I started meditating about a year ago. I was pretty consistent for about 4-5 months and then kind of lost the momentum. I picked it back up in December and have been doing it pretty much daily since then.
Discussions with a like-minded friend led to some deeper research on the topic. This led me to the website, techniques and writing of Yogani on AYPsite.org (Advanced Yoga Practices) and I really liked what I found there. I decided to give the techniques offered there a try, and this is my 30 day recap on my experience so far.
Some History: Beginner’s Mindfulness
Prior to AYP, I was practicing a mindfulness based technique which centered around focusing on the breath. The basic idea is to bring your awareness into the present instead of dwelling on the past or the future. I used the popular meditation app Headspace when I first got started. While I liked the app quite a bit and found it very helpful to get started, I wanted something more “portable” and not reliant on an app.
This led me to the book Mindfulness in Plain English. The author comes from a Vipassana technique, which is a mindfulness/breath-focus technique. I really liked that book, and it was true to the “plain English” in the title. It renewed my interest in meditation. My technique remained the same, which was 15 minutes of breath counting meditation. About a month or so after reading MiPE, I had the conversation I mentioned above which led me to AYP.
Advanced Yoga Practices (AYP)
What I liked about AYP was again the “plain English” approach. Both authors also freely distributed the basic info of their instructions online, which seemed more genuine to the spirit of meditation (or at least the claims of practitioners).
AYP differs from a breath focused technique in that it uses a mantra. Contrary to common belief, mantras are not spoken out loud, only voiced silently in the mind. AYP also had another aspect that I really gravitated towards, and that was the explanation of the role of meditation in the larger scope of yoga. While most associate yoga with the poses (also known as ‘asanas’), those are but one of the eight “limbs” (or “aspects” or “subsections”) of yoga. Meditation is yet another. So meditation is a form of yoga, something I was not aware of. According to AYP, no one limb is better than another, and in fact it claims that different people will be drawn to different limbs to start with, but those that stick around eventually incorporate the others limbs into their routine.
This scope and setting really resonated with me. I especially liked the emphasis on direct experience throughout the lessons. Let’s be honest, meditation and yoga can seem a bit weird to the outside observer. It can seem a bit weird to someone practicing it too! Promises of direct experiences that do not require any belief in anything appeal to me. That’s science: apply the principles, see results. I read all the available online lessons at AYPsite.org, and eventually picked up the three “beginner” e-books offered by Yogani. One of the aspects of the “open source” nature of the AYP lessons was the inclusion of some formerly “secret” techniques of traditional meditation and yoga. Some of these were quite odd to me, while others put some of the other practices like the cross-legged sitting position into a functional context. I liked this a lot, at the least for feeling like I was being admitted to some sort of “inner sanctum” of information. I’ve always had a fascination with esoteric topics anyways.
A Misconception About Sitting
Speaking of sitting cross-legged, this is not something you are required to do (you can meditate in a chair or on the couch, and being comfortable is more than OK). And the pretzel-legged yogis you’ve seen photos of are performing a very specific advanced technique that just looks exotic for the camera. Your standard Kindergarten cross-legged pose will do fine here. Personally, I sit cross-legged on the bed with a few pillows propping up my back, and my palms resting where they fall naturally on my thighs.
So, with that background out of the way, I’ll dig into my thoughts on the AYP technique after my first 30 days.
The Basic Technique
AYP suggests a twice-daily session, before the morning and evening meals, for 20 minutes each. The technique is simple: mentally voice the mantra, but not in a fast or fixed-interval manner. Instead, you repeat it at a casual interval. If you find your mind off in thoughts, that is fine. You just gently go back to the mantra when you notice your mind has wandered. A wandering mind is OK: your goal is not to empty your mind (another misconception I held). Rather, the goal is to notice the thoughts but not get fixated on them. If you have a lot, fine. If they get less and less, fine. When you find yourself lost in a thought, just “easily return to the mantra” as Yogani says.
I’ll say this right off the bat: I’ve had no “mystical” experiences during meditation. I’ve seen nothing with my eyes closed out of the ordinary. No cosmic connection to the universe. No otherworldly visions. I made a note to my friend that I thought the first “goal” of meditation was probably to get rid of all your expectations about meditation. I think I may still be doing that.
One of the things that AYP emphasizes is that your aim in meditation is not to have any experiences while you are meditating (in fact they are considered roadblocks and distractions), but instead to affect a change in your daily life in between your meditation sessions. Ideally you will slowly see a calmness and a peace come into your daily life during everyday activities. I have to say that I feel as if I’ve noticed this happening. One of the most noticeable changes is I find myself much less judgmental as of late.
Meditation, Depression and Rumination
With a blog titled “The Overthinker”, it should be obvious that I have a mind that doesn’t like to quiet down. Sometimes that can be a real pain. So my surprise to find my mind being less chaotic was a welcome one. In fact, one of the instigating factors in starting up meditation were the increasing episodes of clinical depression I’ve been experiencing over the last five years. Meditation has been shown to help with this, and in particular with the rumination one does while depressed which can cause one to spiral deeper. Rumination can also trigger an episode of clinical depression.
One of the reasons for my gap in daily meditation last year was an episode of depression that came up after I had been feeling great for a few months. I thought the combination of exercise, meditation and healthier eating had paid off. The depression relapse really deflated me and I basically gave up on meditation and exercise for a while. I was disillusioned and frustrated. Being depressed didn’t help much either!
