4 Practices That Will Make You a Meditator
It reduces stress. It improves concentration. It enhances the brain. It improves your health. It increases happiness. It helps you sleep better. It makes you a nicer person. It makes you more resilient. It strengthens compassion and empathy towards yourself and others. It boosts your cardiovascular and immune systems. It reduces the effects of aging.
What is this magical pill that has the power to cure your ailments and increase your happiness?
It’s not a pill at all.
But rather, it is meditation.
Meditation Goes Mainstream
Meditation is developing quite a reputation for being the new cool kid in town. More research is being done and studies are revealing encouraging results on the effects of this ancient tradition. Time magazine, Newsweek, and Scientific American have all featured it on their covers. Corporations are teaching it to their employees; Google, Target, Adobe, Ford, and General Motors to name just a few. Even television shows like Showtime’s Billions, featured a hedge fund billionaire and a U.S. district attorney meditating in the pilot episode of the series. It’s being taught in schools to help children focus their minds and regulate their emotions. It’s even being offered to parents of students.
The notion that meditation is for hippies, yogis, and gurus is quickly being replaced with the idea that it has something to offer everyone.
But is it for you?
Maybe you’ve tried it. You sat down, closed your eyes, and listened to your breath. Within 3 seconds you had a whirlwind of thoughts culminating in one or all of the following sentiments:
This is a giant waste of time.
I have a million better things I could be doing.
This is isn’t for me.
I have heard these statements from many people who have tried and been unsuccessful at creating a meditation practice. If you are one of those people, but still believe in the benefits of meditation and would like to create the habit, try some of the following suggestions to get you started.
If you feel like meditation can’t work for you because you’re mind is racing with thoughts or you get bored by just sitting there, then pranayama might be a gateway option for you.
Prana means “life energy” or “breath”. Ayama means to “extend or draw out”. So pranayama is the practice of extending or regulating your breath through specific techniques and exercises. Part of the reason it can be so difficult to sit still at times is because without even knowing it, our breath is strained. Daily stresses, unchecked emotions, and physical habits can inhibit and strain our air passages and cause restrictions in our breathing patterns. The aim of pranayama is to open up those passages and allow for unrestricted flow of the breath and energy in our body. By opening up this flow of energy, we can more easily relax and calm the mind. And on a very basic level, this practice gives us something to do rather than just sitting to meditate.
Alternate Nostril Breathing- Nadhi Shodhana
This beginner practice helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain while reducing stress and anxiety and revitalizing the mind and body.
Sit comfortably either in a chair or on the floor.
Rest your left hand on your left knee and bring your right hand to your nose. Use your right thumb to close off the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril only. Then close the left nostril with your ring finger, releasing the thumb from the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril only. Inhale through the right nostril, close off the right nostril with the right thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Repeat for several rounds working your way up to 10–15 minutes.
3 Part Breath- Dirga Pranayama
This is a simple beginner pranayama that involves inhaling in three parts. You can do this sitting or lying down with a blanket over your belly to feel the rise and fall of the breath. Breath in through the diaphragm, pause briefly, inhale further into the lungs, pause, and inhale all the way to the upper chest. Exhale slowly. Repeat for several minutes working your way up to 10–15 minutes.
Restorative Yoga uses props as a means of holding positions or asanas for an extended period of time in a relaxed and balanced way. It is meant to restore proper alignment and balance within the body. It is a physically relaxing practice with the challenge applying more to the mind than the body. Poses are typically held for 3 to 5 minutes and the purpose is to give the body rest. The props are used to make the body comfortable so the mind can easily relax.
What makes it a nice gateway to meditation is that the poses break up the time. While in the pose, you can practice calming the mind for 3 minutes. Then it’s time for a new pose. You adjust your props and get settled in for another 3 minutes and so on. It’s like a series of mini meditations.
It’s best experienced in a yoga studio with a yoga instructor, but there are simple poses you can practice right in your own home with pillows or blankets you already own.
