You don’t have to be an advanced yogi to know that yoga and meditation are interlinked, complementing each other perfectly. So why do many modern-day yoga classes focus solely on asana (yoga poses) with little time for introspection? Can you do yoga without meditation, or is the western style of yoga damaging the roots of this ancient practice?
You can practice yoga without meditation and still experience yoga’s incredible benefits to the body and mind. However, then it is not the complete traditional yoga practice because yogic teachings state that meditation is an integral part of yoga.
So what role does meditation play in yoga practice? Read on to find out.
Why is meditation an essential part of yoga?
Yoga is more than physical postures
One of the fundamental yogic teachings is the “8 Limbs Of Yoga.” Asana is only one limb, meaning that the physical movements you do in a yoga studio class are just one-eighth of the entire practice.
Meditation, referred to as Dhyana in Sanskrit, is another of the eight limbs; thus, yoga philosophy shows that sitting in stillness is just as crucial as doing yoga postures. Therefore, the typical structure of classes at most yoga studios seems pretty unbalanced.
Most one-hour yoga sessions involve up to 50 minutes of movement practice, with 5 minutes for centering and 5 minutes for final relaxation (savasana). But why is this one limb focused on so much in the western world? One reason is that asana is similar to exercise, and thus, focusing classes on yoga poses makes the practice more accessible to people who do not know what yoga is.
There’s no denying that asana-based classes are a great way to be introduced to yoga. Moreover, some people choose to practice yoga as a hobby or as an exercise as they find it more enjoyable than running or working out at the gym. For these reasons, asana-only yoga classes have value.
However, suppose you want to learn more about yoga and deepen your practice. In that case, including more meditation into your daily yoga routine is essential to turn yoga into a lifestyle and mindset.
The purpose of yoga is to prepare you for meditation
You can learn about yogic philosophy through ancient texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. The Yoga Sutras state that one of the purposes of yoga asana is to prepare the body and mind for meditation.
This is because the movement you do requires you to focus your attention on your body and the teacher’s instructions. As you do this, you become more present, and your mind quietens down.
Then physically, the movements release tension and pain in the body, increase flexibility in the hips, and strengthen the muscles in the back. These benefits directly help make the seated meditation “lotus pose” more comfortable.
If you reflect on your most recent yoga classes, you might remember how your mind felt busy or your body felt tight at the beginning of the session. Yet by the end, you most likely noticed your mind was quieter and calmer, and your body felt more supple. This is why Indian yogis would perform yoga postures before doing their meditation and why you should do yoga before meditating.
So as you can see, yoga and meditation are not two separate practices. On the contrary, they are created to be practiced together to advance down your spiritual path.
Yoga is about presence and focus
You could argue that yoga and meditation are essentially the same things as by practicing yoga, you enter into a meditative state without trying.
Although seated meditation is the most known style of yoga, you do not have to be sitting in stillness to practice meditation. There are various forms of moving meditation, where the movement you do evokes a sense of presence in the same way that seated meditation does.
Practicing yoga requires a great deal of focus. When you first learn it, you have to listen carefully to what the teacher is saying to understand the alignment of each posture. If you did not direct your attention to the teacher and allowed your mind to wander, you would have no idea what you were doing!
Yoga requires breath connection
Once you learn the yoga postures, the focus is still required because at that point, you will have learned about the importance of breath awareness. I often say to my students that yoga without breathing is just stretching because, in essence, the connection to the breath is what separates yoga from other forms of physical movement.
Staying aware of your breath is a fundamental part of yoga asana practice, regardless of the style. In general, breath connection will help you observe how your body feels as you move in and out of specific positions. For example, the pace of your breath can determine if you are pushing yourself too deep. If you go too far into a pose and feel pain, your breath will quicken.
You can also use your breath to break up muscular tension while holding postures, typically recommended in Yin Yoga. In addition, dynamic styles of yoga like vinyasa, feature flowing sequences where you link each breath to each movement, like in the Sun Salutations and Moon Salutations.
Therefore, focusing on your breathing throughout yoga is the same as meditation; the only difference is that you move as you breathe.
Do all yoga styles involve meditation?
There are many different styles of yoga, with new ones emerging every year. Not all styles of yoga involve meditation. The traditional styles are typically more balanced, involving meditation, pranayama (breathing techniques), and asana. Some newer yoga styles focus solely on movement as they are fitness activities inspired by yoga asana.
However, some people come to yoga purely for its physical benefits, and thus, these newer styles can be ideal. Other people might decide to try yoga to destress, quiet the mind, or understand spirituality. Therefore, understanding the different styles of yoga can help you choose the best one for you.
Which styles of yoga are the most meditative?
Hatha is one of the oldest styles of yoga that people still practice today, and many other types of yoga come from Hatha. Traditionally hatha yoga classes include meditation and pranayama breathing techniques. You typically hold Hatha poses for 5 to 10 breaths each, and staying connected to the breath is encouraged frequently.
Yin is one of the newer styles of yoga that has only been around since the late 1970s. Therefore, it can seem surprising that this is one of the most meditative styles. This is because the practice involves long-held floor-based postures requiring mindful awareness. You typically hold a yin pose for 3 to 5 minutes, and you are encouraged to stay focused on your breath and body during that time to determine if you can go deeper.
Restorative yoga is another slow style consisting of floor-based positions held for several minutes at a time. The main difference between restorative and yin is that restorative yoga uses lots of props to help your body find comfort, whereas yin purposely stresses the tissues to strengthen them. As restorative yoga makes you feel relaxed, it’s easy for the mind to calm and enter a meditative state.
Kundalini is a very spiritual form of yoga and features less asana than other styles. Instead, the focus in Kundalini is to move energy up from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, accessing the energy centers known as chakras. To do this, you perform meditation and breathing exercises combined with movement, some of which can be pretty intense.
Vinyasa stems from hatha yoga, featuring many of the same postures. However, the postures are performed in flowing sequences, where you inhale to one pose and exhale to another one. Because it’s a physical style, moving with the breath is essential to prevent fatigue. It takes a while to get used to moving with the breath in this way, but once you do, vinyasa flows can become a dance-like moving meditation.
Which styles of yoga are the least meditative?
Power yoga classes are strenuous and strengthening and include fast-paced “fitness style” movement and additional core work. While a connection to the breath is still essential in power yoga, it is not encouraged as much. In fact, most power yoga classes omit all pranayama and meditation aspects and even limit final relaxation to just a couple of minutes, making more time for asana.
Hot yoga stems from the Bikram style, a set sequence of postures performed in a “sauna-like” room with a temperature of 40 degrees. The primary purpose of this style is to sweat out toxins, and many people choose Bikram to lose weight. Because of this, it is primarily focused on asana. Other yoga styles, like vinyasa and power, can also be performed in a hot room to shift the purpose to losing weight and eliminating toxins.
As you can see, meditation is a vital aspect of traditional yoga and something you should regularly do if you want to experience yoga in its entirety. However, it makes sense for modern-day yoga classes to focus on movement to make the practice accessible. In addition, some people dislike the idea of meditation simply because they have never tried it, so an asana-focused yoga class could be the gateway to their spiritual journey.