At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point.’
It is a radical counter cultural activity in an age characterised by optimised productivity, technologically mediated experiences, palpable socio-political tensions, visual culture’s sensory overload and the fetishisation of athleticism to sit down, alone in a quiet space and close your eyes.
When we consider our own most dynamic practices, which for many of us will be Ashtanga or Vinyasa practices, it is useful to note whether we have built enough longer periods of stillness into our āsana practice. I have recently been reading a translation of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Shyam Ranganathan in which he posits amongst other things that those yoga practitioners of the contemporary dynamic styles are not practising āsana, they are in fact practising a form of Kriya yoga called tapas. Tapas cultivates a certain type of heat brought about through yogic practices. It is also a term for the austerities, discipline and the yatna (efforts) we put into our practices. Such tapas can be very useful in preparation for sitting. Many Indologists and Yogic Studies writers have likewise commented that āsana means seat and that by implication it suggests a stillness rare in contemporary yoga studios. The early yoga āsana were primarily seated postures – highlighting that ancient yoga was primarily meditation or Raja yoga. Lucy Crisfield, one of the chanting teachers I have been studying with, goes further by suggesting āsana is less about the physical seat and more about where we sit in our being about the internal space we cultivate to spend time in during meditation. Some of us might have a visualisation of that space as a place in nature we love, a cave or mountain, a space that inspires us to reflect the stillness and silence of that landscape in the mind.
This notion of āsana, of course, closely aligns it to the definition of yoga in Patanjali’s sutras. In which, yoga is defined as:
Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind – ( 1.2 in Bryant)
Yoga is directing and containing the activities of the mind (1.2 in Charlton and Roy)
Yoga is the control of the moral character of thought (1.2 in Ranganathan)
It is hard to cultivate physical stillness, as many demonstrate through their tussles with themselves to lie still for ṡavāsana. Still harder is the process of cultivating mental stillness.
Some Practical Ideas for Cultivating a Practice of Stillness
- Consider sitting early in the morning when the mind is not fully alert and our senses have not been stimulated by impressions of the current day.
- Setting a timer for your meditations and your ṡavāsana so you really commit yourself to the time intended. This also means you can incrementally increase the time you are still for, if this is something you want to do.
- Ritualise the experience with certain smells or fabrics you associate with seated or supine meditation. If there is an incense, a cushion, a shawl, a candle you use every time then these things start to settle you in, even as you prepare your space.
- Sit at the end of āsana practice. Often the tapas of practice creates a calm afterwards that can be wonderful for meditation. Begin with just five minutes.
- Do not confuse potent prāṇāyāma with meditation, delineate between these where possible, focusing on the natural breath is fine, but many prāṇāyāma are rather a physical practice in themselves and should be separated from our meditation practice.
- Once the body is still, before you try to ‘still’ the mind, try to ‘direct and contain’ it as Charlton and Roy translate Patanjali.
- Do not be frustrated with thoughts, just notice the mind has wandered and return to the breath.
- Finally, know that you deserve this extra moment of stillness that ‘being’ is as important as ‘doing’.
Love and stillness,