The workshop I'm teaching in Los Angeles is at City Yoga, a studio on the eastern borders of West Hollywood. At this studio they teach a method called Anusara yoga. (Anusara is a Sanskrit word that means "flowing with grace.") There are about 70 people here, sitting on the floor on bolsters and cushions, most of them in yoga clothes, looking lithe and buff. The founder of Anusara, John Friend, is doing something that I admire hugely—creating a school that follows the principles of traditional yogic self-development. The philosophies of the Indian yoga schools were as much about the mind, heart, and spirit as about the body, and Anusara's version is very much in the tradition. Some of the studios offer weekend workshops in philosophy (taught by Douglas Brooks, a professor at the University of Rochester), chanting workshops, and, increasingly, meditation. My class, though open to the public, is also part of the studio's training for teachers.
Generally, I teach two levels of classes: basic and advanced. This is a basic-level class called "Opening the Heart."I like to work with the heart (not the muscle that pumps blood, but the subtle energy center in the area of the chest), because I find that this center is one of the best connection points, or doorways, into deeper states of awareness. Heart-centered meditation is a juicy, dynamic way to practice, and it's also good for your relationships with others. When you're focused inside your own heart, you feel much more connected with the people around you.
Sue, co-owner of the studio, introduces me, then sits in the back of the room next to her husband, Naeme, who is holding their month-old baby in a sling. I take an informal poll—"How many of you meditate regularly, how many occasionally, how many have never meditated?" Most people have some sort of sitting practice, though there are a few who haven't meditated before. We start off with a long session of body sensing, moving our awareness through the body, then to the breath, then to awareness of thoughts. The studio is large and sunny, with windows open onto a busy street. We work the street noise into meditation, consciously including it as part of our overall experience in the moment, rather than feeling it as a distraction.
The room gets very quiet, filling up with the deep, settled feeling that comes over a group when everyone is inwardly focused. Afterward, I ask for questions, and 10 hands shoot up. Technical questions about the position of the tongue and what to do about numbness in the legs. Then the questions that always come up in meditation classes: "What should I do when I fall asleep?" "I couldn't stop the rush of thoughts." "How come it's so much easier to meditate here than at home?"
Someone mentions that he's feeling emotional, and several others nod in agreement. In meditation, we are literally moving into our own consciousness, which means that we become aware of what has been buried underneath the surface. People are sometimes surprised by how much emotion can come up when we sit and turn our attention inside. One woman is feeling sad. She wept during meditation. We talk about how to move through emotions by working with the energy inside a feeling. I point out that one secret of this is to let go of the content of the emotions, the reasons you think you're sad or angry.
So much of the art of meditation is in the way you deal with thoughts. Different methods are appropriate at different stages, but however you do it, you need to begin by separating yourself from your thoughts, by learning how to observe them and stand aside from them.
After the first break, we start to focus directly inside the heart energy. We approach it in several ways, using a few different techniques, so that people can experiment with the effects of each practice. They describe a big range of experiences—visions and colors, stillness and peace, and also feelings of physical or energetic tightness, more emotions, unruly thoughts. Part of the power of a workshop or, even better, a retreat, is that it gives you time to move through different inner states, to experiment with your practice, and to begin to catch glimpses of the underlying awareness that is the goal. Like everything else that matters, breaking through in meditation is easier if you can give it some time.
At the end, I ask them if they'd like to do a 3-week experiment: to add a certain number of minutes of meditation practice to their day, and record their experience of it in a daily journal. Then, I ask them to write to me in three weeks and let me know how it's gone for them. Not everyone will do it, but those who do will start to experience the alchemical effects of meditation practice. Meditation is like eating. If it's really going to nourish you, you need to put the food in your mouth, chew it, and swallow it—every day.