Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

First Step To Meditation

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This article presents the first level instruction in the method of meditation that anyone can start and practice any time and anywhere. It is seldom found in books, and when suggested in the books, it is less frequently understood. Yet it is so simple that even a three-year-old child can take to it.

Steps in the Method

Here is a systematic, point-to-point method of starting the practice. Anyone at any age may begin; the younger the better. On the other hand, it is never too late. Starting even during a terminal illness will be helpful, and may prolong life, or at least it will impart peace. The practice should be done at least once a day, for whatever length of time is available.

It is not in the length of the period of sitting that success lies, bit in intensifying the awareness, which comes gradually. One may also practice it at other times of the day, when one is tired and needs a quick recovery of energy, when one gets angry or frustrated and wants to be gentler, when one is very busy and is consequently tense and needs to relax and be more effective.

One may do it waiting at a railway station, airport, or in a car when someone else is driving. There is no restriction and no limit. No harm can ever come from this practice. In the Raja Yoga meditation system, as taught by the Himalayan yogis, these are the first steps. They constitute the foundation.

The reader's ego may want to say: I have been practicing meditation for a decade or two; I want something more advanced. I do not need elementary lessons. This attitude is incorrect. Many aspirants practice blanking the mind, or holding the breath like an athlete, but they have not even learned the correct method of breathing. In our system, we check everyone on these points, and only when these foundations have been properly laid do we go any further.

The steps in the method are as follows:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing.

2. Correct posture, with a straight spine, and no feeling of discomfort in the legs, back or neck. One should be able to maintain such correct and straight position of the spine without encountering discomfort.

3. Shithili-karana or systematic relaxation. One should maintain total relaxation of the neuro-muscular system throughout a
meditation session.

4. Awareness of breathing. It has some subtler modes that one learns gradually.

5. Using a mantra or a sacred word from whichever spiritual tradition:
(a) Initially a sound that flows easily with the breath, such as the word Soham.

(b) After such a step has been mastered, a mantra diksha is given and more advanced methods of refined japa are gradually introduced.
Let us go onto the details of these steps.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The chief organ controlling the breathing process in our body is the diaphragm, a muscle just underneath the ribs, separating the chest cavity from the abdomen. Ideally, the diaphragm contracts so that we may inhale fully even into the lower lungs. The diaphragm relaxes to push against the lower lungs so that the exhalation from this part of the lungs may be complete. A child at birth breathes diaphragmatically, but later forgets this natural process. One has to re-train himself to breathe correctly.

In deep and correct breathing, no pressure should be felt in the lungs, and no tension should develop. Breathing should be a relaxed and relaxing process of rejuvenation.

Diaphragmatic breathing is taught in (a) Makara asana, the "crocodile position", lying on one's stomach, and is practiced further in (b) Shavasana, the "corpse position", as well as in sitting and standing positions. When one breathes only diaphragmatically at all times, it is considered that the practice has been mastered.

To learn the practice, lie on the stomach. Heels touching; toes apart; or in whatever way the legs feel relaxed. Place the right palm down over the back of the left hand, and rest the forehead on the hands. The neck is not to be bent sideways. Let the shoulders relax.

Bring your awareness to the breathing process. In this position, it is not possible to do chest breathing. Observe the flow of the breath. Observe the gentle rise and fall of the stomach and the navel area with the smooth flow of the breath. Let there be no jerks, no breaks, in your breathing. Let it flow like a smooth stream. Let it slow down. Observe the gentle flow, along with the rise and fall of the stomach and the navel area. Take note of the breathing process. Resolve to breathe in this way at all times.

After doing this practice for five to fifteen minutes, turn over on your back in the Shavasana position (body in straight line, legs a little apart with toes turned a bit out, arms a little away from the body with palms up). Continue to breathe and observe the process of the diaphragm relaxing and contracting (the rise and fall of the stomach and the navel area).

Place your left palm on the chest, right palm on the stomach. No movement should be felt under the left palm; the right palm should feel the rise and fall smoothly, without a jerk, without a break.

Let uniform breathing develop, the length of the inhalation and the exhalation should be equal. When this practice has been mastered, one graduates to 2:1 breathing (where exhalation is twice as long as inhalation), but not right now.

Correct Posture

It is most important that your spine should be straight for sitting in meditation and ideally at all other times. Unfortunately, all chairs, sofas, modern beds, seats in cars and airplanes are designed to force people to breathe incorrectly by making them sit in positions with convoluted spines.

One often sees people sitting in prayer, in kathas (spiritual story tellings) and satsangs (spiritual gatherings), with their spines looking sadly like a bent bow. It prevents correct and full breathing, causing short breaths, reducing the life spans. It generates or worsens many diseases like asthma and heart problems. It also adversely affects the entire neural system whose central flow is in the spine.

A straight spine is not a straight line. It is a slightly S-shaped curve: convex at the lower-third (lumbar vertebrae one to five); concave at the middle-third (thoracic vertebrae two to twelve); convex at the upper part of the back (cervical vertebrae five to thoracic vertebrae one); and straight at the neck (cervical vertebrae one to four).

It should be learned under expert guidance. But a few hints here will be helpful. One need not try to sit in the advanced postures like Siddhasana and Padmasana, especially if age, physical problems, or lack of habit prevents one from doing so comfortably. Sukhasana or Svastikasana will do quite nicely.

Unfortunately, when people sit in the cross-legged positions, the center of gravity makes them bend their backs. The answer to this is a simple one: Fold a blanket, and make it into a neat and firm cushion. It is not to serve as your seat, not like a rug to sit on: Place it only under the hips, with legs or knees on the floor. This will uplift the hips from the ground. Gently straighten yourself.

