There’s good sitting and bad sitting. I’ve been working on a post for Ladies of Mystery about the bad-for-you sitting that writers have to do and how to counteract it, but here, I’m talking about the good sitting. Meditators often use the word “sit” to mean meditate.
Sitting slows down the activity of the mind—a problem when you’re trying to be creative, a benefit when you’re practicing awareness. After I cool down and stretch at the end of a run, I sit in vajrasana, lightning bolt pose. I initially started doing it to stretch the muscles on the front of my shins and ankles, and realized that it had an effect on my state of mind. After all that movement, after the ever-changing visual input and the flow of creative thought, after the more active stretches, I sit on the ground in stillness. If I’m alone at the end of the trail, it becomes a moment of pure presence. Breeze on skin. Leaves scuttling on dirt. Blue sky. Buttes and mountains across the lake. The sharp shadows of every pebble and rock in the afternoon’s brilliant light as the sun rides low in the sky for the solstice. Sitting. The drop into inner silence.
If I were to get out of my chair now and sit in that same pose, I would have to work to empty my mind. The inner quiet comes naturally after asana practice as well. Moving my body is the prelude to quieting my mind.
Note: The image is an abstract overhead view of a person sitting in meditation. I didn’t see it right away, so I thought I should point it out for anyone else who saw only a blue design.
One of my yoga teachers in New Mexico often mentions the importance of quieting the nervous system. He doesn’t use music in his classes. I teach in places where music is expected, so I use unobtrusive, meditative music, but it’s still background sound, another level of stimulus.
Readers of this blog may have noticed I like to contemplate the effects of power outages. Today there was a brief one at the fitness center at my college. Normally, there are a few fluorescent lights in the group exercise studio that never go off, though I turn off the ones I can. These perma-lights were finally gone. So was the steady blowing of the air conditioning. Its presence has been ceaseless, so I never knew how harsh and persistent it was until it stopped. With plenty of natural light through the windows of a room that had been chilled a little too cool for yoga, the outage was wonderful. The quality of my voice softened. The clarity of my thoughts sharpened. My teaching became more precise, more aware, and I felt a matching shift in the students’ energy. When I stopped talking, there was nothing to be heard at all. Except, perhaps, each student heard his or her own breath.
Overstimulation has a subtle yet pervasive effect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s addictive. There are people who say they have to sleep with a TV on or have one running at all times when they’re home—“for the noise.” That would drive me crazy. I write in as much silence as possible and do my personal yoga practice in silence, too, either outdoors with only the sounds of birds and insects and occasional neighbors’ voices, or indoors in a quiet room. I’ve praised perfect silence in nature before, but today was the first time I’ve experienced the benefits of deep silence in my teaching.
Yoga doesn’t require stimuli that keep our minds bouncing and nerves buzzing. Yes, we can learn to do it in the midst of a barrage of sounds, but when we can choose to be free of them, it’s even better. The yoga sutras begin with a definition of yoga that can be translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”