The single largest question I hear as a yoga teacher is, “Do you teach classes on how to meditate?” My response so far has been that we include meditation components in our Yin and Restorative classes and that I include mindfulness with each sequence. However, I do not believe this is the answer most are seeking.
This has led me to share my research, knowledge and experience on the practice of Meditation!
You may know a little about meditation, or at least you may have some sort of idea. If your idea of a perfect meditation is someone sitting on a mountaintop with a serene, blissful expression, having not a care in the world, you’re not alone in this thought. And although this may be ONE interpretation, it is not a norm.
Common Questions: (Click the question to jump to that answer.)
So, what IS meditation?
Simply, it is the ability to focus on one single thought, while other feelings and inner chatter floats through and away, leaving stillness and a sense of deep peace.
Um, ok… that sounds great, doesn’t it?! But is it that simple? And How do I do this?
How do I meditate? Where do I begin?
Because there are several types of meditation, then there are several ways in which to do so as well. But before we get into some of them, let’s start with the basic, traditional practice.
To get started, what you don’t need is fancy spa music, perfect lighting, incense, sparkly rocks or even a special pillow to sit on. Don’t get me wrong, all of those props are super nice if you have them and want to use them, and do add to the practice, but they are not absolutely necessary.
Let’s start with finding somewhere quiet. With our “new” work and home lives, this may be difficult, but you honestly don’t need to be here for long (we will start with 3-5 minutes). Grab a timer or use one on your phone or tablet. Maybe even ask those in your home to please give you this short time that you need.
Now come into a simple seated or still position. Yes, you can lie back, although it is preferred that you sit. A chair is good, a pillow on the floor, blanket in the grass or beach can be ideal as well. You an even just sit in your car before walking into the grocery store or workplace. But find what is good for your back and hips.
Ideally, you want to find a seated position with good posture. Try to avoid slouching so that your back doesn’t get grumbly. Also try to avoid being overly comfortable. Although falling asleep isn’t uncommon, it’s not our ultimate goal so try to keep your spine extended. Bring your hands to your lap or resting on your knees or thighs. Some people like to hold a mudra (hand gesture), but we will touch on that later. Just keep it simple for now.
(*Suggested detailed positions can be found here.)
It’s so hard to clear my mind. Do I really need to do that?
Meditation gives us the ability to live in the present moment, allowing all else to fall away. Being able to “clear one’s mind” in its literal sense is impossible. This is because we possess the ability to be intelligent, to analyze and assess thought, situation and life in general. These abilities have made us believe that meditation is virtually impossible. So, let’s find a real way to relax our thoughts!
With each class I teach, I suggest that if students have thoughts, lists, issues, etc that intrude our mind’s peace, to imagine writing them on a sticky note and then place it aside allowing yourself to be without them for that period of time. For some of us, at least when we first start developing our practice, we may need to physically write them down. Know that that is ok, just don’t make a huge list, use key words and then leave it.
Close your eyes. Allow yourself to be aware of the colors, shapes which appear on the back side of your eyelids. Only notice this, not finding opinion or more thought to it.
[Note: although the best way for most to block out distraction and to focus the mind is usually to close our eyes, this may not work for everyone. Know that keeping your eyes open is ok, just find an object or space that is not thought-provoking or moving in which to focus upon. Rocks, trinkets or even your hands are great for this.]
Now bring your awareness to your breath. If more thoughts drift in, allow them to keep going as if they are clouds in the sky. You can even visualize this drifting if it helps. As you inhale, feel the cool air enter your nostrils, noticing how the air changes as you exhale to be warmer.
Sit with this brief practice of just the inhales and exhales completing 10 long, full breaths. Then open your eyes.
You just took the first step on your new meditation practice!
(To go a little deeper, click here for Day 1.)
When should I meditate?
To help create a regular practice, it’s best to do it at the same time each day. You can start your day before getting out of bed or beginning work. Or you could end your day to release the tensions that followed you home. And you may need or want to do a small, short meditation during a particularly tense part of your day to help you continue on.
