What’s the hardest part of your yoga practice?
For me, it often hasn’t been the arm balancing or fancy postures but rather the introspective parts of practice, namely, meditation.
Part of the challenge I’ve had with meditation is that it’s often taught using esoteric and unaccessible terminology. Cues like “find your center” and “journey inwards,” while helpful, never provided enough clarity for me to maintain a meditative focus for an extended period of time.
It wasn’t until I read The Mind Illuminated by Jeremy Graves, John Yates, and Matthew Immergut, that I started to better understand meditation as an exercise with concrete objectives and a specific approach. If you’re looking to deepen your meditation practice, I would highly recommend giving it a read.
For now, I’d like to present one simple tool from the book that I’ve recently integrated into my yoga classes, which is called The Four-Part Entry into Meditation.
In The Mind Illuminated, Dr. Graves describes this approach as a way of wading into a meditation practice as you would wade into a pool, slowly and methodically guiding yourself into a place of quiet focus.
The process is based on the underlying idea that we have two different types of attention. The first is focused attention. This is what allows us to selectively isolate a specific thing or idea and break it down in our minds to better understand it. This is what we typically think of when we say “attention”.
The second type is peripheral awareness. This is the attention we pay to the constantly present body of thoughts and ideas that exist within the background of our minds. As opposed to our focused attention, which isolates a thought, our peripheral awareness contextualizes and creates connections between different thoughts and ideas.
In this sense, mindfulness can be seen as the perfect balance between our focused and peripheral awareness. A place where we’re simultaneously able to concentrate while also maintaining perspective. This type of mindfulness allows us to gain insight into ourselves and the world around us.
In The Four-Part Entry into Meditation, we intentionally shift from peripheral awareness to focused attention, allowing us to see and understand each mental state. So, here’s how it goes:
Part 1: External Awareness
Find a comfortable seat, close the eyes, and begin to tune into the breath. Then, allow your awareness to expand into the room around you. Listen to any sounds you may hear, feel the temperature of the air in the room, and cultivate a sense of presence within your physical space. In this part, the objective is to simply be present and passively aware of all the various aspects of your environment.
Part 2: Bodily Awareness
Next, bring the focus inwards to the body. Notice any areas of tightness or discomfort. Feel the posture and alignment of the limbs. Here, we’re still maintaining a more general state of peripheral awareness, however we’re limiting the number of things in the periphery (from everything in our environment to only the physical sensation in the body).
Part 3: Breath Awareness
Next, move one more step towards focusing the attention by becoming aware of the sensation of the breath. Feel the air entering the nostrils on the inhale, its temperature within the lungs, the rise of the chest and expansion of the stomach. Notice if there’s a slight rush to the head as oxygen enters the lungs. Notice how these sensations change on the exhale.
Part 4: Focused Attention on a Meditation Object.
Lastly, bring your focus to one singular object. Two common choices are either the cool sensation at the tip of the nose as air enters the nostrils, or the rise and fall of the stomach as the diaphragm contracts downward on the inhale. This is the most focused type of attention in this four-part entry, and can be maintained for as long as the practitioner wishes to continue their meditation.
How to use this in a yoga class
In my classes, I’ve enjoyed teaching this entry into meditation because it encourages students to think about how they maintain their awareness throughout their practice. For example, as we adjust our front knee in Warrior II, we may fall out of alignment in our back foot. Maintaining both a focused and peripheral awareness can avoid this by teaching us to move more mindfully.
To use this as a theme, I would begin by quickly discussing the idea of focused attention and peripheral awareness during your introduction. Then ask the students to find a comfortable posture for meditation and cue them through each of the four parts. During Part 4, you may also ask them to begin counting their breath for 5-10 slow, deep breaths. Afterwards, ask them to open their eyes and move into the movement portion of the class.
During class, you may encourage students to reflect on the state of their attention. Prompt them to think about what they’re focusing on, what they’re remaining aware of, and what distractions may be pulling them away from the practice.
As you close, you may wish to do another short or longer meditation. Otherwise, you can let students know that this is a great tool they can use to enter into meditation in their own time.