Teaching Meditation and Breathing

         

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How do you teach the art of silence? Since meditation is really a state of being and consciousness, the words we use to describe the state or the techniques leading to it are always a step removed from the phenomenon we are seeking to describe. For this reason, it’s easy to find yourself tangled in words and reaching for descriptions when teaching meditation and breathing practices. Whether teaching advanced classes or beginners the best advice on how to teaching meditation and breathing is to keep it simple. Get comfortable with silence. Let yourself sit a little longer than you’re comfortable, and practice being present with people without words.

Teaching breathing practices is an excellent prelude to teaching meditation because you can actually lead them to a more settled state of mind simply by virtue of the breathing practices, or pranayam, you choose to lead. You might begin with a vigorous mind-clearing practice such as Skull Shining Breath, lead into observation after a set of three rounds, transition to alternate nostril breathing for the calming, balancing and focusing effects, followed with several minutes of breath observation to integrate and become conscious of the effects, and close pranayam with Bumble Bee breath for steadying focus (=concentration) and withdrawing attention from sensory objects.

When teaching meditation, keep your description of the state succinct and to the point: if focus + concentration is good enough for the Sutras, it’s probably a good enough definition for students learning to create the state of consciousness. You might give a brief taxonomy of meditation technique, dividing them into those fostering primarily focus, or those fostering primarily concentration. Focus is defined as ability to rest the attention on a chosen object to the exclusion of others, while concentration is the ability to sustain that focus despite distraction. Meditation techniques are further defined by what sense or senses they use to guide the attention. Some meditation techniques use a visual focus, such as a mandala or a candle flame, while others a sound. The breath is a particularly handy object because it is always available and it yields so much information about the very mind using it as an object.

Breathing practices are a part of even the most Basic yoga classes, while teaching meditation may be reserved for advanced classes or separate gatherings all together. You might introduce elements of meditation to each and every class, planting the seeds for future, more intentional practice.

A wonderful way to start teaching meditation is to introduce your students is to guide them in a visualization during Savasana. After guiding them through the physical cues to set up a maximally releasing Savasana, allow a few minutes of silence. You can then guide them in a visualization in nature representing letting go or perhaps imagining light filling their bodies.  Consult the many recorded meditations available at online stores as well as YouTube and through podcasts. You’ll begin to draw your favorite elements out to create your own distinctive journey.

While these guided visualizations and imagery meditation sessions are more relaxation techniques than meditation proper, introducing them early prepares students to be able to cultivate a settled and relaxed mind. One of the primary obstacles to achieving focus is the tendency towards over-focus or efforting, also known as trying to hard. When they “focus” so hard that their eyebrows scrunch, they’re overly identified with the sensory experience of sight. When working with sight, encourage a soft open focus and move to a different sensory experience if you notice a tendency towards scrunchy face when using visual cues.

Whatever meditation technique you settle on, practice any new or modified method for a minimum of three months before beginning to teach that meditation method. After three months you will likely have encountered at least a bit of each of the obstacles common to learning that method. You will also have stabilized your practice of that method and be able to narrate it for a group of students.

While meditation is formally the art of silence, you will aid your students in attaining and maintaining focus by gentle, periodic verbal cues to return to their object of focus - the breath or whatever experience you are using.  Find the balance between gentle meditation instruction and resting in silence that suits your group. Gradually extend the periods of meditation from 5 to 10, 15 and even 30 minutes as you notice the members of your group able to sustain. Emphasize that meditation practice is never evaluated on the quality of any single session, but rather by the practitioners ability and commitment to showing up for her practice each day.

Teaching meditation and breathing practices in your yoga classes will deepen your students’ understanding of their asana and mat practice, revealing hidden depths they would only intuit by staying in the orbit of bodily motion. Use stillness to lead beyond the poses. 


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