Is It Really Yoga without Meditation?

yoga students meditating
Photo by Squaw Valley

A fellow yoga teacher recently said to me, “If you’re not meditating, you’re not practicing yoga.”

Cue the gasps of horror! I know there are a lot of people who wouldn’t take very kindly to that statement. But while asana-focused yoga classes have taken the U.S. by storm … seated, silent meditation is, well, a slightly harder sell.

I’ll admit that I winced at her words—and yet I can’t disagree with her either. The truth is, if you’re not meditating, you’re not practicing yoga. At least not to its fullest.

This can be confusing and controversial for a lot of people who have made yoga a huge part of their lives, but don’t practice meditation. So let’s take a step back. Most yoga classes in the West are really hatha yoga classes. Hatha yoga is the the union of mind-body-spirit though a practice of asanas. Don’t get me wrong—hatha yoga is powerful stuff. For me, and for countless others, the physical practice of yoga is much more than exercise. But there is also a lot more to this ancient philosophy than down-dogs. Asana is but one branch of the eight-limbed path that is yoga.

That’s right, there are eight limbs of yoga. You may have heard of pranayama, or yogic breathing practices, but there are other branches that you may never hear mentioned in a yoga class. Taken all together, these eight limbs serve as a comprehensive guide to living well. They guide the practitioner on issues of morality and ethics (yamas and niyamas), union to the divine (Samadhi), control of the senses (Pratayahara), and cultivating inner awareness (Dharana).

Dhyana, or meditation, is just as important as asana. Some would say it’s the most important limb, but really, they all work together. Through meditation, we learn to quiet the mind, be fully present, and see things as they truly are. Meditation has the ability to strengthen our asana practice, just as asana is a wonderful preparation for meditation. Through asana, we develop physical and mental discipline, as well as flexibility and focus. All these things are needed for meditation.

Whether you are put off by my fellow yoga teacher’s statement or not, know that this post is not intended to shame the asana-only yogis of the world. For many people, asana comes first for a reason. Perhaps because it is the most accessible. The idea of sitting in meditation for even 10 minutes can be a scary thought, but somehow, after cultivating the focus and awareness necessary for asana and pranayama practice, the act of meditation becomes a little more doable. And that’s how the eight limbs work—they work together.

Time and time again, it seems that once people connect with a hatha yoga practice, they eventually get curious about the other aspects of yoga as well. Even if you’re not there yet, it’s possible that your meditation practice is waiting to begin/be explored/deepened. When you arrive, you might be surprised at what you find there.

Is meditation a part of your practice? What is your reaction to the idea that asana without meditation is not ‘real’ yoga?


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