I have a confession — I’m a reluctant meditator.
Despite practising yoga for many years and bending my body into dozens of pretzel-like shapes, I’ve never got the hang of just sitting still.
I know what you’re thinking, “But surely sitting still is easier than core-crunching boat pose or crow?!” Nope. No way. You couldn’t be more wrong.
It’s one thing to stand on your head and another thing entirely to sit with your own thoughts for an extended period.
Mediation is really hard. Rather than bending, twisting and engaging muscles, you’re trying to control the brain. And the brain, it turns out, doesn’t like being controlled.
In fact, it doesn’t even like friendly advice.
How many times have you told yourself NOT to think about your ex and their beautiful new girlfriend, that embarrassing work meeting or the time you forgot your dad’s birthday? And how many times has your mind actually listened? Exactly.
Training the brain, through meditation, to let go of repetitive and negative thought processes is no easy feat. Sometimes, it’s downright painful.
So, why do we stick with it if it’s so challenging?
Why is meditation so important?
Ashtanga literally means “eight-limbs” — so ashtanga yoga has eight parts, of which asana (posture) is only one.
That’s right, your physical practice is only a teeny tiny cog in the wonderful wheel of yoga.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about the eight limbs here, but I’ll give you a brief overview.
- Yamas — restraints (things not to do)
- Niyamas — lifestyle observances (things to do)
- Asana — postures
- Pranayama — breath control
- Pratyahara — withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana — focused concentration
- Dhyana — meditation
- Samadhi — complete absorption, enlightenment or pure contemplation
As you can see, half the practice centres around meditation; turning inward, cultivating a state of concentration, meditating then, after years and years and years, maybe, reaping the rewards.
Why did the ancient yogi scholars focus so much on meditation? Firstly, to help us develop a deeper spirituality and connection to the Divine. But, just as important, for the practical benefits. In many ways, they recommended it for the same reasons doctors and therapists do today.
It’s a way of calming incessant brain-chatter, letting go of bias and nurturing self-awareness. By focusing on the breath and internal dimensions, a person is immediately brought into the present moment, free from worries about the future and past.
It’s proven to help a whole host of emotional disturbances including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia (although, you should speak to your doctor before incorporating it as part of your healing).
Plus, meditation is cited as a critical part of any preventative or rehabilitative healthcare programme, improving the rates of recovery from illness and lessening the chance of recurrence. It can also be used in palliative care to enhance an individual’s quality of life.
Tips for beginners
I’ve just hit 100 days of continuous meditation and, despite difficulties and a dozen dead legs, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
I’m confident if I can stick with it, so can you.
The key is to build a practice that fits your lifestyle and constitution.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sit on the floor, shut your eyes or stop thinking entirely to meditate (I’m not a traditionalist). There are plenty of alternative and more accessible ways to practise, better suited to beginners and fidgeters.
I’ve listed some of these methods below, along with general advice I think beginners will find useful.
You can’t be rubbish at meditating
Let’s get one thing straight — you can’t be rubbish at meditating.
Sure, you can find it difficult (I think everyone does), but meditation is a process with no milestones. It can’t be won or measured.
On some days, we might calm the mind, and on others, we won’t. We may feel unusually restless on Mondays and peaceful on Fridays. If we ever reach samadhi, we don’t stay there.
My point is, meditation is a fluid practice — it’s continuous learning rather than something you’re good or bad at.
We also have misconceptions about what meditation actually is. Many people think it’s stopping thoughts altogether and surpassing the earthly plane. These goals are noble but implausible for most of us living in the 21st century — especially with the rise of technology and information overload.
I think it’s more useful to define meditation in the context of modern life — it’s a practical exercise in awareness that helps us to manage our mind better.
Instead of trying to stop thoughts during meditation, let them happen, without judgement (you’re not “stupid” for thinking — it’s how we’re programmed). The key is to always refocus our attention once we realise we’ve been distracted.
We’re simply observing the thoughts, and all their tumultuous tendencies, so we can understand their patterns. When we know the mind, we’ll be able to control it and steer it in more positive directions off the mat.
Choose a style that’s right for you
There isn’t a one size fits all approach to meditation.
Instead, explore the multitude of styles on offer to find one that matches your personality, goals and lifestyle.
