At the core of any yoga practice is its meditative nature. Whether you awaken the body with a few Sun Salutations, relax in a Yin class, or do an entire first series of Ashtanga, meditation is an integral part of yoga.
A lot can be said (and has been said) about the virtues of meditation on your well-being. However, there is little information out there about potential risks and negative side effects associated with meditative practice.
Just like the asana practice and the spiritual aspect of yoga, meditation can have negative consequences. In this article, we will explore the dark side of meditation and the circumstances where it has the potential to be harmful.
Let’s delve into the intricacies of meditation within the yogic framework, understand its nuances, and answer an important question: can meditation be considered dangerous?
What Is Meditation?
In the rich tapestry of yogic traditions, meditation emerges as a profound and transformative practice. Coined as the seventh fundamental limb of yoga, meditation (dhyana) is a cornerstone of self-discovery and inner balance.
Some may argue1 Srinivasan, T. (2013). From meditation to dhyana. International Journal of Yoga, 6(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.105934 that the translation of dhyana as “meditation” is not entirely accurate. Preceded by pratyahara (turning the senses inward) and dharana (mental focus), dhyana conveys awareness with the goal of vairagya (complete detachment).
Meditation is the practice that combines such awareness with pratyahara, dharana, pranayama, and even asana. It involves the intentional cultivation of a contemplating mind, fostering a harmonious union of body, breath, and consciousness.
4 Common Misconceptions About Meditation
One of the reasons meditation can lead to negative results is the misconceptions that surround the practice.
1. Clearing of the Mind
A number of practitioners still believe that meditation is akin to “emptying” the mind, leaving it devoid of conscious thought. Instead, meditation is a process of mindfully navigating the landscapes of their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
2. Instant Enlightenment
Just like the asana and breathwork, meditation is a gradual process that unfolds with consistent practice. There is no box to check, no timesheet to file.
The insights that you gain may come at the most unexpected times. Furthermore, the things you discover may not be what you hoped for. Who said that the road to enlightenment would be easy?
3. One Size Fits All
There are many ways to practice meditation. There is no universal technique that suits every person. Which is great news for those who struggled with it before!
You get to choose between movement and stillness, sound and silence, guidance and individual journey… It’s all about finding an approach that works for your body and mind in order to progress on your meditation journey. If you’ve not found the style for you, approach it again with a beginner’s mind.
There is no rule that requires you to commit for a set amount of time. In fact, it may be more helpful to sprinkle short sessions into your routine than to force longer meditation periods.
Even experienced practitioners recognize that sustainable meditation practice is about consistency and quality as opposed to the time you invest.
Can Meditation Be Dangerous?
In the intricate tapestry of yoga, a common theme of duality weaves through every aspect of the practice. From the dynamic movements that balance strength and flexibility to the serene stillness of Yin and Nidra, yoga embodies a harmonious dance between effort and surrender, concentration and release.Similarly, this duality manifests in several ways when it comes to forms of meditation practice. Meditation is a delicate exploration of the paradoxical nature of existence, where the practice of stillness is not a suppression of activity but an invitation to observe the ever-changing currents of the mind.
Along with the profound introspection, gratitude, and desire for self-improvement, meditation can uncover or even provoke unpleasant experiences. It is important to recognize the signs of negativity as they emerge and correct the course as needed.
5 Risks Associated With Meditation
I don’t want anyone who reads this article to think that mindfulness meditation is secretly “bad”. The main message I am trying to convey is that meditation, like everything else in life, comes with its own set of risks of adverse effects.
If not approached mindfully, meditation could potentially bring harm, particularly to those already vulnerable. Let’s take a look at the risks associated with meditation and the factors that may impact your practice.
As we already covered, meditation may look different from person to person. It takes time and patience to find the approach that works for you.
Excessive striving for a particular meditative state or intensive meditation might lead to frustration or self-criticism. Rushing in the pursuit of mindfulness could create a sense of inadequacy.
