There is much talk these days about the benefits of meditation for stress management and mental well-being. Attractive meditators have become a popular cover shot for magazines, while monks with electrodes attached to their brains appear in the more serious current affairs and science journals. The angle is usually that meditation is a panacea for the stressful lifestyles which are increasingly accepted as normal. However, the meditate-for-stress-management articles usually forget to mention how hard it actually is to practise meditation when you are stressed. In fact, the most important prerequisite for meditation is to be relaxed.
Meditation did not arise in ancient India as a stress management technique. It is primarily a method for spiritual evolution, a sacred journey which brings wisdom and understanding for the harmonization of the layers of personality which govern our interaction with life. Regular, consistent practice is needed. A quiet place, a comfortable, relaxed body and an attentive mind are also important.
Meditation can certainly be a valuable part of the stress management kit bag, but for most people, it is better to start with simple asanas, breathing practices and yoga nidra. These bring muscle relaxation, body-mind integration and are easy to practise. Asanas, when practised with awareness of body, breath and energy, have a deeply meditative aspect and prepare the body to sit comfortably during meditation. Yoga nidra, the Rolls Royce of stress management techniques, is also an excellent preparation for meditation. The usual structure of a Satyananda Yoga class reflects this asanas, then pranayama, then yoga nidra, and finally meditation. At home, our meditation also benefits from some preliminary asanas and pranayama. If the mind is particularly overactive, yoga nidra, or at least some time in shavasana before meditation practice, lays the groundwork for effective, focused practice.
These preliminary practices help induce the state of pratyahara or sense withdrawal. In his meditation classic, Sure Ways to Self Realization, Swami Satyananda writes: The biggest obstacle to meditation is the mind, but before we can tackle the mind we must subdue the senses. This can only be achieved by internalization. The way a Satyananda Yoga class is taught is designed to create internalization. Gradually, as the yoga session continues, the outward pull of the senses becomes less, and the mind spontaneously turns within. The simple meditation practice of kaya sthairyam (body stillness) gives many students their first experience of deep quiet at the levels of both body and mind.
This state is the starting point for most sitting meditations. From there, it is a matter of personal choice which type of meditation to continue with. There are many to choose from.
The practice of antar mouna (inner silence) is a useful and accessible technique as it is based around observation of thoughts, which we all have in abundance. It incorporates pratyahara techniques and teaches us to observe our thinking patterns throughout the day, not only when we sit. Japa, involving repetition of mantra with awareness of the breath moving in a certain way, is also suitable for both beginners and advanced practitioners. There is much beauty and peace in shifting the mind away from its thoughts to the gentle realms of mantra and breath. Either way, a subtle processing of mental and emotional patterns and tensions occurs, leaving a clarity and freshness which reflects the harmonizing effects of yoga in the deeper layers of our being.
There are many paradoxes in life, especially spiritual life. Yes, meditation practice is an incredible stress management tool. But you cannot practise it when you are in a state of stress. Perhaps this is part of its brilliance in order to practise effectively, you must first dissolve the stress.