I believe that was also a factor in searching out a new meditation technique as well. While mindfulness helped, it never really felt like it was doing anything outside the sessions, at least not dramatically. But the AYP mantra technique was different. Perhaps my resolve to stick to it this time played a factor, but relatively quickly I felt a peace entering my life. Perhaps the earlier sessions laid the groundwork though. I’m not writing it off, I just connected with the AYP techniques much more strongly for some reason.
It’s Not All Positive
I’m not going to say it has all been positive. I’ve had a few angry outbursts, moments of jealousy and impatience. Plenty of my negative traits were still lurking. But the difference was that I was no longer dwelling on them. In the past it was easy for these to consume me for hours or days. Lately I find myself able to let them go within minutes. It’s all very subtle, but I really feel less attached to outcomes. I’m less concerned with many things that in the past might consume my thoughts.
I’ve had plenty of doubt along the way as well, both with the AYP techniques as well as with meditation in general. Often you will feel as if nothing is happening, and that you’re being silly giving this any serious consideration. The lack of tangible and dramatic progress (at least for me) can be discouraging, especially if your mood is already a bit on the negative side.
Stay On Target
But my goal is to follow the techniques as described for a minimum of one year in order to give them a fair chance. I learned a valuable lesson when I was teaching myself guitar years ago. After months of diligent daily practice, not only did I see no improvement but I actually felt as if I was getting worse. I put down the guitar in frustration. Not being one to give up, I picked the guitar back up two months later. To my amazement, I was playing scales like I had known how my entire life. It was definitely a Karate Kid “wax on, wax off” experience. I learned then that progress may not always be visible, and that established techniques might be working on a level beyond conscious awareness. The ancient legacy of meditation made it easy for me to lower expectations for immediate success in light of the guitar experience. My question is how the originators of these techniques figured this stuff out without anyone having gone before, and no one’s word to take that the time was being spent wisely.
I have had some “energy” experiences in a few sessions where my mind and body were both especially quiet. I’m a pretty skeptical person, so I don’t believe I was seeing what I wanted to see. But that could be the case. That said, one session about two weeks in I had a distinct feeling of a pulsing energy in my body. Here are the notes I took right afterwards:
Right towards the end of a long series of distracting thoughts and vague imagery, my hands and fingers began to feel like they were filled with helium and had a field or gel of energy around them. They wanted to rise. The energy began to spread and my entire body and mind just became very still, felt light. I was barely aware of my body at all for periods of time. The energy was very subtle. At one point I could feel it pulsing and swirling around my face and lips. It felt at one point like to was rotating from a point centered on my chest, but the field was large and diffused. It was like a spring breeze, nothing strong. A deep calm. I didn’t want to end it but realized I couldn’t just sit here forever and opened my eyes. The feeling persisted and I went with it for a few more minutes. It was not exhausting, but a bit energizing. Although now that I’m no longer focusing on it it feels a bit tiring. It could have just been heightened awareness, but it was definitely something that felt like it was happening to me. Seemed to have a life of its own. All positive and very peaceful, even if a bit weird and unexpected.
I’ve not had that happen since. It was pretty intense and at the same time gentle and subtle. I did not feel like I was just reading into the experience.
I’ve also had a few experiences with what I’ve learned is called “automatic yoga”. It seems sometimes during meditation the body can contort into poses (asanas) that one might later on consciously choose to employ. The claim is that these poses are actually a sort of “tool” and are in no way arbitrary. They are designed to control and focus the body’s energy. Sometimes this energy just goes there on its own and the body follows along. I did not know this this first time it happened so there was no way for me to be acting out something I had read.
In my case, my jaw started to quiver and had lots of nervous energy. My mouth then opened as wide as possible and then my head began pulling back, slowly, as if I was looking up high in the sky. It pulled back very far, as far as it could physically go but it was actually a bit uncomfortable and I was worried I might get a cramp (or worse) so I slowly brought it back to a normal position. But I could feel the body (or this energy) “wanting” to be in that position. It’s a bit spooky to be honest. This has happened 3-4 times.
Out With The New?
Other than that, my meditation sessions are uneventful for the most part. Sometimes they end with a sense of deep peace, calm and relaxation. Other times they are disappointing, boring or feel like a waste of time. But slowly, I sense a growing calm in my everyday life. It’s tough to explain. It’s almost like I am shedding some heavy clothing. I’m not changing into someone new, but getting rid of crap that I’ve taken on over the years. Like the “me” I’ve been lately wasn’t really me, and I am returning to the real version.
It’s not some cosmic thing either, it’s very matter of fact. Like when I went to visit my mom in Florida earlier this year. It was 19° here at home, and 70° down there. I didn’t freak out at the temperature difference, and in fact I realized (even more so when I returned home) that I’ve just slowly come to accept cold gloomy weather as a fact, but that is only true from a limited geographical perspective. After just a few days in Florida I came to accept that as the “real” weather. So the same for my “real me” experience. It was more of just a mental geographic shift as opposed to a transformation.
Open Source, Open Mind
I’m glad I took on the AYP techniques. I feel as if I’m getting more out of them than I was with Vipassana. I like how the lessons are framed within the larger scope of yoga. I especially like the “open source” nature of the lessons. While I can see how some of the advanced techniques I am nowhere near ready to incorporate may be very odd-sounding to others, for me it’s a sign of trust and a reassurance that nothing is being held back. For a practice that asks for a considerable investment of your time and quite a bit of faith in the techniques, I want to know where I am headed. The honesty makes me much more comfortable that I’ve made a wise choice.
On to the next 30 days.