Meditation does not have to mean clearing your mind of all thoughts. There are many other techniques, often involving an object of focus to which you bring all of your attention.
The object of focus tends to fall under one of the following categories.
Observing your natural pattern of breathing.
Examples include candle gazing (trāṭaka), listening to sounds (gongs, nature, etc.) or songs.
This means focusing your attention on a concept such as metta (loving-kindess), peace or God.
Mindfully carry out some body movement such as tai chi or walking.
Silently or aloud, you repeat a word, phrase or prayer over and over again,
e.g. Om, The Hail Mary.
Focusing on something you feel. A body scan is an example of this; starting from the toes, bring your awareness to the sensations of different body parts, slowly working your way up to the head.
Many believe that we can manifest success in life by visualising whatever it is we want to achieve. A sportsperson may practice visualisation meditation the night before a competition where they visualise themselves winning.
Another example is imagery therapy: this attempts to train the subconscious mind to encourage the body to heal some mental or physical injury.
You can bring your attention to the object yourself, or use a guided meditation soundtrack to help you focus.
During your meditation, thoughts will inevitably distract you from the object of focus. This is not a failure, in fact it is a small ‘win’ every time you notice that your attention has wandered. The correct reaction is to observe the thought and then let it go. A helpful analogy is your mind being the sky and your thoughts being clouds. You can see them but allow them to drift on by.
With consistent practice, you may start to notice a pattern that your thoughts follow. You realise that it is just the nature of the mind to repeatedly generate thoughts, that they are impermanent and will always be coming and going like tides. The more this is understood, the easier it is to not engage in or attach to the thoughts.
Another notable type of meditation is Vipassana, which means “to observe reality as it is”. This technique is less about training the brain to concentrate on one object, but instead observes everything happening internally and externally without judgement. The full benefits of Vipassana can be reaped by practicing it during a silent ten-day course.
How does this relate to yoga?
Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation) are the 6th and 7th limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga.
When we make a proper effort to concentrate on an object (Dharana), we gradually become “absorbed” in it, leading us nicely into Dhyana where we achieve oneness between the self and the object of focus.
Asana and Pranayama (the 3rd and 4th limbs) were created as methods to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Asana these days is associated with the hundreds of elaborate Yoga poses, but originally it only referred to a couple of seated postures- Asasna actually translates to “seat”!
If you’re not sure whether it’s worth trying any of these techniques, the following video might help you to decide. Remember that the key is consistency; two short sessions per day is much more beneficial than an hour once a week.