The Science of Sitting

When you hear the word “meditation,” what do you imagine? A group of Buddhist monks in temple, chanting and burning incense. A flashback to Woodstock with a field full of hippies sitting silently, listening intently to their guru (or spiritual teacher). Or, if you’re a bit more familiar, you might imagine an individual much like yourself sitting perfectly erect with each thumb and pointer finger touching together in the quintessential “Om mudra.” All of these images are valid representations of meditation. But if you’re like me, these vague portrayals are hardly enough to motivate you to adopt a daily practice, or to spend $200 on a five series class explaining what the point of all this is anyway. Experimenting on your own, or trying out a few YouTube tutorials is an option. But if you’ve tried, you’ve likely found that after two minutes – which feels more like twenty – your mind is in a million places, you’re restless, achy, and aggravated. Enter the oh so popular excuse – and one I’ve previously exhausted myself:

 “I can’t sit still long enough/my mind is too busy/I don’t have enough time to meditate!”

Well perhaps, it might be helpful to know the “why” first. You know meditation is good for you. The highly popularized benefits of relaxation and mental clarity are certainly enticing enough. And even corporate leaders like Oprah Winfrey and Rupert Murdoch vouch that meditation is useful for stress management and good decision-making. (Check it out here.) But how do you get there? And what is this all about, really? The answers to these questions have helped motivate my meditation practice and changed my perspective on yoga. Here’s what they don’t tell you, that I hope will help you along the way…

Yoga is an ancient practice, arguably dating back to 300 B.C., which has been passed down throughout history by way of individual, one on one instruction with a guru. Yoga’s classical definition is simply “the science of the mind” consisting of eight limbs of yoga intended to guide your path to enlightenment, or self-realization. The third of these eight limbs is “asana,” or a series of physical sequenced postures generally referred to as “yoga.” Ancient yogic texts insist that the other seven limbs are the most important steps to experiencing the full benefits of yoga. However, asana practice is intended to prepare you for the process of self-analysis and centeredness, by helping us clear the mind and prepare the body for long periods of stillness. (Savasana, anyone?)

When you leave a yoga class, you’ve likely felt what I fondly refer to as the yoga high. It’s a mental and physical buzz, or internal vibration, which leaves us feeling clear-headed, relaxed, and (relatively) stress-free. A former boss of mine who occasionally practiced yoga, used to joke: “If you want anything from me, just ask me after yoga class!” What you’re experiencing is a meditative state, and when you practice more frequently, this sensation lasts longer. While few ever complain about their post-practice buzz, this is also the reason why yoga is often associated with free-loving cluelessness and detachment from reality, which threatens its credibility and relevance as a useful everyday practice. (Revisit 1960’s Woodstock for a moment, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Although I’m not a scientist, I believe learning the mechanics of what’s happening during meditation is key to understanding, and thereby motivating our practice. My method of learning has always been: don’t ask me to do something until I fully understand why I’m doing it. (Sorry Mr. Murphy, the Pythagorean theorem just wasn’t happening…) But if you’ve ever wondered “why meditation?,” learning a bit of the science behind the practice is a great place to start.

Looking to science, specifically quantum physics, we know that all solid objects are composed of molecules, or a group of atoms which are uniquely formed to create physical matter and are perpetually in a state of subtle movement. Through meditation and asana practice, we are stimulating the vibration of our own molecular composition. When thinking of yoga, it might be helpful to think of body, mind, and spirit, and consider “spirit” to be the energy inherent to your molecular composition. Asana practice and conscious breath work (or pranayama) get this energy moving. Simultaneously, you are clearing the mind of restless thoughts by focusing your full attention on your breath and bodily alignment. (If you’ve tried Triangle pose for any length of time, you know that this process alone is a feat! Don’t get frustrated, you’re not alone. Practice makes perfect!) And while stretching deeply into postures like Warrior II or Pigeon pose, you are preparing your body to sit comfortably in meditation, a.k.a. Criss-cross applesauce or Lotus pose. Once these three things – body, mind and “spirit” – are in sync, then you experience real yoga and the benefits of the practice begin to take shape. In fact, the word “yoga” means “union” in Sanskrit, and represents this very process of convergence.

So, in understanding the why, we shouldn’t be concerned with quantum physics on our mats. Rather, applying the “why” to your practice is as simple as remembering your last yoga high and striving to reach it again and again. Then, try sitting in this stillness. Over time, you will learn to get there faster and stay there longer – using asana (physical practice), pranayama (conscious breathing), and even mantra (chanting) as different means to get you there. There is no right or wrong way, and every day will be different. But by playing with these techniques (have fun!) and challenging yourself to return to focus on your breath or alignment, the true benefits of yoga will unfold for you. Why? Because the science is there.

And I’m always here to answer your questions along the way.

Sending you good vibes! xx


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