Other times you can meditate to alleviate stress:
Long lines (see the section on Mindfulness)
Sitting in traffic
Getting unexpected news
How to know if you may need a little time out:
Ask yourself, “Is there really anything, within reason, that I can safely and rationally do to make this situation better? Can I quicken this line or make these cars move?” If you can, safely and rationally, then do it. If there is nothing which can be done in that moment, then do your best to accept that it is just one of those situations in which you cannot change. It is ok to not understand why you can’t change it. Just try to accept it. Allow yourself to let go of the expectations and accept the peace this brings.
Whenever you decide, know that it is the right time. There’s no real “bad” time to take a small breather if it is needed.
Why should I meditate? What are the benefits?
No matter how great or how small of a mediation practice you have, the benefits are endless. Even after just one time, you most likely will feel a bit more calm and at ease. But for those who are curious and want to know more, here ya go!
There have actually been countless studies on the mental and physical effects of meditation. They consist of a long list of just about every benefit you can imagine, physical, mental and psychological, so let’s cover a few here.
Stress and Anxiety reduction: By helping you to focus on the present, you can then begin to gain a new perspective of the stressful situation. This increase in self-awareness can then help to decrease negative thought. Mental and physical stress increases the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) which is responsible for producing the negative effects of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, depression, high blood pressure, disruptive sleep and cloudy thinking.
When we control stress, this helps to lessen anxiety.
Brings Awareness: Through some types of meditation, we can develop a stronger understanding of ourselves, helping us to achieve our best self. Meditation can also help us to recognize harmful or self-defeating thoughts. When we begin to really know ourselves and appreciate ourselves for who we truly are, we begin to cultivate an awareness for others and the world around us. This in turn helps us to cultivate better problem-solving skills.
Strengthens our ability to focus & helps lengthen our memory capacity: Studies have shown that those who practice a regular guided meditation are able to stay focused on tasks throughout their day. Meditations which include mantras or chants can significantly improve memory, increase attention and mental quickness.
Helps to fight Addiction: When you develop a regular meditation practice, you create a discipline which can bring awareness of triggers for addictive behavior therefore helping to break these dependencies. Research has shown that meditation can help to redirect our attention, helping to manage emotions and impulses. This then increases our understanding of the causes behind addictions.
Improves Sleep: Because meditation helps us to calm our mind, this in turn can help to relax the body, releasing tension and controlling “monkey mind” to help find that state in which to fall asleep.
I encourage you to do some research. Add to this list of benefits both mental and physical to find out how meditation can help you!
What are the TYPES of meditation?
There are so many ways in which you can meditate, you are bound to find at least one that will appeal to you. If the traditional way does not jive with you, or if you just want to give others a try, I strongly encourage you do so!
Mindfulness: This is a term which has gained excessive popularity over the past decade. And although, until we fully understand what it is, it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Mindfulness is simply an awareness of what is and what is going on around you in THAT given moment. To be fully in the present.
Let me explain: When you stand in line at the grocery store, usually you are looking around, trying to make sure you didn’t forget something, playing on your phone, making lists in your head of the day’s needs, possibly being frustrated that the line is long or taking up too much of your time.
So, try this instead: Next time you find yourself in line, be it the grocery store, DMV, wherever, allow your attention to be there, in the line. Notice others, without judgement, who wait WITH you. Notice the cart, basket, items in your arms you have selected, trying not to wonder if they were the right or wrong choice or if you are missing anything. Allow yourself to be in tune with your body. Are there sensations in your feet or back? Just sense them, try not to label them as good or bad, just let them be sensations occurring as communication of your body to your mind. As the line moves, feel the joy of knowing that you are a few steps closer to your goal of completing this task of being in this place. Before you know it, you WILL be done and have possibly experienced no stress or anxiety of the situation.
We can do this practice in traffic as well. Because it is done in the present moment, Mindfulness can be done with your eyes open or closed and anywhere you happen to be.
