I first meditated at vacation Bible school when I was eleven or twelve. Instead of crafting with macaroni or learning a musical version of the Lord’s prayer, our pre-teen class lied under a tree, eyes closed, while the man in charge led us through a short guided meditation. I had recently read Frank Peretti, whose villains included female characters who sat in lotus pose while communing with the anti-Christ, and I’d heard my mother and aunts talk nervously about women who did yoga. I had suspicions, but our teacher assured us that Jesus meditated too.
Twenty-two years later, I began helping with a yoga teacher training course, where we had to meditate forty-five minutes a week. “If you’re teaching, you need to be meditating,” one yoga teacher told me, advice I obediently resisted with I don’t have time. But with a concrete requirement hanging over me, I sat down on my red bedroom rug the night after our first class and set my timer for ten minutes. I did it the next night. And the next. And then I didn’t stop.
I’ve meditated while fuming, crying, anxious, distracted, depressed, happy, and exhausted (like this morning), but I always end meditation calm(er). The more I read about yoga and Ayurveda, the more necessary meditation seems to be for a healthy life. Doctors and health practitioners now recommend meditation for controlling stress, heart disease, ADHD, depression, and anxiety, to name just a few.
The question I get asked most as a yoga instructor is “how do I meditate?”The answer is deceptively simple: sit quietly and and breathe. Simple doesn’t always mean easy, however, when your mind is reciting a to-do list or replaying all your worst-case scenarios in your head. Over the last year, I’ve found more ways of meditation, which gives me options when I’m struggling to focus or calm down. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve compiled a few things that work for me.
Sitting: Most meditation experts recommend sitting. Some say lying down is OK, but the chances of falling asleep increase. I like sitting because it strengthens my back and lengthens my spinal cord, so I usually sit in sukasana (easy cross-legged pose) on a yoga block or cushion if possible, on the floor if necessary. If sitting on the floor isn’t an option, sitting straight up in a chair, spine elongated, hands resting on the legs, is a fine alternative.The goal is comfort–don’t go for full lotus position unless it’s comfortable. Meditation is not an extreme sport.
Time: You can meditate any time of day. However, Ayurvedic experts recommend meditating in the morning before sunrise. The theory is that this is Vata time, full of lightness and creativity, which aids meditation. Practically, your interruptions are minimal, and meditation tends to energize people and leave their minds clearer and more focused, making it a spiritual and mental equivalent of a cup of coffee. I tend to meditate either at night, because it’s the last thing I do and I won’t be distracted, or at the end of my personal yoga practice when my body is relaxed. I’m trying to add meditation to my morning routine.
Amount of Time: My yoga teacher meditates an hour a day. I’m happy if I meditate ten or fifteen minutes; most days it’s more like five. Start with what works for you. I use the timer on my phone, but meditation apps like Headspace can also be very useful. Note: when I first began meditating my back would cramp and my feet would fall asleep. This is normal; sit as comfortably as possible and be patient.
Methods: At its most elemental, meditation is sitting quietly and noticing the breath. That’s it. To help keep the mind out of the way during meditation, however, some breathing practices and mantras can be useful.
- Breath: One simple way to meditate is to count breaths as you breath in and out, aiming for at least four to five seconds per inhale and exhale. This is one of the most effective methods if I’m very distracted, because even if my mind is racing I can focus on counting. Other methods involve an inhale, holding the breath for a count, exhaling, and holding the breath for a count. Nadi Shodhana, literally “channel cleansing breath”is a more involved breathing practice where the practitioner alternates inhaling, closing a nostril with the fourth finger, exhaling through the opposite nostril, then repeating that pattern from nostril to nostril. Yoga Journal has a good article about this breathing technique here.
- Mantra: The most basic yoga mantra for meditation is soham, which translates as “I am that,” which can be a powerful reminder of who I am in the universe. Additionally, in Sanskrit, the vibration of words is as important as the meaning. On the inhale, think so, and on the exhale think ham. Continue this mantra during the meditation.
- Metta Meditation: Metta mediation, also called loving-kindness meditation, involves internally reciting a few things you want for your life. Ideally this should be three or four phrases, such as “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease” (Metta Institute). When I do a metta meditation, I say the phrases for myself, a loved one, a person who’s annoying the crap out of me, and the rest of the living world. Because this meditation forces me to think kind thoughts about myself and others, it’s especially beneficial if I’m having a ragey day.
- Gratitude Meditation: Bryan Kest over at poweryoga.com is an advocate of gratitude meditation, which is to sit quietly in meditation while thinking of individual things you are grateful for. This simple meditation is nice if I can’t think in full sentences for the metta meditation or stay focused on a mantra. It’s also a beautiful reminder of how much I have.
- Guided Meditation: I love guided meditations, because someone else is using their voice to keep me mindful. Some people find the talking during meditation to be distracting, however–try it and see what works for you. The Chopra Center has several guided meditations, ranging from four to twenty minutes. I love the “Awaken Your Abundance” meditation. Bryan Kest also has several longer guided meditations available at poweryoga.com.
- Mala Meditation: While in China this summer I picked up two strands of mala beads. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with them, but I began wearing them almost as a talisman. When I visited my Ayurvedic consultant this summer and began crying in anxiety, she recommended I try using the beads for a mala meditation. While sitting in meditation, move the fingers from one bead at at time, thinking of one particular mantra. For me, that mantra is trust. Like the gratitude meditation, it reminds me of how much I already have, which in turn reminds me that I’m probably going to be okay, whatever that looks like.
Many yoga studios and natural health clinics offer meditation workshops, which adds insight and practical suggestions. I believe we don’t have to know very much in order to start meditating, however; we just need to try it. I usually find different times of day, month, and year, I need different kinds of meditation. Be willing to experiment, and realize there’s no doing it wrong when it comes to meditation.