Legs Up the Wall Pose- Viparita Karani
Find a wall and lie on your right side with your butt close to the wall. Swing your legs up the wall and lie on your back. If you would like to add support for your low back, you can put a pillow or blanket under you. Experiment with the distance from the wall that is most comfortable. If you are stiffer, move it further from the wall, if you are more flexible or shorter, move it closer to the wall. You can also add a thin blanket under your neck for support.
This pose is considered a mild inversion since the legs are above the head. It is excellent for circulating the blood and rejuvinating the mind. While in the pose, practice breathing and scan the body for changes. Hold for 3–5 minutes working your way up to 10–15 minutes.
Corpse Pose- Savasana
This pose is typically how all yoga classes end but in restorative yoga, it is sometimes used at the beginning. Simply lie down on your back and allow your legs to fall out to the sides. Pull your shoulder blades down and back and allow your palms to turn upward. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Again, this will serve as a mini meditation as you hold the pose for 3–5 minutes.
Yin yoga is similar to restorative yoga but it involves deeper stretching. It serves to stretch the connective tissue around the muscles and joints. Like restorative yoga, poses are held for 3–5 minutes and often use props. The poses aim to open up the energy channels in the body, helping the body to become more comfortable sitting still for longer periods of time. In creating more ease in the body while sitting still, the mind becomes more conducive to relaxing and calming for meditation. At the same time, holding a stretch can give the mind something to focus on, making it easier to stay in the present moment.
Again, I recommend a yoga studio for the best experience of yin yoga. But to get started on your own, try these beginner poses.
Cobbler’s Pose- Baddha Konasana
Sit comfortably on the floor. If you have tight hips, raise your seat by sitting on a folded blanket or pillow. Bend your knees to the side and bring your feet together to touch. Press your feet together and hold your feet with your hands. Sit up straight and tall and hold the position for several minutes. Once this is comfortable, you can advance by bending forward from the hips and reaching your head to the floor.
Lie on your back, draw your knees to your chest and let them fall to one side. Open your arms out to each side turning your neck to whichever side is comfortable. Hold the pose for several minutes before alternating sides. This pose is good for releasing tension in the lower back and can also aid in digestion.
Kundalini is like a combination of pranayama and asana. It uses mudras (hand gestures), breathing, chanting, and faster, repetitive body movements to get prana flowing throughout the body. It can be a powerful experience as the breath invokes various energy and emotions and classes are always accompanied by music. I recently took my boyfriend, who is not a meditator to one of these classes and he found it more tolerable and beneficial because of it’s faster pace and requirement to be actively engaged with the body, the breath, and the mind. The 45 minute class went by quickly for him and had the benefit of focusing his mind on the task at hand rather than wandering away every few seconds.
Sit on your knees. Put a blanket or block under your butt if your knees hurt. Extend your arms overhead, interlacing all fingers except the index fingers which point up. Women, cross the left thumb over the right and men cross the right over the left thumb. Chant “Sat” as you breathe in and “Nam” as you breathe out. Close your eyes and continue for 3 minutes.
Make it Your Own
Meditation is a tradition that has been around for centuries. The Buddhists have experienced the benefits of it far before Google or Oprah were talking about it. I think we will see that it will be much more than just the latest trend. If it were to take on mass scale, the world we live in would be a much calmer and more peaceful place.
So if you are one of those people who thinks it’s not for you, but secretly wish you could make it a habit, I encourage you to keep trying. Maybe one of the above suggestions will be your gateway into meditation. Just a few simple moments of calming the mind and relaxing the body can produce lasting benefits. Once you steal a few seconds of peace, the next few will come a little easier and you will gradually build up to a regular practice. Just like exercise, or any other habit we want to keep, it takes commitment. But the more tools you have in your toolbox, the more likely you are to find one that works.
The beauty of meditating is that you get to make it your own. And that practice may change every day. One day, it’s a guided meditation from an app on your phone, another day it’s a few minutes of pranayama, and another day it’s a relaxing restorative yoga class.
As long as the intention to relax the mind is there, the practice will evolve on its own. Don’t get hung up on “doing it right”. Use whatever gateway practices you need to get your daily dose.
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