Shambhala Sun | September 2010 You'll find this on page 50 of the magazine.
HOW TO MEDITATE
Make Friends with Your Body
On or off the meditation cushion, we can be friends with our body—just the way it is. Yoga teacher Cyndi Lee shows us how to sit with relaxation and ease.
Pairs of yogis face each other, press their palms together, and shyly bow their heads. Wearing baggy sweat pants and sexy yoga tops, bike shorts and faded t-shirts advertising local breweries, they are somehow all transformed into elegant beings in this moment—their generosity shining out toward each other. Then they laugh, slap a high five or share a shoulder squeeze, and return to their yoga mats for the rest of the class. They’ve just finished a partnering exercise and are feeling pretty exhilarated.
Without exception, everyone who participates in partner yoga is a cheerleader. They say things like: Yes! Push your feet into the wall. Keep breathing—don’t worry, I’ve got you. That’s great! You almost got up today. Do you want to come down now? Okay, good. Let’s take a rest. When one partner drops down and folds into a resting pose, the other partner gives them a friendly back rub.
I’ve seen this scenario repeated many times during my fifteen years of full-time yoga teaching, and it always warms my heart. It seems natural and easy for yoga students to open to their partners, and it brings to mind what one of my favorite Buddhist teachers once said, “At the end of the day, the true measure of our practice is how much we can open to others.” Remembering this, I think to myself, why is it so difficult to open to ourselves?
It is fairly typical to feel resentful, or at least annoyed, when we’re faced with obstacles. A common response is to blame another person. For instance, “I’m tired because my husband snores,” or “I’m fat because my kids like to eat ice cream,” or “Everyone in my family has tight hamstrings and that’s why I can’t do yoga… or anything.” The list goes on.
As meditators, we cultivate awareness of these blaming thoughts. We notice them, label them as thinking, and practice letting them go and coming back to now. We have learned that we always have options regarding how to respond to rising irritation, and we like to think that we might make a positive choice, one that involves relaxing and resting in openness—no other response necessary.
Yet I’ve noticed that when it’s our own body that is the source of discomfort and irritation, we often get frustrated or critical and simply give up on finding a middle path that meets the needs of both parties, that is, our body and our mind.
The sad truth is that many of us just don’t like our bodies the way they are. We keep wishing they were different. Well, guess what? They are different! You used to be two feet tall and crawled everywhere. You used to be able to put your foot in your mouth. Perhaps you used to be thinner. The color of your skin changes depending on how much you expose it to the sun. Has your hair changed color, too? So, you see, our bodies change all the time; it’s just our relationship to our bodies that has become locked up tight.
My favorite definition of
dukkha, attributed to the great yogi Deskichar, is, “Sitting
alone in a dark, cold room.” It’s about claustrophobia and
needless suffering. And that is just what we are doing to ourselves
when we sit in meditation posture with knee pain and backache,
feeling trapped in our body, and mad about it, too.
Isn’t it interesting that
yoga students never say to each other, “I don’t want to be your
partner,” or “You are too fat, or too old, or too weak, or
too uncoordinated to do this pose”? But these are all things we say
to ourselves while meditating. This negative thinking habit then
becomes a major element of what we are practicing, from the very
beginning of our meditation practice when we first place our seat on
Maybe you are thinking,
“Well, I actually am too old or stiff to ever be comfortable
sitting on a cushion.” But what if you took the approach that your
body is fine as it is? This powerful mind shift then lays the ground
for transforming dukkha into sukha, a sense of space and ease.
After my yoga students thank each other and walk back
to their own mats, I always ask them the same question: “Can you be
as kind and patient with yourself as you were with your partner?"
Step one is to accept your
body the way it is today. In meditation this is called taking a naked
look at things as they are, without having to change or fix them. If
you can do this, it is an act of personal kindness, a very good thing
to practice. It’s also simply being real, because let’s face it,
you can’t practice with the body of the person next to you, anymore
than you can practice with someone else’s mind. We are practicing
with our own body—this one that we’re in today. Instead of
thinking of all the things that are wrong with it, can you think of
them as interesting elements to work with? Try it.
Let’s take stock: Tight
hips? No problem. Stiff lower back? Okay. Creaky knees? Fine.
Negative Attitude? We can probably get that unstuck, too. Let’s
turn our dukkha drama into a sukha story.
Bodies are meant to move
and, if we are planning to sit still for a while, it makes sense that
we should move things around a bit first, to maintain a balance of
activity and receptivity. Begin with this brief warm-up.
