Most of my early meditation education happened in the shade of a tree. But in place of lotusly postures, I was sprawled, my legs some variety of akimbo. My body was emanating wavy lines in the summer heat, and I was covered in painful yellow cartoon lightning bolts.
I had just experienced my first yoga class. My car was a mile walk up a steep hill, and I was not going to make it.
I wouldn’t meditate in a serious way until a year later when I went to university, but the first day of laying in a destroyed heap was an underline beneath the lesson I would learn over the coming months: breathing mattered.
I don’t typically follow the urge to integrate every interest or hobby into my Buddhist practice: I like my Buddhism on one side and my 70s progressive rock posters on the other. For this reason I’m usually dismissive of people who claim, “my (insert hobby) is my meditation,” for I believe this attitude diminishes both the special benefit of meditation and the nuance of scale-model pirates ships.
That being said, learning yoga was a very important part of my early meditation. When my yoga instructor told us on the first day that breathing was the most important part of yoga, and that breathing improperly would lead to failure, I did not believe him. I struggled and panted, and glared jealousy at the sixty year old women who could do every posture perfectly. By the end of the class my body hurt in brand new ways and places, and I rested under the tree outside the classroom for a good thirty minutes before I attempted the hike back to my car, stopping once along the way.
I had tried meditation before, lazily, with no idea what to do, and made no discernible progress. The consequence of not following the breath in yoga is pain. The consequence of not following the breath in meditation is a murky, muddled mind. While the former is a drastic change, a cloudy mind was all I had ever known. The consequence of bad meditation was that things simply remained the same.
We never learned more postures in class other than those we learned on the first day. In a week I was no longer waiting, wounded, before walking back to my car. In another week I could balance through most postures without the aide of one of those funky foam yoga blocks. I’m sure I had become stronger and more flexible, but the biggest change was finding focus, and finally understanding what it mean when the instructor told us to “breath into” a stretch. And the pain was gone.
When I went to university I began joining weekly meditation sessions with the Buddhist association. It was something I only appreciated in recollection, but I think that my seven weeks of yoga made a great deal of difference. It taught me to know the difference between following the breath and not following the breath, even when I did not yet understand the more subtle distinctions like the difference between a focused mind and an unfocused mind.
It has been years now, and I haven’t done yoga since. My seafoam green yoga mat sits at the back of my closet. It has collected some dust, and the dust sticks to it a bit, just as a good yoga mat should do. I would like to try again some day, if for no other reason than to see what meditation has taught me about yoga.
Photo by mosabua.