Sitting in the Stillness and Silence of Being

Harmony Slater elaborates on why a still meditative practice complements a moving asana practice and why both are necessary to a yoga practitioner.

I was raised in a Christian home and immersed in the doctrines and rituals of Christianity. When I started my degree in Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, like Reza Aslan, in his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I seriously began to question much of the historical validity to what I had learned as a child. This sent me on a quest to discover for myself what a direct spiritual connection to God or something greater would look like and spurred me on a journey that continues to this day.

I was first introduced to Buddhist styles of meditation in 2001 when I began researching Buddhist practices for my Honours Thesis in Eastern Religions. An opportunity arose to join a small group of students participating in a study abroad term in China. It was planned that the selected students would visit and live in different monasteries throughout various regions of China. Chinese Buddhism is called ‘Chan’ and it’s part of the collection of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Schools. The Chinese word “chan” is a derivative of the Sanskrit term dhyāna, which most often is translated as ‘meditation.’ It more specifically refers to the entire process of withdrawing the mind from the stimulation of, and reactions to, our sense-impressions, and culminates in a state of full absorption, perfect equanimity, and superlative awareness (samādhi).

Although I was mainly interested in Theravada Buddhism (School of the Elders), which is the oldest school of Buddhist philosophy in the world, I believed that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn directly from the Buddhist monks and nuns practising within the context of a completely different culture. Whereas the Theravada schools are found primarily in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, the main difference is that Theravada relies purely on the teachings and insights revealed through the Pāli Canon, the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in the original Indian language of Pāli. The Mahayana schools developed a little later, and consequently, they look more broadly to the larger collection of Buddhist sutras. As Buddhism traveled Northeast from India, through Tibet, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, the different regions absorbed and integrated some of the local customs into their teachings and practices. 

The time that I spent in China, living and learning directly from these Buddhist adherents was particularly impactful. When I returned home, I was very enthusiastic about incorporating the techniques I had learned during my time there with my already existing yoga practice. Although I had been practicing yoga-asana for a couple of years by this time, I really hadn’t looked much into the philosophy behind the physical practice.

I would meditate each morning for about twenty minutes and then drive to my ashtanga yoga class before continuing to the University where I was still attending classes. As you might imagine, my days were very full. However, during this final year of school, I noticed that my grades were the highest they had ever been, and I wasn’t feeling nearly as stressed out as I normally would.

I started assimilating the Buddhist lifestyle disciplines, in conjunction with the meditation practice I had been taught, which provoked me to look more deeply into the philosophy underpinning the physical asana practice. I discovered many similarities within their guidelines for spiritual discipline. In Buddhist practice, a student must begin by cleansing the patterns of their body, speech and mind; and the same is true in the practice of ashtanga yoga, as described in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali

Where the Haṭha yoga tradition that followed Patañjali’s initial compilation on yoga focuses more energy and attention to developing the physical disciplines of asana and prāṇāyāma, the Buddhist schools have generally put much less emphasis on these types of practices, and directed their interest more towards detailing the specifics on exactly how to perform different meditation techniques. These techniques are designed to concentrate the mind in a one-pointed fashion to encourage deeper states of samādhi (the absorption of mental fluctuations into the flow of pure consciousness).

I sat my first ten-day silent vipassanā course in the lineage of Sri S N Goenka, while traveling through India in 2006, at the Dehradun Vipassanā Centre. I had been practicing ashtanga yoga diligently for six years and had spent eleven months (over a three-year period) practicing in Mysore, India, with Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Paramguru Sharath Jois, both of whom had given me an authorisation to teach their unique approach to asana. Even so, I had the urge to dive deeper again into a seated meditation practice and this ten-day vipassanā course was recommended to me by several other people I knew.

Within the asana practice, I felt I had gone very deep in all kinds of ways: physically, emotionally, mentally, and even from a more subtle point of view, I had a distinct impression that the practice had extensively cleansed my energetic body. I was flexible, strong and light! I had even started practicing Advanced Series and was following an extremely restrictive, sattvic diet. A sattvic diet first and foremost exemplifies the principle of ahiṃsā (non-harming) and favours foods and eating habits that are pure, natural, clean, fresh, balanced, and life-promoting. Nevertheless, I had let go of the meditation routine I had previously established and was curious about what new depths I might immerse myself in, and what unconscious patterns may be unearthed if I were to again sit in the stillness and silence of simply Being.