If there is discomfort anywhere in the back or the neck, you need to experiment with the height of the cushion under the hips; you need to reduce or increase the number of folds in the blanket. Experiment for a few days till you obtain the optimum comfort. Resolve always to sit in this position.

If sitting on the floor is very difficult, you may sit in Mitrasana on the front-edge of a hard chair, with feet on the ground. But do sit with the spine straight. Form this habit. Let it become your natural position at all times. You will notice psychological changes in yourself, such as heightened awareness, intentness, effectiveness in life and self-confidence without unnecessary pride.

Having sat in the correct posture, continue breathing diaphragmatically, with mental observation of the flow, and of the gentle rise and fall of the stomach and the navel area, with no feeling of pressure in the chest. If there is tension, the breathing is incorrect.

Systematic Relaxation

Shithili-karana, after diaphragmatic breathing, is the second step, practiced in Shavasana. There are numerous progressively complex mental exercises done in Shavasana. They finally lead to Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep), and to the entry into the subtle body.

Let us learn here the basic methodical relaxation. Lie in Shavasana, with feet apart, arms separate from the body, alongside the body, palms up. Continue breathing diaphragmatically. Now, take a mental inventory of your limbs in this sequence down the body:

Forehead, eyebrow, eyes, nostrils, cheeks, jaw and the corners of your mouth, chin, neck, neck joint, shoulders, shoulder joints, upper arms, elbows, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingertips. Fingertips, hands, wrists, lower arms, elbows, upper arms, shoulder joints, shoulders, chest, heart area, stomach, navel, abdomen, pelvis, thigh joints, thighs, knees, calf muscles, ankles, feet, and toes.

Now in the reverse order up the body:

Toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, thigh joints, pelvis, abdomen, navel, stomach, heart area, chest, shoulders, shoulder joints, upper arms, elbows, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingertips. Fingertips, fingers, hands, wrists, lower arms, elbows, upper arms, shoulder joints, shoulders, neck joint, neck, chin, jaw, corners of your mouth, cheeks, nostrils, eyebrows, eyes, forehead.

Remember this sequence. Go over the body in this order; relax each of these parts in this sequence. Let them go limp. For example, the hands should become like the hands of a baby.

If you do not succeed in relaxing them at first, or you have been so tense that you have forgotten what it is like for a muscle to be relaxed, do it differently. Tense each of these limbs, one at a time, and then relax each one-by-one as deeply as you can.

After completing the entire sequence, down the body and up the body, continue breathing diaphragmatically, with the observation as described before. Lie in this way for a few minutes, then sit up for meditation. Do remember to sit with (a) hips elevated on a folded blanket and (b) with the spine straight.

Again, quickly scan the body for any sign of tension that might have developed in the process of changing the position. Relax.

Re-establish diaphragmatic breathing.

Breath Awareness

Let your breath flow, smoothly and evenly, with no jerks, no break in the middle of the breath, no break between the breaths, no sound, no gasping. Become aware of the flow. No break in the awareness.

Feel the flow and touch of the breath in the nostrils. Continue to do so, without jerk, without interruption. The awareness of inhalation should immediately merge into the awareness of exhalation and vice versa. Especially, the awareness of the exhalation is important.

If the mind wanders off, because of its usual habit that has been given to it over many lifetimes, straighten your spine again; relax quickly again; re-establish diaphragmatic breathing; continue with the awareness of the flow and touch of the breath in the nostrils.

Mantra or Sacred Word

To begin with, use Soham. Some prefer to say Hamso and call it the Hamsa mantra. While exhaling, remember in your mind the word Ham. While inhaling, remember in your mind the word So. It means "I am that."

Those in a different religious tradition may use the word prescribed by their tradition, but is should be properly learned from someone who knows meditation according to that tradition.

Let there be no interruption in breath awareness, nor in the awareness of the flow of the word as a thought. Observe how the breath, the word and the mind are flowing together as a single stream.

Slowly, lengthen the time not how long you sit but how many seconds you manage to maintain awareness of the flow of that stream without interruption. Too much effort is self-defeating. But you cannot fall asleep by making a determined effort, nor can you enter a meditative state by fighting your self. Let if flow; let it happen. Don't do meditation. Observe and experience.

Mantra Diksha

Seek out someone to give you the first initiation, mantra diksha. After the mantra initiation, one may be led to methods of meditation individually appropriate for the aspirant.

Both a mantra and a meditation mode are assigned according to the individual's samskaras (subtle imprints in the mind), spiritual needs, and his or her adhikara (level of preparation/mastery). There are many different ways of refining the mantra experience through the various koshas (subtle levels of the mind/body) all the way final silence. The ajapa (mantra flowing without effort) state also occurs through the guru's grace.

One may be taught to proceed on the path of internal sound (nada) or light (jyoti) and go on the path of the kundalini (the subtle energy that flows up the central channel of the spine). One may be assigned a particular chakra (subtle energy center in the body) to meditate on from time to time, but the entry into such a meditation occurs only when the initiator mentally touches the disciple's particular chakra.

In the chakra, one may be assigned a visualization on a certain diagram or other object or the presence of an Ishta Devata (personal form of the deity). At this time, the aspirant will also be taught how to merge his mantra with the energy of the given chakra and how to penetrate through its central point (bindu vedhana). The secrets of these practices are taught in specific Tantras but understood only in the live guru-disciple relationship.

Swami Veda Bharati is the Preceptor of the Sadhana Mandir Ashram in Rishikesh, India, and has been an initiator and meditation teacher in the lineage of Swami Rama of the Himalayas for nearly thirty years.

Copyright ©1995, 2000 Swami Veda Bharati. all rights reserved.