I did.

My good friend Yoganand, Michael Carroll, once said, “The deepest states of yoga are available when prana has been stimulated and the mind is calm.” This has been an insight that I’ve found very helpful over the years, especially working with those who have depression or heavy energy. I’ve also noticed the importance of this insight for the people who show up for my gentler yoga classes. In explaining to teachers my thoughts about how to lead a really good gentle class some fundamental tips have been; get them to breath deeply, give them a safe, comfortable degree of challenge, and getting their attention! This means their energy needs to be stimulated, prana needs to be raised and the monkey mind corralled.

Sharing this with Susan, I responded to her other inquiry “Should I abandon my meditation practice? (Because I feel like I’m wasting my time) or instead do more asana and pranayama?” “Exactly!”, I responded. “The primary aim of practice is to: Open the channels of energy, stimulate energy, and calm the mind.”

The practices of pranayama and asana (with relaxation, balancing pranayama and brief meditation at the end) are designed to do exactly this, i.e. stimulate prana (energy) and calm the mind.

The practice of asana needs to be attended by breath, movement linked by breath, and a continual inward focus toward the sensations of breath and movement. The inward focus on the inner landscape of rising and falling sensations establishes the process of calming the mind. This is the practice of pratyahara and dharana, as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s.

And for a brief “everyday, off-the-mat” type of practice, any movements and stretches that you explore during an energy-break, when linked with deep breaths, can result in that refreshed, clear-minded steadiness that makes life a lot easier to manage.

Again, even three-minutes of deep sun-breaths, can create that fresh energy that is fertile soil for optimism and positive thinking.

This made sense to Susan. She said she’d give it a try and report back soon.

So, how’s you practice? Is the energy flat? Do you need to breathe fresh energy into it? Does it need a little spring cleaning or redecorating, in a sense?

What would bring fresh energy to your practice? Adding more pranayama. Add some holding of the posture? Doing some of those postures you’ve been avoiding for awhile? Listening to a new yoga CD or DVD by that teacher you’re curious about? Something new. Something different. Practice with some regular music, maybe? Instrumental folk, Norah Jones, Jazz, even Rock ‘n’ Roll favorites. You can keep the volume low (or not). Try Leo Kottke on Pandora for some nice guitar instrumental. Or Houston person for mellow sax jazz, Joe Pass for mellow guitar jazz, Keith Jarrett for mellow piano jazz, Etta Baker for acoustic blues, all on Pandora.

Start your practice with two rounds of kapalabhati and a round of bhastrika.

What works for you? Let Gentle Yogi know and we’ll have a spring fever yoga festival of ideas next newsletter!