It is also a bit of an oxymoron. It is impossible to find serenity when you’re becoming increasingly frustrated. Instead, you have to take things slow and learn to let go.
2. Repressed Emotions or Memories
Once you find the right approach, meditation becomes a great tool for introspection. Unfortunately, uncovering things within your subconscious may result in flashbacks of a traumatic experience.
In some cases, meditation can induce altered states of consciousness, and if not guided properly, these meditation experiences may be disorienting or unsettling. Those who unlock repressed traumatic memories or emotions through meditation may be taken by surprise and lack the tools to deal with the new information.
3. Mental Health and Neurodivergence
For some, it offers relief, while for others, the stillness or heightened awareness could intensify their struggles.
At the end of the day, meditation is not for everyone. If it is causing you distress (e.g. panic attacks), you may be better off finding other ways to observe and converse with your mind.
4. Disconnect From Sense Of Self
Some people fall into the trap of “performing” meditation or mindfulness practices as opposed to developing their awareness through consistent practice.
An overly rigid or dogmatic approach to meditation might cause individuals to neglect their instincts and needs, leading to a disconnect rather than a harmonious balance.
It’s important to emphasize that moderation, self-awareness, and an adaptable approach are key to deriving the benefits of meditation without the unintended consequences of dissociation.
For some people, the awakening that comes with types of meditation practice may be more literal than you think.
In preparation for this article, I’ve read a couple of study summaries and listened to an extensive interview with Dr Willoughby Britton2 Willoughby Britton, PhD | Mindfulness Center | Brown University. (n.d.). Www.brown.edu. Retrieved January 13, 2024, from https://www.brown.edu/public-health/mindfulness/people/willoughby-britton-phd, a licensed clinical psychologist at Brown University trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Turns out, a large chunk of meditation practitioners experience a rise in their cortisol levels, which has an impact on their sleep. It almost sounds counter-intuitive, and it certainly does not apply to everybody, but it is something to be aware of nonetheless.
How to Avoid Negative Outcomes
Like any practice, meditation varies from person to person based on individual perception. Knowing about the potential pitfalls is crucial in order to avoid negative experiences.
Having the Right Guidance
Seek guidance from an experienced meditation teacher or mental health professional who understands both meditation practices and individual mental health needs. This type of personalized support can help tailor the practice to your circumstances with specific meditation techniques to avoid the dangers of meditation.
Cultivate mindful awareness during meditation. Encourage an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment toward your thoughts and emotions. This can help prevent self-criticism and reduce the likelihood of triggering distressing emotions.
Adapting Your Practice
Don’t be afraid to adjust your meditation practice to your comfort levels. Tailoring the practice to your needs is likely to enhance its benefits and avoid dangerous consequences.
For example, Lotus Pose or Cross-Legged Seat are far from being the only acceptable positions for meditation. You can meditate while sitting on a chair, a bolster, or even lying down. If sitting still is challenging altogether, consider mindful movement or walking meditation.
You can meditate in silence or accompanied by music. Inside or outdoors. Eyes open or closed. Self-guided or with a teacher.
These are just some of the ways you can adapt your practice to help you achieve the best results.
Unrealistic expectations are a common reason people “fail” at achieving their desired outcome from meditation. I am using that word loosely, because meditation is not something you can simply complete.
It’s an ongoing practice, and any progress is not only gradual but also unpredictable.
Adjusting your expectations sets you up for a sustainable and positive integration of meditation into your routine without overwhelming experiences.
Integrating Mindfulness Daily
Instead of confining mindfulness to formal meditation sessions, integrate it into your daily activities. This can foster a more balanced and holistic approach, preventing the practice from becoming a source of stress and having a negative impact.
Indeed, in certain circumstances, meditation can be unpleasant, stressful, or downright dangerous. However, that does not mean you have to give it up altogether.
Remember, meditation is a personal journey, and finding what works for you takes time and adaptation. Regular self-reflection and open communication with a professional can contribute to a more positive experience.
Interested in finding out more? Dr Britton, whom I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, explains it much better than I do!