By Sarah Henderson, Summersalt yoga teacher
Are you thinking about starting a personal meditation practice, but don’t know what’s it’s all about or how to start? If you’ve never been led through meditation as part of a yoga or meditation class, starting your own personal practice may seem daunting. Meditation can take many forms, but all contain conscious practices that train your mind to focus on the present and support your spiritual and emotional well-being and growth.
Meditation may help to:
– Reduce stress and symptoms of stress-related conditions
– Reduce or control anxiety
– Achieve quality sleep
– Improve feelings of well-being and promote emotional health
– Increase productivity
– Increase focus and attention span.
– Improve clarity
– Enhance self-awareness
– Increase feelings of calm
So how do you start and keep a meditation practice?
You may want to consider going to a public meditation class first, or a yoga class that contains a good meditation component to experience guided meditation firsthand. Usually studio and community center online class descriptions will mention meditation if they offer it, otherwise, you could contact the studio and inquire directly. Attending a guided practice first may help you experience the benefits of meditation in a supported setting before taking on your own personal practice.
1) Find a time and a place that works for you
Try to find a time and place where there are minimal nearby external distractions and noises. It’s hard to find stillness if your TV is blaring in the background, or you have something cooking on the stove. It may help to use noise-canceling headphones if you simply can’t find a quiet place, or if you choose to meditate while seated on the bus on route to work.
You don’t always have to meditate at the same time every day; however, this will help you to develop the practice as a habit. I like to do it first thing in the morning at home before the day gets busy to help me set the tone for the day. Maybe you prefer to do it at night, or on your lunch break. It doesn’t matter, the point is to try and be consistent if you want to make it a habit.
2) Get comfortable – use of props
I can’t stress how important this one is to keep up with your practice. If you’re not comfortable, your discomfort is going to be very distracting (if not painful). For some people, a stiff body or injuries may prevent them from sitting with ease, so consider stretching or yoga before you sit to meditate, or find a position that works for you (more on this below). After all, this is why the yogis of old began a physical (asana) practice – to prepare the body for longer periods of seated meditation!
For most adults, sitting cross-legged directly on the floor can be uncomfortable and difficult for longer periods. Sit on a prop that elevates your hips to a height that is above the height of your knees (pictured below). For most people, when they sit cross-legged on the ground their knees float high and are above the height of their hips. Finding something to sit on that elevates your hips above your knees will allow your hip flexors to relax and allow you to sit up tall, supporting your spine and maintaining its natural curvature.
There are numerous meditation props available: cushions, bolsters, blocks (chip-foam, cork), wooden benches, and there are many different manufacturers. The best way to choose a prop that works best with your body would be to test some. If you can find a yoga studio that also sells props, they will allow you to try them, and can probably give you some guidance on how to sit on each prop. If they don’t sell props they can suggest where to purchase some locally.
My favorite meditation props are the cushions made by Halfmoon Yoga (they are handmade in British Columbia, Canada). I like the Round Zafu model because you can use it to sit a few different ways, and it’s soft but firm. Halfmoon also makes amazing bolsters (pictured below), which are versatile props because you can use them as a seated mediation prop, and as support during a Yin or Restorative Yoga practice. If you don’t have access to any of these items, get creative! Use a pillow, couch cushion, sweater, etc. to elevate your hips. Something with firmness will be best to help support you and sit tall through your spine.
3) Get comfortable – sitting or lying down
Find a way to sit that feels good in your body. Be aware of the pain in your knees, or tingling and numbness while sitting in certain positions. You don’t want to cut off circulation or pinch any nerves. Pay attention to and honor your body’s wisdom J
There are a few ways you can sit for a meditation practice:
- a) crossed-legged
- b) stacking your shins one in front of the other: similar to crossed-legs, but without any crossing. I prefer this option to crossed-legs because my legs will not fall asleep in this position.
- c) both a or b but with your back against a wall
- d) a kneeling sit with block(s), bolster, or cushion under your sit bones for support (so that you are not sitting directly on your heels)
- e) sitting on something more rigid, like a chair (vs. a sofa, which may not promote a nice curvature in your spine). Great if you have knee injuries and deep bends in the knee don’t work for you.
- e) If sitting doesn’t work for you at all, there is the option to lie down. If you’re new to meditationme and don’t have any physical limitations to sitting, I only recommend lying down for meditation practices targeting better sleep and fatigue, because a lot of us tend to fall asleep when relaxed in this position!
Now that you’re comfortable, what do you do?