Stand up tall with your feet
firmly planted on the floor, directly below your hips. Inhale as you
circle your arms out to the side and all the way to the sky. Reach
your fingers up! Exhale as you circle your arms back down by your
sides. Repeat this four times.
Inhale your arms up again. This time as you exhale,
bend your knees. Next, inhale and straighten them. Exhale and bend.
Repeat eight times.
Lower your arms by your
sides. Turn your head to the right, then to the center, the left, and
to the center again. Dip your right ear toward your right shoulder.
Lift it up back up and dip your left ear to left shoulder.
Interlace your fingers
behind your back. Lift your chest. Breathe in fully. Exhale and stick
your tongue out. Repeat three times.
Place your hands on your hips. Lift your right knee up
toward your chest. Hold onto it with both hands. If that is not
available to you today, place your left hand on a chair or the wall
and hold your knee with your right hand. If that is not available
today, lift your right foot off the floor two inches. Circle your
right ankle three times in each direction. Do the other side.
Standing tall, bend your
knees again. Place your left hand on your right knee and twist your
chest and shoulders to the right. Extend your right arm toward the
wall behind you. Stay here for three deep breaths. Untwist back to
the center. Do the other side. Repeat two times.
Now you are ready to work on
your sitting meditation posture.
First, organize your
materials. You will need at least three to five meditation cushions
or large, firm pillows and three to five blankets. A carpet or rug is
also useful, but if you don’t have one, fold a blanket in half and
place it on the floor. Place two of your cushions on the blanket near
the far edge. Then sit down on the cushions with your sitting bones
near the front edge of the cushion. Your thighs should not be
supported, yet your seat should be firmly on the cushion.
Place one hand on your
tailbone and one hand on your pubic bone. Rock forward and back a few
times and try to find the middle point of balance, where your pelvis
feels vertical. If you feel that your tailbone is tucking under,
which is very common and no big deal, you just need to sit up on at
least one more cushion. This alignment will allow your spine to be
upright without overworking your back muscles. Give yourself the
chance to have a comfortable, supported sitting environment by using
as many cushions as you need.
Check out the placement of
your knees. If your thighs and knees are far from the floor, roll up
two blankets and place one under each thigh so that your legs are
fully supported. This will allow you to relax your groins and lower
abdominals. Over time your hips will become more open but without
this support they will continue to grip and you could develop an
injury. If this were your yoga partner, you would happily place a
rolled up blanket under their thighs for them, so no need to resist
doing it for yourself, right?
Place your palms on your
thighs. Align your upper arm bones with the side of your body, so
that your chest is open and your back is upright. If your hands slide
past your knees it will tend to close your chest, inhibiting your
breathing and creating upper back stress. If your arms are a tad
short, then place a small cushion or folded up blanket on each thigh
so your forearms can rest on a higher plane.
This should feel pretty
good! In fact, it might not feel like anything and that is also good.
This preparation might seem cumbersome, but if we can take the time
to create the conditions for a supported meditation position, that
will support a focused and restful mind. When one body part starts
screaming, it pulls the mind there and discomfort becomes the object
of meditation, rather than the breath.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says
meditation is simply placing the mind, and therefore we are actually
meditating all the time. But formal meditation practice is making a
choice about how and where we place our mind. This requires working
with the body in a careful way so that physical discomfort does not
overtake the mind.
Make a commitment to being
honest about what you are really feeling. Not what you want to feel
or not feel. The goal is not to have perfect meditation posture but
to step onto the path toward a healthy sitting position. Even though
you might have felt nicely balanced and comfortable two minutes ago,
something may have shifted and now you don’t feel comfortable.
That’s okay. Reorganize if you need to. If you don’t need to,
don’t. Be clear about it. Move if you are getting hurt. Don’t
move if you are getting bored.
You will find yourself
slouching. No problem. Refresh your posture. This will happen again
and again, just as your mind strays off into thoughts. When you
notice it, wake up, sit up, and come back to your object of
meditation, usually the breath.
In this way you are strengthening your mind muscle and
your body muscles at the same time.
If you can be kind to
yourself and interested in what your experience is, and if you can
commit to being friendly to your own body by creating the conditions
for proper physical support, then meditation becomes a truly
integrated mind–body–heart activity.
September 2010 "How to Meditate" issue of the Shambhala Sun.
Cyndi Lee is
the author of Yoga Body Buddha Mind and one of America’s leading
teachers at the intersection of yoga and Buddhism. She is the founder of
OM yoga center in New York City and teaches retreats and workshops