This question came up on the last yoga course that I did, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts, as I’ve done separate teacher trainings in both yoga and meditation.
What is meditation in the context of yoga?
In the context of yoga, meditation (dhyana) is the seventh limb of yoga and is something that can’t really be taught (in my opinion) whether you have a qualification in meditation or not. So, meditation in this sense is what could occur after you’ve practised certain meditation techniques.
In Buddhist literature, the mind is sometimes compared to a lake, with the ripples in the lake being the thoughts. Meditation, therefore, is what happens when the mind becomes quiet and the lake becomes smooth and reflective.
When we talk about meditation, what we’re often talking about is the meditation techniques. Yoga asana, for example, could be one technique to help quiet the mind.
The limbs of yoga that come before meditation (dhyana) are pratyahara which means drawing your awareness away from the external world and observing yourself from within, and dharana, which means concentration. Both these limbs of yoga could be seen as techniques to help prepare you for meditation, and as yoga teachers, I would argue that it is OK to teach these things without having a separate qualification in meditation. To me, they are a big part of teaching yoga.
Teaching vs facilitating
I believe that when it comes to meditation in the context of yoga, it can be facilitated, but not taught. However, the techniques for meditation can definitely be taught. For example, the sixth limb of yoga is concentration (dharana).
The idea here is that when we concentrate on something (mantra, the breath, or a flame), the mind becomes quieter and the state of meditation is more likely to occur.
What meditation techniques relate to yoga?
I’m over simplifying, but here are some of the meditation techniques I include when I’m teaching yoga.
Pratyahara (observing yourself from within)
This is the fifth limb of yoga and something I think is really important in a yoga session — especially at the beginning, whether you label it as pratyahara or not. It can be practised in just a few minutes in the form of scanning the body or taking the time to observe what thoughts are going on in your head. When I sit down to do my morning meditation, this is how it begins, and sometimes it will only be this. It’s a time for me to check in with myself and see how I’m feeling, without judging myself.
Pratyahara can also be practised within the yoga poses or asanas themselves as a way to explore a pose in more depth and encourage a greater awareness of your body.
The yoga Sutras don’t prescribe just one way to concentrate, so concentration in the context of yoga to help prepare someone for meditation could include concentration on a mantra, the breath, or a flame (trataka) — to name just a few things. Like Pratyahara, dharana is another way to help quiet the mind and perhaps prepare you for meditation.
You could argue that you’re practising dharana in your asana practice because there’s definitely concentration on the breath and sometimes concentration or focus on a point in front of you in some of the balancing poses. This in yoga is called Ekagrata or one pointed focus.
Silently or verbally repeating a mantra is another form of concentration. The yoga sutras don’t specify a particular mantra, so you could use Aum or one that’s personal to you.
Trataka or candle gazing is yoga practice outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which involves gazing at a candle without blinking, until, tears start to form. You might get confused looks if you start your yoga class in this way, but it is a yoga meditation technique in concentration.
What meditation techniques can’t you teach?
I would say, the meditation practices that can’t be taught with a yoga qualification would include those practices that are trademarked, or any practices with a very clear structure or process. This would include Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Transcendental Meditation™, and Vedic meditation — to name just a few.
I would then go further and say, similar to the teaching of yoga asanas — don’t teach anything you don’t personally practice yourself.
The use of imagery in guided meditation
On my meditation teacher training, I was taught not to place people in specific locations if you’re leading a guided meditation. For example, I would never say, for example, ‘imagine yourself on a beach feeling the calm breeze on your skin and the waves lapping at your feet…’ It’s way too specific and although its intention might be calming, it might have the opposite effect on some people. What if a beach or the sea has negative connotations?
There are other ways around this, such as allowing each person to place themselves in a situation in their minds that is relaxing to them.
There are also some meditations which could potentially be quite hard for people to do. For example, some of the Buddhist loving/ kindness or metta meditations, which I personally really love doing, but they can involve sending good wishes to people you’re having difficulty with. I can see how potentially this might be difficult for some people, and could bring up some deep seated issues.
This is a bit of a grey area because it was included as part of my 500 hour yoga qualification. However, there are courses you can do specifically in Yoga Nidra such as the iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation, which you would need to be qualified specifically for. If yoga nidra was a part of your yoga training and you practice it regularly, then I don’t see why you shouldn’t teach it.
Some of the scripted sessions, however, in the Yoga Nidra book by Swami Satyananda, do take place the practitioner in specific locations, so this would be a judgment call.
I think the easiest solution is to teach what you know and love to practice yourself, providing you’re allowed or qualified to do so. So, if you love mantra meditation, or certain chakra meditations… and they’re things you practice and have experience with, then I think it’s OK to teach them without having an additional qualification in meditation. But, if you’re teaching a trademarked technique without being qualified to do so and you have no experience practising something, then I wouldn’t go there.
Finally, what are your thoughts? Was it clear on your yoga teacher training what you could and couldn’t teach when it came to meditation?
Photograph: taken in India, Gokarna 2012