holding the art of teaching meditation

Photo by David Young-Wolff

Millions of people want to learn to meditate, and yoga teachers may not be ready. In a typical 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, there might be as few as one to three hours of instruction in teaching meditation; the quality of meditation instruction in yoga studios tends to reflect this neglect. Students expect yoga teachers to be as competent at teaching meditation as they are with pranayama and asana, but imagine a yoga class where the teacher had only one to three hours of training in how to teach asana! When students receive unskilled instruction it can be a frustrating experience—stifling and repressive. As a result, people are going elsewhere to learn meditation––to Buddhist organizations or multinational corporations that specialize in meditation and offer a higher quality of instruction. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Meditation is half of yoga and the yoga tradition has a wonderfully rich body of meditation techniques. In the Ashtanga model of yoga––yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi––the last four angas are purely meditative. An ancient yoga text, the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, (my interpretation is called The Radiance Sutras) describes 112 types of yoga meditation. These include breathing, subtle internal motion, dancing, eating, music, chanting, laughing, silent inner listening, gazing at nature, lovemaking, prayer, and being in a state of wonder, gratitude, or amazement. Just as there are dozens of different physical asanas, there are dozens of different antar asanas, or doorways into meditation. Find one that suits your nature, enter there, and all the others open up gradually over time.

For a teacher, learning to be aware of 112 or more doorways into meditation is a fascinating challenge, because these are all human experiences of delight, wonder, and amazement. Meditation is a basic human instinct that people can access through their love of life. In yoga terms, meditation is falling in love with prana, the flow of the life force. When that is allowed to happen, in a couple of minutes practitioners access a level of restfulness and relaxation deeper than sleep, according to decades of scientific research at Harvard Medical School and other institutions.

Meditation is a natural release into restfulness, and so the basic approach of a meditation teacher can be one of curiosity, rather than dogmatic authority ––“Let’s explore and find what is working for you now.” Over the past 47 years of teaching meditation my experience is that when we offer students a variety of doorways, they are likely to find what works best for them. Meditation then becomes thrilling, an adventure, and a powerful internal vacation that leaves students feeling refreshed and in touch with the essence of life. This is much more interesting and beneficial than simply telling students to sit still and nagging them to concentrate on their breathing.

Meditation is inner yoga (antar = within, interior). As such it is basically invisible. You can’t see what someone is doing inside during meditation, and it takes considerable training for a teacher to find out what the students are experiencing. Antar yoga requires a somewhat different skill set and language than physical asana. A teacher can’t see, for example, if people are injuring themselves by meditating in a way that goes against their nature.

It is important to avoid aggravating injuries, just as with asana. If someone comes to class with a physical injury, such as a sore wrist, yoga teachers know how to make modifications to avoid making that injury worse. It is the same with meditation –– people come to class with sore, overloaded nerves, from living intense lives and working hard. On the level of the nervous system, many of our students are like triathletes who have just come from swimming, biking, and then running a marathon. When this is the case, meditation can feel like doing asana with sore muscles and tendons, with lots of painful and tender sensations. Additionally, one third of Americans are sleep deprived and operating in a state of stressful overload. For many people, yoga is their only quiet time in the week, so they have a backlog of processing to do. When they lie down on their mat at the end of class, or sit to meditate for a few minutes, they are in a raw, vulnerable state. If the teacher indicates that having a busy mind is a sign of failure, they may take this feeling of failure deep inside.

Stop thought-shaming people. Thinking and reviewing one’s to-do list is a natural part of the meditative experience. I have interviewed thousands of people about what they think of during meditation, and many of the thoughts are related to the people they love––in other words, they are being in the heart, sorting emotions, and choreographing the asana flow of everyday life. It is damaging when a teacher says, “You have a monkey mind!”

Meditation is a deeply restful and quick vacation. People who are trained to meditate in a way that suits their inner nature experience meditation as a blessed relief. Even if they are exhausted and stressed from a long day, meditation feels like listening to music or receiving a loving massage.

Asana teachers are potentially among the best meditation teachers in the world, because asana was developed originally to prepare the body for meditation. Around the world, I have witnessed yoga teachers inventing sublime meditation instructions that are breathtakingly beautiful and effective. As a community, we need to embrace this creativity and systematize it.

A 2016 survey sponsored by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that the number of yoga practitioners has zoomed up to 37 million from 21 million over the past four years, and over half of these people are coming for stress relief. 90% of those surveyed think of yoga as a form of meditation. They want access to guidance with their meditation practice. This is an exciting time. Let’s up our game together to welcome these students.

Dr. Lorin Roche began practicing with the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra in 1968 as part of scientific research on the physiology of meditation. He has a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where his research focused on the language meditators generate to describe their inner experiences. He is the author of The Radiance Sutras and Meditation Made Easy. With his wife, Camille Maurine, he wrote Meditation Secrets for Women. A teacher of meditation for 46 years, Lorin’s approach centers on how to customize the practices to suit one’s individual nature. Lorin leads the Radiance Sutras Meditation Teacher Training, a 200 hour certification program registered with Yoga Alliance. Lorin teaches regularly at the Esalen Institute and around the world.