Just this month alone, several senior long term meditators that I know have to undergone surgery due to musculoskeletal issues. It turns out, there are plenty of others who have been suffering quite significant pain related issue from long term meditation practice.
For years, I have been advocating the practice of Yoga and Meditation for its amazing mental, emotional, physical and spiritual benefits. Anyone who has practiced Yoga and Meditation for a while can enumerate a list of benefits but that is not my focus in this write-up.
My focus is practical and it zeroes in on what science tells us about the working of the mind and body. I mean no disrespect to the Buddhist tradition or to the spiritual Gurus that embrace the big picture.
My observation on this two groups of practitioners from Yoga body works and meditators and their long term destiny has prompted me to change my own routine so as to handle these 2 practices with much greater care and I hope you benefit too.
Meditation without Yoga is painful
I see meditators in greater risk of sitting disease comparing to long hours’ office workers. Both are equally people who spend a huge amount of their waking hours sitting, each sits to serve different purpose.
Just last week, I had my usual Catalist session with a group of office workers and usually we would end the session with a sitting mindfulness practice. What really caught my attention was the fact that 2 participants having the same reaction to sitting. Both of them responded having numbness on one leg while sitting.
Then I asked “so, what did you do when you experience the numbness” and the first one answered “I made some movement so that it wouldn’t increase the intensity of numbness” and the other answered “I stayed with numbness, it failed to disturb my sitting practice”.
It kept me curious for a while and I asked “Have you been practicing meditation regularly” and he said “yes, how do you know?”.
Is the language familiar? As a long term meditator, we are not exposed to vulnerability of stress-worsened condition such as hypertension or depression. Scientifically, for common people, our brain’s executive center, located behind the forehead in our prefrontal cortex gives us a unique ability to anticipate the future and guard against danger but have its downside disadvantage of worrying about it as well as thinking about the past and regret. Meditators are trained to have a mind undisturbed by such mental process.
In meditation, we use our mind to direct attention to the body. For example, a common way to begin meditation, we can rest attention in our breathing. And after some times, the body responds, our heart rate begins to change, our breath becomes calmer and even our facial expression releases its mighty grip.
If we sit long enough, even our perception of physical form can change, the body felt sense can change. Perhaps our head feels like they are in space, our limbs feel like they are a great distance away from us or we feel them disappearing, certain parts feel bigger than usual.
Through this mind attention focus, we can distort our perception of the physical body, the boundary of our body can blur as we sit in meditation.
In a very popular meditation technique known to many as Goenka method, we are taught over 10 days, 8 hours sitting a day to systematically scan the body sensations from head to toe repeatedly and you only focus on bare bodily sensations. The session would include several one hour of sitting where the students are not allowed to make a single voluntary movement and only movement generated from breath are allowed.
These immobile sessions usually produce a level of pain many term it as unbearable and in many such practice, practitioners would continue to scan through the body and respond shortly afterward that pain dissolved into pure sensation that doesn’t contain “disturbing” element anymore.
The practice certainly blurs the intense signal from the body for a while during the practice, the moment they come out from meditation, the edges of the body are reconstructed again and the pain will appear more vividly during non-practice session which then, can be a real pain issue.
In intensive meditation practice, we can train to stimulate the nervous system and send altered perception to the brain to cope with pain, but we cannot escape from the real working of gravity against the body. Your pain is the proof that gravity is operating whether you believe or not.
There is the reason why Patanjali who 2000 years ago compiled Yoga Sutra and listed leaning to sit with ease and comfort as one of the essential paths a Yogi must develop.
Anything can happen in meditation, you see images, you feel certain feelings, sensations. If the feeling is pain, numbness or even non-obvious feeling arises, there may be confusion concerning what and why causes it. If there is no logical scientific understanding for that experience, your meditation practice may affect the clarity of experience. Many practitioners that are ignoring obvious body signals actually run the risk of compressing sciatic nerve, herniated disc, degeneration of disc, even raptured disc and nerve damage due to prolonged compression of nerves.
Their risk is greater because they could tolerate the symptoms while the regular office desk warriors would actually move their body to other position to space out the compressed nerve.
Meditation should not be an activity where you cushion your slump posture from one hour to the next ignoring your spinal alignment while ferociously influence your mind that your body doesn’t exist and the excruciating pain down your leg is not real.
It comes as no surprise that someone once said “Sitting meditation is a criminal activity”.
However, having said that, on the other end, Yoga Without Meditation is fitness without wisdom.
Assuming we are talking about the right group of Yoga practitioners that are not running the risk of sustaining Yoga injuries.
Yoga practitioners know about the energetic connection between the physical tension and gravity. They understand how tension trapped in the distorted shape of the spine need to be released. They know that balance and stability in the seat are maximised when the body weight passes through the vertebrae in its optimum as close to gravity line as possible.
I often say, but it bears repeating, that Yoga is not meditation.
Just like regular Yoga practice gives you better physical fitness, meditation will enhance mental fitness to some degree. Scientists claim that meditation thickens the brain’s prefrontal cortex which shrinking the amygdala, the trigger for our freeze-fight-flight response.
Meditation, even for beginner meditator will shift our brain’s set point for emotions into a more positive range.
The inner upgrade that is made available for meditators seldom benefit Yoga practitioners. In posture practice, after the high on the mat goes, you are still the same schmuck you were before. You are still stuck in your monkey drama running through your head, your mother in law is still as irritating as ever, you still hate most people on this Earth except your daughter, you still couldn’t pay your bills.
Against the common beliefs, Yoga practitioners haven’t really learned how to meditate because their own Yoga Teachers simply don’t meditate or do not have proper knowledge on meditation practice, even they self-proclaimed they do.
Well, it is always nice to hear when any teacher teaches you that you are in meditation when you are doing your Yoga postures. It’s a common misunderstanding and if both posture and meditation equal to the same thing, then most teachers that can perform Yoga better than you must therefore be happier than you.
But this is far from the truth, they could be more depressed or insecure than you are in actual fact.
Meditation is another profound teaching which need to be guided by a qualified instructor who has many years of going inward in mind from a deep inner exploration. Life is too short to be a master of both.
In seeking a form that unites these two worlds, I found a workable blend. CATalist two major works, BodySolution (inspired by CAT) and MindSolution (inspired by MBCT) could not be further apart, but each in their own way, seriously and thoroughly, approaches the problem of body-mind tension.
What I am suggesting is an approach in working with ourselves that includes the whole person having a body and mind. I have had my struggle for decades in my own Yoga and Meditation practice and my struggle has helped me more clearly understand what I do and what I think is important.
Be it as it may, to me, the benefits of Yoga and Meditation practice unquestionably outweigh the risks. The discipline if balanced does more good than harm. If you are stranded in pain or stress despite regular practice, you know you are not alone.