Metta Meditation: In a language close to Sanskrit, Metta means positive energy and kindness towards others. Loving-Kindness Meditation, as it is often called, is a great way to have appreciation, patience and even forgiveness of others and the world around us, including ourselves. When we can do this, we worry less about what (and who) we cannot control and in turn become less stressed. Meta Meditation can be done in a short time and pretty much anywhere. Just write out the 3 phrases associated with it and say them to yourself.
Click Here to Try Metta Meditation.
Music Meditation: We know that music has the ability to bring emotion and memory. Would a scary movie have us on edge if it weren’t for the intense crescendos we hear? When a familiar song is played over a loud speaker, do you want to dance, sing, hum or cry?
Click Here to Try Music Meditation.
Open-Eyed or Candle Flame Meditation: This is called trataka. It’s a great meditation style for those who may find closing your eyes difficult. This style also helps with increasing our ability to focus on things one at a time. And it’s as simple as it sounds.
Click Here to Try a Candle Flame, Open-Eyed Meditation.
Body Scan Meditation: As it sounds, this type simply allows you to gradually scan your body for sensations or feelings from feet to head (or head to feet). This type is often done at the beginning or end of a yoga asana practice. You can also do this at home on your own before bedtime.
Click Here to Try a Body Scan Meditation.
Transcendental Meditation: Also known as TM, this type of meditation may sound complex and intimidating, but don’t let that stop you from trying the practice; once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. TM’s popularity has really grown in the past decade alongside Mindfulness because they are very similar. While Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment without judgement, but with just being present, TM takes us a step beyond the thinking process. This is done with the use of a mantra. (A Mantra is a meaningless sound; just a sound that holds no other value to language but needs to sound positive. We do not want a sound that will evoke thought or will enable our minds to put a mental connection to it. Just a neutral, yet pleasant, sound will be perfect.) The most common of these is OM. Yoga and meditation teachers the globe over use this because of its wholeness. In Hinduism, this sound is that of all sound vibrations combined, both negative and positive. You want to hold out the mantra for an extended sound repeating it several times.
It may sound like this: aaaaaooooohhhhhmmmmmm aaaaaooooohhhhhmmmmmm aaaaaooooohhhhhmmmmmm
Try various lengths and tones for each letter or sound. You can find other mantra sounds online as well.
No matter the mantra you choose, remember that the whole point of TM isn’t to find the best sound, it is to develop the habit of allowing the stress in you mind to subside and melt by chanting a meaningless sound. If you’re taking a class or workshop on TM, the instructor will choose a sound for you, however, if you’re practicing on your own and the mantra you chose brings memory or meaning, pick a different one.
Click Here to Try a Transcendental Meditation.
Bubble Bath Meditation: Yes, something as relaxing and soothing as taking a bath can be meditative when you add a little bit of breathwork and allow your mind to ease. Combining the basic benefits of meditation with the relaxation of a warm bath, this can give us a simple “escape” from our chaotic lives. The key here is to allow yourself to take this time-out.
Click Here to Try a Bubble Bath Meditation.
Guided Meditation: These are quite possibly the most common and often times the easiest. There are numerous apps, online videos, and workshops which take our hand and guide us through how to sit, when to breathe, where to focus our thought and what to feel. Of course, these are fantastic and perfect for helping us create and nurture our personal practice, but our ultimate goal is to be able to go it alone. However, guided meditations are great to keep on hand for anytime we need the extra help.
Guided meditations fill the full gamut of all the previous types and more. And some types such as Yoga Nidra and Journeying are primarily done with a guide or instructor leading our minds. While other types such as mindfulness, are mostly done on our own.
Click Here to Try a Guided Meditation.
I strongly encourage you to try several types as well as different guides and sources for your practices. You may not connect with one voice in a particularly type, but then with a different voice (its tone, pitch, fluctuations) you may find that same type to be pleasing after all.