In classical yogic tradition, asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Historically, asana was used in tandem with pranayama (breath exercises), and pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) to prepare the mind for dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in order to achieve Samadhi, or yogic bliss. Inhabitants of the Western world, however, are relatively unused to these practices, and may find sitting meditation difficult. One way to overcome this problem is to use focus practices more in tune with Western culture, in effect blending the best of both Eastern and Western philosophy. One such focus practice is the use of a labyrinth.
A labyrinth can be described as a physical or virtual twisting path that curves back and forth over a space while meandering to the center of the structure. While the word ‘labyrinth’ comes from different structures found in ancient Greece, the idea of the labyrinth is universal and have no specific originating tradition. In Europe, labyrinths were sometimes formed inside of cathedrals, with the configuration at Chartres Cathedral in France being one of the more famous examples. Recently, the idea of using a labyrinth to quiet and focus the mind has seen a resurgence of popularity, and versions can now be found in many places of worship and meditation. There are even paper and virtual labyrinths for the seeker who wants to use this type of practice at home.
In San Francisco, Grace Cathedral has of late begun offering yoga classes on the labyrinth. With a sliding scale fee, these classes are popular with participants of all religions, or of none. What all practitioners have in common is a love of yoga and a desire to experience dhyana, albeit in a way different from either moving through a meandering structure or practicing traditional yogic visualizations.
Using a labyrinth for meditation can be thought of as a form of trataka, or fixed gazing, as a method of walking meditation, or as both. Finding a labyrinth to walk has become easier, as the Labyrinth Society now maintains a searchable online list of sites. While walking the construction, focus the mind on the movement of the body, or perhaps on a spiritual idea you wish to make part of your meditation. Move slowly and mindfully. When you reach the center of the structure, stop and pray, perhaps taking the time to move in and out of a few asanas or repetitions of Surya Namaskar. Then turn and retrace your steps, again with calm and concentration. With a paper labyrinth, use your finger to trace the path; with an online version, either “walk” via your mouse or follow the path with your eyes.
It’s always important to remember that any meditation aid is, in Buddhist terminology, a “finger pointing at the moon’ rather than the moon itself; in other words, don’t confuse the practice with the intended result. Try working with a labyrinth to see if it helps in soothing the mind and focusing on spiritual principles; perhaps you will find it an aid in reaching a state of calm abiding in the present moment.