By Cynthia Gran
Sometimes I don’t want to do anything; I just want to sit still. Winter is a great time to turn inward and reflect. Quiet and stillness come naturally as we contract from the colder weather. Nature itself becomes quite still during the winter as most plants go dormant and many animals hibernate.
Much as I’d like to, I can’t just lie around all winter like a bear. I have to take care of my commitments and responsibilities. Sometimes, though, they get the best of me. If I become overwhelmed, I take more time to quiet my body and mind. I try to do plenty of hatha yoga and meditation, as they’re some of my favorite antidotes to stress. The irony is that sometimes I feel I can’t take the time to sit still, because, well, I have work to do! Many long-time meditators agree that it’s imperative to find time, preferably early in the day, to return to the stillness of meditation. It sets a calm tone, especially on busy days with multiple commitments.
I also look for opportunities to be still between my typical daily activities. You wouldn’t think, but driving offers ample opportunities. When I get into the car on a cold day, and have to wait for it to warm up, I chill out! When I stop at a red light I relax my shoulders, breathe slowly, and grab some stillness! Filling the gas tank allows another chance to relax and breathe as I wait. I could check my phone messages, look around, or daydream. The more I turn my awareness inward, quiet my mind, and deepen my breath, the more I reduce the impact of stress. Collections of still points in my day become meditations, or meditation in action.
“The more I go inside, the more there is to see.”
It's All Too Much, The Beatles
The traditional definition of yoga includes self-control of the mind. The yoga postures that we’re familiar with today were originally created to assist in the stillness and strength of the body, in order to enhance and lengthen meditations. They were designed to lead one into a deep stillness. The yoga postures are done first, before meditation.
If you practice yoga, is your goal to have a great workout? Or do you resonate with the traditional goal of yoga, the deep concentration called samadhi? In other words, is your's an external or an internal practice? If it’s the former, try this: Do several surya namaskar rounds or sun salutations. Do them by yourself and in silence. Afterward, stand completely still for five minutes.
If yours is an internal practice, then you already know stillness isn’t simple or easy. There’s a lot more to being still than refraining from physical movement. As air rises from the bottom of a lake, causing ripples on its surface, similarly thoughts or old memories bubble up and cause the body to move. The body reacts to the unconscious mind. Each time you itch, blink, sneeze, or yawn while attempting to be still, the body is revealing expressions and impressions from within.
"Your inner feelings and frustrations cause your body to move."
The Essence of Spiritual Life, Swami Rama
Not all stillness is the same. There are distinctions which yoga addresses. We can work on stilling the five active senses, or the five cognitive senses. (Please see the last two articles from this column.) We can also learn to still the mind, the breath, and the body.
“When the senses are stilled,
When the mind is stilled,
When the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.”
Katha Upanishad, translated by Eknath Easwaran
Consider slowing down your hatha yoga to encourage a deep stillness. The challenge is to fulfill the traditional definition of yoga, by holding a pose still and comfortable without shaking the limbs.
“The posture is perfected, made steady and comfortable, through relaxing (not forcing)
the effort and by fixing the consciousness on the infinite.”
Philosophy of Hatha Yoga, Pandit Usharbudh Arya
Refine a popular posture without plopping or prodding the body into it, maybe Virabhadrasana II, or Warrior II. As you work with the body, watch each subtle movement of the limbs and the spine. Become aware of the different energies moving through the body. Stand without moving. Notice how still the body becomes within the posture. Reflect upon the body’s response to the breath. Become aware of the mind as well, and cultivate moments of stillness. Soften and release the effort of the muscles and of the ego.
Be patient with yourself, as there is no way to speed up this process, but to slow it down.
Do not drift off thinking about anything other than the process. Observe thoughts that arise, and let them drift away. Don’t struggle. Once effortless stillness can be maintained, the breath can slow down, the mind can become quiet, the realm of joy is near. Become still, and this state brings one closer to the goal to find strength in stillness.
It’s said that sitting absolutely still in deep meditation for three hours and thirty-three minutes, one can attain samadhi, the highest state of mind and traditional goal of yoga.
I’m happy when I can sit still for 15 minutes! I crave the quiet, and I long for cold nights on the couch with loved ones. Stillness is sublime.
“Sinking deeper still inside, I feel awakened from my dreams.”
Sat Singing, George Harrison
Cynthia Gran studied yoga intensely for six years at The Himalayan Institute. She slows down more and more as time goes by, and hopes to get through several books this winter. She teaches superconscious meditation, gentle yoga, and she can teach you about your Ayurvedic constitution, too. Just ask: firstname.lastname@example.org.