By Torbjørn Hobbel
In recent decades the interest in body yoga has increased enormously all over the world. In much the same way as the word “meditation” may refer to many different techniques that vary significantly both in method and results, the word “yoga” can also designate many different things.
In order to get a clearer view of the complicated yoga landscape, it may be useful to examine basic differences in how one practises yoga, and the framework within which one understands this practice. Acem’s central focus is on meditation, and a basic parameter is therefore to what extent various forms of yoga are conducive to meditative practice. These are issues it may be useful to consider if one wishes to combine Acem Meditation and yoga in a mutually complementary way.
Meditation – between concentration and the free mental attitude
Acem has described fundamental differences between various meditation techniques in publications such as Acem Meditation: An Introductory Companion [Acem Publishing 2007]. The mental attitude towards the meditation object, and how the spontaneous activity of the mind is dealt with, are core issues. The basic principle of Acem Meditation is the repetition of the meditation sound with a free mental attitude, while thoughts are allowed to come and go as they will. Such a method may be described as a non-directed method. On the other side of the spectrum lie concentration techniques, or directed methods, in which control of the stream of thought and concentration on the meditation object are essential.
There are major differences between the methods for practising these techniques, but even more important are the consequences that these differences have for the effects of meditation. Recent scientific research indicates that non-directed methods cause clear physiological changes and thereby lead to significant results for health and the reduction of tension.
What about physical training?
There are good reasons to believe that different forms of physical training may also have different effects both physically and mentally. Archery is not body building, hiking is not sprinting, ballet is not ice hockey. Our part of the world lacks a tradition of using physical training for meditative purposes. We tend to participate in sports because it is good for the mind and body, and perhaps in order to compete with others and improve. For some people the social aspect of sports is most important. These are all very good reasons to exercise, and are important for health and well being. With the introduction of some of the eastern body traditions in the western part of the world, the idea of using bodily exercise for meditative purposes has become more familiar to westerners. This applies not least to yoga.
Twenty to thirty years ago, if you were interested in yoga, you were almost automatically also interested in meditation. This may still be the case to some extent, but nowadays the connection is less pronounced – probably due to a shift in cultural understanding.
In Norway, Acem School of Yoga (Norwegian: Norsk Yoga-skole) has offered the longest continuing yoga instruction of all the yoga schools. Thousands of people have followed the school’s courses throughout the world since it began in 1968. Over these years major changes have taken place in how yoga is commonly perceived. On an ideological level, the shift of yoga away from a meditative context is perhaps the most striking change.
For Acem School of Yoga, the connection between Acem Meditation and yoga remains central. Its teachings continue to emphasise a meditative dimension in addition to all of the benefits that yoga has for one’s health and well being.
The most important principle is that the stretching in the exercises is to be undertaken with unconstrained ease.
Yoga as a support for meditation
We do not have scope in this article to expand on what meditative yoga is. The forthcoming book Meditative Yoga: Integrating Body, Breath and Mind (Norwegian: Yogaboken. Bevegelse og pust) provides a practical introduction to how to perform this type of yoga. The most important principle is that the stretching in the exercises is undertaken with unforced ease; a kind of bodily correlate to the open-minded repetition of the meditation sound in Acem Meditation. The coordination of movement and free breathing is also central.
In the classic book The Relaxation Response (1975), Herbert Benson described the common phenomenon that when we are subjected to special kinds of stimuli, we automatically relax. It may be a beautiful view, kind words from a loved one, music or art. The experience also casts light on the effect of the unconstrained repetition of the meditation sound in Acem Meditation. When meditation is practised in a non-directed way, the whole organism relaxes spontaneously, both the body and mind.
Based on this understanding of the relaxation response, we can say that yoga performed in an unforced way creates a spontaneous impulse towards meditative deepening. This gradually builds up during the yoga sequence and is most marked when all of the exercises have been completed. In meditative yoga, the corpse pose (sava asana), in which one lies on one’s back at the end of the yoga session without doing anything other than allowing one’s thoughts to roam freely, is regarded as the most important exercise.
Lying on one’s back will always provide rest, but a clear meditative effect is only present after a sequence of yoga exercises that brings out what has been built up.
If one practises Acem Meditation after a yoga session performed in accordance with the principles of the free mental attitude, one simply meditates better. The meditation becomes deeper and is less disturbed by bodily residue and tension.
There are grounds for situating this kind of yoga within the classic yoga tradition originating in India.
As we shall see in Meditative Yoga, much of the yoga that is taught today can hardly be called classic yoga, and is not particularly meditative. Forms of yoga that originated in southern India represent a synthesis of Indian yoga, gymnastics, martial arts and western physical training. An important inspiration has been English military drill, which in turn was inspired by Swedish and Danish gym teachers in the beginning of the 1900s. More and more people criticise what we may call gym-yoga (see end note), and argue that this form of training has been inserted into a context in which it does not belong. Difficult yoga asanas (body exercises) may take years to master, and some practitioners become obsessed with achieving technical perfection. On the internet and in various yoga books and magazines, one finds yoga models with bodies that resemble those of athletes, acrobats, gymnasts and professional dancers rather than us normal mortals.
The relationship between physical training and meditation
Wholly physical training, without any thought of achieving meditative effects, can of course be beneficial for health and well being. Our point is not primarily that some kinds of activity are good and some bad. Rather, we are interested in the interaction between various types of physical training and quiet meditation. Defendants of gym-yoga might argue that it is perfectly in order for yoga to be treated as purely physical training, a kind of modern stretching exercise. However, those looking for a form of yoga that can be used to support meditation may not find gym-yoga at all effective, especially if the exercises are not practised with sensitivity and unconstrained awareness.
A run is good for you, but immediately afterwards the body is not attuned to meditation; it may be advisable to let some time pass before you sit down to meditate. After a sequence of calm yoga exercises, on the other hand, the body is more than ready for the bodily deepening that Acem Meditation releases. This kind of yoga is a direct aid to better meditation. At retreats where one meditates a great deal and for longer stretches of time, meditative yoga can be an especially valuable help and support for an inner deepening process.
On top of all this, the beneficial effects of meditative yoga can be present throughout our daily lives. It is a form of training that suits all bodies at all ages.
Translated by Eirik Jensen
A growing body of literature examines inaccurate claims that have been made for certain types of yoga. Recent articles on the subject include:
• “The real roots of yoga” (Wendy Doniger, Sunday Times Literary Supplement, 2 March 2011)
• “Yoga. Not as old as you think” (Meera Nanda, Open (Indian magazine), 21 February 2011)