Recently, I’ve made a more consistent effort toward a formal meditation practice. It’s only taken me the better part of a decade to reach this point. When I reflect on this I’m reminded of the oft repeated cliche that life is a journey and not a destination. The same is true for one’s yoga practice.

Anything remotely resembling meditation when I first began practicing Ashtanga yoga was mentally and emotionally excruciating for me. The asana practice alone could bring forth emotional upheaval, and I often spent Savasana counting the ceiling tiles in the studio. The first time I practiced nadi sodhana with retentions on both the inhalation and the exhalation I thought I was going to explode from the anxiety.

While asana practice came fairly easy to me from the beginning, anything beyond the most basic pranayama exercises and any type of meditation at all did not. Coming to terms with these truths about myself – that my mind was essentially the equivalent to a full grown chimpanzee trapped in a canary’s cage – made me feel horribly inadequate.

Simultaneously, it brought to me the realization that a lot of the things I was experiencing off the mat could be approached, dealt with and remedied on the mat. I was comforted to know that the ancient yogis recognized that ignorance,  mental chaos and a lack of breath awareness are common aspects of human nature. Because they  knew that human beings are in different stages of life and awareness, they laid out a map for yoga practice neatly divided into eight limbs.

As I studied and familiarized myself with these stages of yoga, I realized I was but a mere babe!  I was at the beginning. It was okay for me to be where I was. X marked the spot! Suddenly I saw the “you are here” sign and the path laid out before me. Yama, niyama, asana! In these aspects I would place my study, and I would believe, hold strong, have faith that the rest would come. The map was in my hands, and it even had a nifty tools section to help me progress.

Sri K Pattabhi Jois is often quoted saying as much, “do your practice and all is coming.”

Essentially, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and change doesn’t happen overnight.

It makes an enormous amount of sense that so many people find their way to a deeper yoga practice by first committing to a merely physical one. Maybe you came to yoga class because you wanted toned arms, a flatter belly or a firmer butt. Maybe you wanted to blow off some steam, learn to relax or gain greater range of motion in your joints. Personally, I wanted to learn to stand on my head. Regardless, we keep coming back, because we feel so good after class and we carry that feeling out into the rest of our lives. It’s a brilliant system. It’s moving meditation, and it lays the foundation for something bigger and better when/if we’re ready for it. In the meantime, we have to allow ourselves to be, accept and enjoy where we are in the journey.

I have made some progress from where I first began. Not so much in the ‘leaps and bounds’ sense of progress, but more in the ‘two steps forward one step back’ sense. Where I was once extremely frustrated and uncomfortable in a seated meditation practice, because I found myself – my mind- that unbearable; now I can at least sit with and accept myself – my mind – as it is. And, my mind is a lot like the junk drawer in my kitchen that I recently cleaned out.

Before I reach any sort of productive, singular meditative experience, I find I have to sort through a lot of useless, irrelevant dialogue with myself…what am i hungry for after this…my foot is falling asleep…what am i going to do about this dog i found?…should i take up drum lessons again?…why is the relationship with X so challenging right now?…i should write a blog about this…where are all these random thoughts coming from?…who’s in control here?…and so it goes for about the first 10-15 minutes.

When I first began to meditate, this constant churning out of random thoughts, or citta vritti, was maddening. I had no idea how to deal with it. Along the way I’ve received a lot of advice, suggestions and guidance, but the truth is that it takes time to process others’ input and learn how to utilize it. Meditation is like anything else one’s learning how to do…practice makes perfect.

Not too long ago a friend of mine shared a meditation technique he picked up years ago and uses to this day. He says he think of himself as the sheriff of a town in the Old West. Sittin’ on the porch, leanin’ back in his chair, feet propped up on the railin’. He’s looking out at the passers-by, watching the folks and new comers a comin’ and a goin’. He’s just keepin’ an eye on things as they are.

It’s funny how detailed instructions can prove useless as compared to how clearly a funny analogy can communicate an idea. As of now, in my meditation practice I’m the sheriff of my own mental junk drawer. I watch the random, irrelevant thoughts pass by. Eventually things quiet down and appear more ordered. It’s not perfectly singular and it’s certainly not samadhi, but I’m comfortable and that’s progress.