If you were to ask someone on the street, “What is yoga?,” you’d probably get a description of hatha yoga, the yoga of asanas, or physical postures. But yoga is an immense field of study with a broad spectrum of practices, enabling us to explore the full potential of human development in body, mind, and spirit.
The breadth and ultimate simplicity of yoga can be summed up in this statement from Swami Kripalu: “To perform every action skillfully is yoga.” That pretty much means being present to our true Self in every moment, in everything we do.
If you ask that same person on the street, “What is meditation?,” you might hear something like “It’s sitting watching your breath.” Yes, but that’s not the whole story.
Some people say that meditation is not something we do; it’s something we fall into when we create the proper conditions. That means that what we often refer to as meditation is instead a willful technique of preparation for meditation. This willful practice, which is just the first stage of meditation, is cultivating concentration. It’s the process of training the mind to focus—to stay with an object of concentration.
Swami Kripalu spoke about the importance of concentration in his book The Sadhak’s Companion: “The secret of achieving … union with truth through mental purity is … concentration, or fixing the mind on one spot. In Sanskrit, this is called dharana. … Concentration leads to meditation, or dhyana. The farthest boundary of [concentration] is where the land of meditation begins.”
When you achieve a state of focused attention, you fall into the second stage of meditation, dhyana—sometimes called witness-consciousness, nonjudgmental awareness, or mindfulness—where you are simply present with whatever arises, without taking sides, without choosing one thing over another.
Ultimately, you melt into the state of samadhi—but that’s a topic for another day. It’s not so easy to talk about because when you’re in that state, the self you recognize as “you” no longer exists.
Most methods of meditation training begin with a concentration practice. Sitting and concentrating on the breath is one such practice. But there are many other concentration practices that may be more effective for some meditators in cultivating the focus that leads to dhyana. The practice of meditation is not “one size fits all.”
What changes with each technique is the object of concentration. With breath meditation, the object of concentration is the sensation of the breath entering and exiting the body. In mantra meditation and the practice of loving-kindness, there are phrases (in Sanskrit or English) that form the object of concentration.
There are also body-centered concentration practices that provide a more active focus for the mind. One is the body scan, where we methodically note our felt-sense of the energy in each area of the body. Another is walking meditation, in which the primary object of concentration is the process of walking. Slowing down from our usual pace, we have an opportunity to be present with every nuance of the action of walking. It’s a very effective way to cultivate the focus that can bring us effortlessly into the meditative state, and thus can also serve a prelude to a sitting practice.
Slowing down any action enables us to be more present with it—to be more skillful in its practice. Which brings us back to Swami Kripalu’s definition of yoga: “To perform every action skillfully is yoga.”
In that sense, there’s nothing in life that is not meditation, down to the conscious taking of your next step, as you breathe and become more present in each moment.
Bhavani Lorraine Nelson is a Kripalu Yoga teacher who leads workshops in meditation and mindfulness, stress reduction, and the power of the voice. She has recorded six CDs, including Meditation Made Possible Volume 1: Meditation on the Breath and her new Meditation Made Possible Volume 2: The Body Scan and Walking Meditation.