4) Prepare your body to relax
Close your eyes, or keep your eyes open if you’re more comfortable that way, but soften your gaze. This will help you to remove external distractions, focus inward on your breath, and tune in to what you’re feeling and experiencing in your body, breath, mind, and heart. Sit tall through your spine, as though the crown of your head is reaching towards the sky. Keep your core engaged to support your lower back. Relax your shoulders away from your ears, widen your collarbones, and bring your shoulder blades down your back. Notice if you’re holding any tension in your jaw or facial muscles – gently yawn to relax your jaw and bring the tip of your tongue to touch the back of your front teeth (this will keep your teeth slightly parted, and stop you from clenching your jaw).
Let your hands rest gently in your lap, or bring them to your thighs palms facing up, or palms facing down. What’s the difference? Palms facing up is a gesture that signifies giving and receiving of energy. Palms facing down is a grounding gesture, which may calm you or bring your energy inward. Take a deep inhale in through your nose, open your mouth and exhale fully and audibly, releasing some tension. Do this a few more times.
5) Choose a meditation
There are a great many meditation practices you can try, but below are a few great beginner meditations that involve prānāyāma and stillness. Prānāyāma? – a Sanskrit word that translates approximately to “extension or control of breath or vital life force”. “Prānā” = breath, life force, energy; āyāma = control, extension. These are simple breath observation or breathing techniques that help trigger deep breathing, mind-body-breath awareness, and focus.
a) Witnessing your breath, body, heart, and mind:
The first is to simply focus on and observe your breath and body: Inhale deeply through your nose, feel your lungs and belly expand as you take in your breath, and then exhale out fully through the nose, focusing on releasing all the stale air from the lungs so that you can fully inhale again.
Notice the responses in your body as you inhale: collarbones widening, rib cage expanding, belly expanding, you naturally sit a bit taller. Notice the responses in your body as you exhale: collarbones soften, posture softens, belly contracts, ribs float back. Feel the air as it passes through your nostrils, down your throat and back.
Continue to observe your body respond to your breath, and if you notice your mind has wandered, just bring your attention back to your breath and the sensations you’re feeling in your body.
b) Breath counting:
There are a few different counts you can do to stay focused on the present:
i) Inhale for 4… 3… 2… 1…. Exhale for 4… 3… 2… 1…. Repeat. Do this till you’ve established a gentle and natural rhythm, then add:
ii) A pause at the end of your exhale, on empty lungs, for one full count; and a pause at the top of your inhale with lungs full for one count: Inhale for 4… 3… 2… 1…. pause and hold for one count; Exhale for 4… 3… 2… 1…. pause and find stillness for one count. Work to keep your breath smooth, steady and even. If you’re feeling any anxiety, panic or stress, do not practice this version of breath counting with the hold.
iii) You can also start to lengthen your exhales, making them slightly longer than your inhales. For example: inhale for 4; exhale for 6.
iv) In your mind, inhale and exhale as you count from 1 to 10. For example: inhale 1, exhale 2, inhale 3, exhale 4, inhale 5…, and so on. If you lose track of the count, just start again at 1 J When you get to 10, also start again at 1.
c) Any of the above with light sounds, white noise, or light music.
Experiment with gentle sounds of nature as background noise during your meditation. I love the ocean, and the sound of ocean waves is very calming for me, so I put on the sound of waves while I sit to meditate. Some people like the sound of rain, birds, wind in the trees, etc. This is something you can experiment with and observe how you feel with different sounds. Find a sound that elicits a calm and relaxation response from you. If you are experimenting with light music, I suggest something instrumental (lyrics can be distracting).
d) Use an App!
There are so many guided meditation apps to choose from. My personal favourite is Insight Timer. But there are many options (Calm, Headspace, Oak, etc). Within these apps you will find different lengths, styles, and teachers of meditation. This is a great option if you’d like to try some guided meditations before launching into your own practice, and can’t get into a live studio session.
6) What length of time?
Any amount of time you can give to this practice will be beneficial, but I do suggest trying for at minimum five minutes a day to begin. If you are concerned about time, I suggest setting a timer so you can drop in to your meditation and not worry about checking the clock. We all have busy schedules, so any more time you can put in for yourself above five minutes will really help you start to feel the benefits. Most days all I can squeeze in is 7-10 minutes in the morning and that suffices. When I have the luxury of more time on a slower day I like to sit for at least 15 minutes, and up to 30. Making the time to sit and find stillness for 5-10 minutes in the morning somehow manages to slow down my day.
7) Keep going!!
Whether you’ve decided to start practicing at home or in a studio, do your best to make your meditation practice a habit. Set a goal, carve out some time and space, and do it every day for 40 days. If you miss a day, don’t worry and don’t give up – just keep going. But commit yourself to 40 days to form this habit. You need to devote your time, energy, and consistency to have an embodied experience with meditation, and personally feel the benefits.
As you start to develop your meditation practice, experiment with different guided meditations, which can include chanting (Mantra or Kirtan), devotion of kind thoughts to yourself or others, or repetitive finger or arm motions (referred to as active meditations) to help focus the thoughts.