My first experience of this ten-day vipassanā retreat was deeply profound and transformational. It encompassed ten hours of seated meditation, to be practised in complete stillness and silence each day. Every student is expected to observe “Noble Silence” from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Communicating in any way with other students is prohibited. Even eye contact is not permitted! There is no writing or reading or any other sensory distractions allowed. Even other types of spiritual practices such as yoga āsana, prāṇāyāma, japa (mantra recitation), all forms of prayer, worship, or religious ceremony, including other concentration techniques are to be suspended for the duration of the course. This is for the benefit of the students, so they can experience the true effects of the vipassanā meditation practice in a pure and unadulterated form.

“My first experience of this ten-day vipassanā retreat was deeply profound and transformational. It encompassed ten hours of seated meditation, to be practised in complete stillness and silence each day.” 

Vipassanā is a Pali word that translates as “special seeing” (vi = special and passa = seeing). It is further explained as a way “to see things as they really are” or “insight into the true nature of Reality.” It is a practice for attaining a deeper understanding of our human condition, which is defined by the pillars of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and no-self (anattā), and are often described together as superlative emptiness (suññatā in Pāli or śūnyatā in Sanskrit).

Vipassanā is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, as it is said to have been taught directly by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha upon his experience of the highest Awakening around 2500 years ago. Shortly after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he shared this meditation technique, by which he claimed that everyone could break-free from suffering and end the cycle of birth and death (saṃsāra). He called his teachings the Four Noble Truths (attāri ariyasaccāni), which explain that the innate characteristic of existence is coloured by endless suffering (dukkha), caused by our constant craving, dependence, and therefore, attachment (samudaya) to everything and everyone. The good news is that we can learn to control and eventually eliminate this underlying cause that generates suffering and despair (nirodha) through following the Noble Eightfold Pathway (ariya-aṭṭhaṅgika-magga in Pāli or ārya-aṣṭāṅga-mārga in Sanskrit), which will bring true Awakening to all who diligently practice and live by its accompanying precepts.

“Vipassanā is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, as it is said to have been taught directly by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha upon his experience of the highest Awakening around 2500 years ago.”

This Eightfold Path to enlightenment, according to Buddhist teachings, is known as the Middle Way (Majjhimā-paṭipadā) because it is the way that sits balanced between two extremes: the search for happiness through the overindulgence of our sense organs in a hopeless attempt to enjoy more pleasure and avoid pain; and opposingly, the search for happiness through a complete disregard and denial of the senses, in an effort to foster non-attachment through-provoking discomfort or even anguish in the form of self-mortification and extreme ascetic habits.

Likewise, many students who are dedicated to ashtanga yoga are intimidated by the idea of giving up their physical asana practice for ten consecutive days. I know that I was certainly concerned about not having my regular routine to support myself during this first full immersion. I had a very orthodox practice routine at the time, taking only new and full moon days, Saturdays, and “ladies’ holiday” as days of rest from a very physically demanding sequence, so I was anxious that I would lose my abilities: the strength, the openness, not to mention the consistent rhythm of a regular practice. On the other hand, I was pretty certain this time of inner silence and meditation would alter something very deep for me, and I was excited to see what might happen if I were to completely let go and surrender to the method and technique.

This time period was incredibly challenging. I felt a lot of unprocessed emotions and memories arise to the surface. I watched years of buried thoughts and recollections flashing before the screen of my mind. I witnessed physical sensations turning into mental impressions and similarly, mental patterns, thoughts, emotions or memories turning into physical sensations. It was not an easy undertaking, but upon the completion of those ten days, I had a distinct feeling like my brain had been washed under cold, clear water, and for the first time my mind was truly clean and free from the past.

