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Yoga Vs. Meditation: Is There A Difference?

philosophy Apr 20, 2020

When we hop into the car, Oli likes to crack the driver’s side window just enough to filter the air. 

When he does this, it produces a slight whistling sound that absolutely drives me crazy. Usually I let it happen for 10 or 15 seconds before politely asking him to close the window. Up until a couple of weeks ago, he thought I was asking him to close the window because I was cold. At this point I mentioned it was actually the whistling noise that I didn’t like. When he heard me say this, he looked over and grinned, “I crack the window because I love the whistle sound!”. 

That sound was so nails-on-a-chalkboard for me that it didn’t even cross my mind that the noise might not bother some people, or that people might actually like it. I started wondering if I could maybe trick my brain into liking it, too. From that point forward, the window cracking sparked a personal experiment for me. Everytime he cracked it open, I watched myself react against it, sparking an internal protest to close the damn thing. Then I reminded myself that my reaction was just one of many, and I began to see that it took just as much mental effort to hate the sound as it took to not mind it. The only difference was that my brain had programmed one preference over the other. 

At this point, you might be wondering what this story has to do with yoga or meditation. I actually think quite a lot. Both yoga and meditation are practices of self-inquiry. Without them, I don’t think I would have the interest or ability to reprogram my mental patterning about the car window. I might have let that whistle be a separating factor or point of contention in my relationship with Oli (as I’ve been known to do in other eras of my life).

For me, yoga and meditation offer similar and complementary benefits that help me keep my perspectives in line. The car window is not an isolated event--there are myriad examples of this across every dimension of my life. Given the choice between stubbornly holding to my mental patterning or learning to flow with life’s current, I want to choose flowing with life’s current whenever the benefits outweigh the risks.

Here’s how yoga and meditation have helped me keep my cool.

Yoga Vs. Meditation: Are They Different From Each Other?

When we talk about yoga and meditation, it’s important to define our terms. Definitions are subjective, so when we listen to others speak about them, it’s best to interpret their message within the context in which they intend to be understood.

Historically and traditionally, yoga refers to a wide range of practices including personal and interpersonal behavior, body movement exercises, breathing techniques and meditative practices. When it was exported from India to the west in the early 1900s, yoga was primarily marketed to the fitness industry which was just beginning to develop at the time. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that most westerners today think of yoga as body movement and not much else. For these reasons, when I talk to friends, family and students about yoga, I am often referring to the physical aspect of it. For me, this is an example of meeting others where they are. 

And because yoga is an umbrella that encompasses so much more than body movement, I’m careful to distinguish it from other forms of exercise by indicating the component of self-inquiry that is involved: Yoga is not just movement for movement’s sake, it’s movement for the sake of deeper understanding, broader acceptance, heightened intelligence and more adapted instincts. I regard my personal yoga practice as a means of becoming a good manager of my body, which is my first job in life.

Just as there are many different ways of understanding yoga, there are equally as many ways of understanding meditation. For some, meditation refers to an activity of silent sitting, either guided by a teacher or not. For others, meditation is a quality of being that can be done during any activity, whether that’s driving a car, peeling an onion, doing the laundry, running a marathon, giving birth, leading a meeting or practicing yoga. Personally, I tend to regard meditation as the latter definition, but I find that when talking with friends, family and students, meditation is often regarded as an activity in its own right. For this reason, I often speak of meditation as the activity of silent sitting, which is something I find quite useful in my daily routine.

In the debate of how to define yoga and meditation, we may conclude that they basically refer to the same thing: a practice of self-inquiry within the context of various life activities; or we might decide that they refer to two completely different activities: a body movement practice versus silent sitting.

Yoga Vs. Meditation: Do They Offer Us Different Things?

Regardless of our personal definitions of these terms, we can unite yoga and meditation by their purpose. Both activities ask the practitioner to engage in the practice of self-inquiry. 

Within the context of a body movement practice, self-inquiry is practiced in several ways:

  • Learning how to read the messaging of our bodily sensations

  • Noticing how we’re making decisions about our movement

  • Becoming aware of the thoughts that arise during different body movements

  • Learning to do physically difficult things with an internal sense of ease

These are skills that pay massive dividends in our daily life. We learn how to move more efficiently and optimally so that we experience less physical pain and discomfort. We learn how to make better decisions about what to do more of and what to do less of. We begin to understand that our thoughts are not the entirety of our human experience, which enables us to be less impacted by their content.

Within the context of silent sitting, self-inquiry is practiced in other ways:

 

  • Stopping the momentum of our thoughts automatically generating behavior

  • Noticing what happens with our thinking when we’re not engaged in a physical or mental activity

  • Cultivating the ability to concentrate in a given moment

  • Practicing not taking the content of our thoughts so seriously

Even five minutes of silent sitting a day can give us tremendous insight into how our mind functions. With this understanding comes better decision making, more focus and more peace of mind. 

Yoga Vs. Meditation: Which One Should We Do?

I personally like to combine my body movement and silent sitting practices. To me, yoga and meditation are intimately intertwined, and I feel strongly about the benefits that I receive from both. My typical routine is to spend 5-10 minutes after my body movement practice sitting silently. If I feel a bit distracted, I may set a timer on my phone, but generally the body movement is enough to calm me down so I don’t feel anxious or fidgety when I go to sit still for a bit.

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