Free for all: Changing the world 40 days at a time

Let us meditate: Coming together in “sadhana” is said to help the community develop harmony, strength and a shared aura. WIth that in mind, Asheville Yoga Center encourages pursuing 40 days of meditation. (Pictured, teacher Izzy Shurte). photo by Amy Kalyn Sims

About 15 people gathered at the Asheville Yoga Center Nov. 4 to begin a free 40-day meditation program. Seated on a folded blanket at the center of the semicircle, Vinyasa yoga instructor Izzy Shurte described the practice the group would be undertaking‚ an ancient compassion meditation called Tonglen.

“Often, meditation practices are focused only on breath, which can seem dry,” Shurte said later. “Because Tonglen focuses on emotions, it's a natural place to develop a meditation practice.”

Shurte then guided the group through a short meditation they could use as a model for their own practice over the next 40 days. She closed by offering a “mantra” (a repeated phrase used to aid concentration).

Also in attendance was Sierra Hollister, a Kundalini yoga instructor at the Asheville Yoga Center who came up with the idea of offering the free meditations. She led the first one‚ on the Hindu god Ganesha‚ in March of last year.

“After the initial 40 days,” remembers Hollister, “it was amazing and clear that we needed to keep going.” The Tonglen meditation is the fifth one offered; each has been led by a different teacher. Varying widely, these practices may include a mantra, a “mudra” (special hand position) or neither.

The practice of group meditation has roots in yogic and Buddhist traditions reaching back thousands of years. Coming together in “sadhana” is said to help the community develop harmony, strength and a shared aura. The collective energy, it’s believed, magnifies the practice’s impact.

Meditation was originally an essential component of yoga: One developed the body so it would be strong and healthy enough to sit in meditation. “I'm passionate about keeping meditation as a part of yoga,” says Shurte. “It's important to keep the whole practice together.”

And while some might find the idea of meditation daunting, notes Hollister, “Anybody can sit and meditate, and it's always free — no strings attached.”

Asheville Yoga Center owners Stephanie and Sonny Keach provide the space, teachers, fliers and outreach for the free program, and the instructors donate their time to make meditation available to everyone. After the introductory session, participants begin their individual 40-day practice, receiving support and emails from the teacher throughout. Those unable to attend the introduction are invited to join when they can.

Forty days, explains Hollister, “is the magic number in a lot of traditions. It’s how long it takes for you to experience change.”

For Anne Roberts, who’s participated in all of the previous meditations in the series, the sense of connection has been key. “I had tried meditation before without much success,” she reports. “I started coming to the community meditations, and I found the group instruction was a great way to start. I've stuck with it ever since.”

Asheville native Martha Skinner, who’s taken part in two of the previous meditations, notes the challenge of carving out time for meditation. “At one point,” she says, “the woman I commute with and I decided we would stop the car on the side of the highway to meditate.”

Research has shown that meditation can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety and depression, and result in overall improved health. And over the course of the previous meditations, says Hollister, “People really got their feet under them.”

At the very least, Shurte hopes that through the Tonglen meditation, “People might be able to be a little more gentle with themselves, so that they might be gentle with others.”

To learn more about the 40-day meditation program, email sierra@sundancepower.com or call the Asheville Yoga Center at 254-0380.

Jill Winsby-Fein is a senior at Warren Wilson College.

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