I can’t say that everyone’s experience would be as profound as mine was during that first retreat; but I am certain that any student who diligently follows the technique, as it is taught, will walk away feeling deeply transformed by the benefits gained from the sincerity of their effort. From time to time, I’ve heard students from various styles of asana systems claim that they don’t need to incorporate any type of silent, seated practice. That there is little benefit to be gained by attempting the Sisyphean task of silencing their mind; and that the asana practice itself is enough of a meditation technique to bestow the same benefits. On the contrary, I would argue that until you have surrendered your attachment to even the asana practice and allowed yourself the time and space to be completely stripped of every mental habit and desire, withdrawing your focus from the constant onslaught of sensory input, you will never truly be able to experience the absolute insanity that simply living a normal life thrusts upon your internal view, warping your perception. In my experience, it takes about three or four days for the mind to regurgitate the bulk of its recent-past impressions, which is why it is so powerful when you stop feeding it with additional external stimulation, and also why it’s important to isolate yourself as much as possible when you set out to deeply excavate your mental impressions. You learn something intensely powerful when you are able to immerse yourself into a silent retreat for a dedicated period of time.

When we look at the Yoga Sūtras, we discover that Patañjali was primarily concerned with a still and upright seated position. Many of the cultural postures practiced today in yoga classes all over the world were not invented until much later. It is true that through the physical practice of asana we are taught to contort and challenge the body and mind as we move in and out of different positions. We are observing sensation and enduring mild suffering to train ourselves to sit with the discomfort and not chase after the purely pleasurable or avoid the painful. It is a rigorous and effective method. We learn to calm the reactive mind and bring it under control, which is a pattern that mirrors a more expansive self-awareness. We condition the body through systematic stretching to be able to sit easily without the restrictions that trigger distress and restlessness. All of this preparation through our consistent asana practice makes sitting for meditation much easier. You can begin practicing the technique immediately without the chronic nagging and aching that will fight for your attention and distract your mind.

“When we look at the Yoga Sūtras, we discover that Patañjali was primarily concerned with a still and upright seated position. Many of the cultural postures practiced today in yoga classes all over the world were not invented until much later.”

In order to achieve a state of meditation (dhyāna) it’s helpful to be well versed in withdrawing the mind-stuff from any distractions conjured up by the senses (pratyāhāra). This process is accompanied by slowing the heart and stilling the breath. In the ashtanga yoga practice, as taught in the lineage of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the practitioner is continuously attempting to yoke the movements of the body and breath together, the heart rate becomes elevated at times, especially when the practice carries with it a lot of intensity or challenge, which is a deterrent to meditation. There are many benefits to be gained by stopping the gross movements of the body and focusing one’s attention on subtler and subtler sensations of awareness. You can have a direct experience of the almost imperceptible movements of energy (prāṇa), the oscillations of the mind (manas), and even of the highest intelligence (vijñāna). At points, one might even encounter the inner light of pure bliss (ānanda). However, for this to occur, the mind must turn in on itself and penetrate these layers through inner observation, and this is most directly achieved when the body is fixed in a single position, unmoving.

One of the most interesting things I was struck with after that initial ten-day course, was the following day, as I awoke to approach my regular practice of asana, I noticed my body felt incredibly light and soft and free from resistance. It was once again a very obvious indicator of how much mental patterning impacted the physical self, and this held equally true for the other way around. I’m not sure that without this practice of vipassanā I would have ever attained the deep level of insight into the mind-body connection that I have been able to directly experience. Those ten days of silent sitting brought more experiential understanding of what yoga truly is and how it works, than the prior six years of dedicated asana.

Ultimately, both are best. The physical practice brings greater health, stability and flexibility to the body and conditions it to be equipped to sit without pain. Consequently, when you sit in the silence and stillness for longer periods of time, the mind can turn inward quickly and come under control. However, this internal technique is also a practice that must be done with regularity. Without ever stopping and attempting to quiet the tumultuous fluctuations and patterns of the unseen mind, it will be very difficult, no matter how many years of asana you have accomplished, to do so with the first effort.

Harmony Slater is a Calgary-based, Certified Ashtanga Yoga Teacher. For her teaching schedules, visit Harmony Ashtanga.

February 18, 2020
Photos Chris McMullan & Russell Case

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