Musings on Meditation

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path of yoga is very clearly laid out.  Book 1 talks about the kind of person who undertakes to stay on the path, and the pitfalls that may arise whilst there.  Book 2 talks about the practical part of yoga.  It is here that you will find the first mention of hatha yoga – the postural part that we are now familiar with – and the other 7 branches of Astanga Yoga (there are eight limbs in total).
We start with character-building, as Swami Radha calls it in her brilliant book “Kundalini Yoga for the West”.  These are the yamas and niyamas.  Once this is established, the yogi can then confidently practice asana  (postures) and pranayama, (breathwork) leading to pratyahara, or retraction of the senses. I found the concept of pratyahara difficult to understand before directly experiencing its effects. Your path and my path of yoga are each distinct and unique, so I won’t elaborate too much here.  But, in my case, pratyahara meant a softening of the impact of external influences – loud noises make me jump less, bright lights don’t annoy, strong smells…well strong smells still bug me.  Okay, but you might get the point.
The next limb of Astanga Yoga is dharana, or concentration.  This is not, note, meditation, which is dhyana. Dharana is the ability to focus the mind on a single object for increasingly long periods of time.   Eventually, one become “one” with the object, and enters into samana with it.  This is the beginning of Book 3 of the sutras.  The object can be something external like an icon or candle, or it can be more subtle, like the breath or the heartbeat.
Still, the point I want to make here is that dharana, and eventually dhyana, are the fruits of previous practice.  I was a terribly meditator.  For years I fidgeted on my zafu, wondering where all the mental peace was.  Well, the answer is it’s coming…be patient.  Practice and all is coming, said Sri Pattabhi Jois.   I use the spinal breathing method described in the book “Advanced Yoga Practices”.  (
My advice is:  don’t jump straight into meditation without toning the body and breath first.  Some people can – hey, we’re all different – but many people can’t.  And don’t give up.  Propel yourself forward on wings of faith.  Look up at the sky and realise that the Universe is boundless and you are a speck and rejoice in all the incredible freedom that gives you.  OM.

Tending the Fire

There is much talk of fire in most Yoga texts and teachings. Fire is one of the 5 elements, the others being Air, Water, Earth and Ether/Space. Fire is felt to transform matter from one state to another. Its sinuous flames remind us nearly of liquid, so despite its “hot” quality, it is also intimately associated with Water, Water being its equal and opposite.
The path of yoga is one of transformation. We learn new ways to move, think, breathe and be still, and thus we transform ourselves from one type of person into another. We are still ourselves, but we have changed, shed a skin or grown a new one. Thus, stoking the fire of transformation is of utmost importance.
In hatha yoga, we do this mainly through postures associated with the abdominal region. We also practise breathing techniques that emphasize the inhale and breath retention with lungs full. Other lineages may follow other methods, and these are all legitimate. You are always in control of your yoga practice, and are free to choose the branch of yoga that most satisfies your heart and soul.
This winter, I have learned to tend the hearth. I have never before lived in a house with a working fireplace, let alone relied upon it as my main heat source! But, I am open to change. I had call to be the sole firelighter for a period of nearly two weeks. I struggled mightily at first, sitting near it, blowing desperately on rapidly dwindling sticks and leaves and bits of paper. Once, I managed a roaring inferno on the first go, but most nights heard me cursing the whole rustic life and yearning to go back to the city and central heating.
But I persisted.
I discovered that the paper I use on my massage couch serves perfectly as a recycled firelighter. Light, and slightly oil-streaked, it takes immediately and burns hot. I learnt the value of the small bits of kindling that my partner lovingly chops, and how to tell if wood if green or dry. I am now a one-match woman. I can set and light a fire in about ten minutes, and tend it carefully for hours. I watch it and poke it and generally feel it to be a living presence in my home.
I think that our inner Fire is the same. It needs the right material to start it up, and the right material and rhythm to keep it burning brightly. We need to pay attention to it, feeding it more when it needs it, and leaving it to rest when it doesn´t. Cared for properly, our inner Fire helps us efficiently transform our food into healthy tissue and keeps us energetic and motivated.
Weak Fire leaves us sluggish, uninspired and waterlogged. We feel like we are walking in soaked through clothing. A Fire burning too brightly manifests in a flushed face, quick temper and impatience. Remember, a person may have imbalance of one Element in the physical body, while having a completely different Elemental layout in the realm of the Mind.
So, tend your Fire, dear souls.