An anxious, jittery person may benefit from a breath-awareness or mindfulness practice, which draws attention inwards and slows respiration. On the other hand, someone who feels lethargic may be better suited to a Kundalini style practice that incorporates movement and mantras.
There’s no right way to do it — just make sure to research each style thoroughly before beginning or speak to a qualified teacher. I’ve listed a few options below to get you started.
Progressive Relaxation or Body Scan Meditation
Progressive Relaxation, also known as Body Scan Meditation, is a simple practice that cultivates body awareness.
A student begins by finding a comfortable spot, steadying the breath and scanning the body from head to toe. The goal is to locate areas that feel particularly tense.
From there, a person works on releasing the tightness by deliberately contracting then releasing muscles or through visualisation.
Mindfulness Meditation can be practised anywhere, so it’s perfect for those with hectic lives.
It’s the process of being fully present with our thoughts and wholly aware of how we’re feeling and where we are. By tuning into our emotions and observing our mind’s patterns, we become less reactive to what’s going on around us.
Mindfulness is a skill that soothes much of the angst brought on by modern-day life — so this is a method worth implementing as much as possible.
Breath Awareness Meditation
This is a form of mindfulness meditation which uses the breath as a tool to become fully present.
The objectives are the same; to create space between thoughts and reactions, develop self-awareness and understand the mind’s patterns.
It’s usually carried out in a comfortable seated position with the eyes closed. As we focus on the breath, thoughts inevitably come and go — the aim is to bring the attention back each time we’re distracted.
Kundalini Meditation’s primary purpose is to awaken the kundalini energy present at the base of the spine.
It’s an advanced practice that differs from most because it’s active, combining movement with deep or rapid breathing and mantras.
It’s imperative you learn this style from a seasoned teacher. I’m not joking — there are “Kundalini Awakening” support groups.
In TM, personalised mantras are used (often given by a teacher) which help practitioners access a deeper meditative state.
Transcendence is said to involve no concentration, control, or training. In fact, many TM teachers believe it’s counterproductive to try and force the mind into stillness.
Instead, the repetitive nature of chanting allows the mind to reach a state of absorption spontaneously.
Metta Meditation or Loving Kindness Meditation
Metta Meditation, also known as Loving Kindness Meditation, is the practice of, well, directing love and kindness towards yourself and others. This is actually a personal favourite of mine because I’m a big softy.
Here, people use specific words and phrases to elevate themselves, their friends, families and foes. Common expressions include “may I/you be happy”, “may I/you be healthy” and “may I/you be peaceful”. It’s a glorious way to develop a greater sense of compassion towards yourself and others.
Movement Meditation focuses on the body in motion. It’s a good choice for people who have trouble sitting still as well as for athletes, many of whom find a state of calm naturally through exercise.
Again, like mindfulness meditation, you’re trying to become fully present in what you’re doing, whether that’s walking, running, gardening or cycling.
There are many ways to practise visualisation, or you can design a personal method that resonates with you.
You can focus on images that bring you peace and joy. This could be a picturesque landscape, cherished object, favourite animal or familiar setting. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it speaks to you on an emotional level. Or, you might imagine breathing in bright, white light and exhaling black smog.
Make it a priority
What happens if you don’t have time to meditate?
You make time.
How much Netflix do you watch every night? How many evenings do you spend in the pub? Do you hit the snooze button repeatedly before rolling out of bed?
I’m sorry for the guilt trip, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
We can all find a spare five, ten or fifteen minutes a day. You can meditate in the loo at work, on public transport (provided you have headphones) or in bed before you get up.
In my opinion, time isn’t the biggest obstacle to meditation — fear is. We’re afraid of “getting it wrong” — luckily, we’ve already busted this myth above.
Start slowly with short sessions
Like with any new skill, it’s best to start with the basics. Keep your sessions short and simple until you’ve got to grips with the techniques your chosen style uses.
When I first started meditating, I leapt straight into hour long practices. As someone who’s prone to anxious thinking, this was an awful idea. I felt trapped inside my head and overwhelmed by muddled thoughts. I told myself I was just a rubbish meditator and my journey almost stopped before it began.
Meditation can drag up repressed emotions because it forces us to confront toxic thoughts and behavioural patterns. At first, many people find this internal reflection too intense.
Start by practising for five minutes, keep a journal for a week and make a note of how you feel before and after sessions. If you feel worse afterwards, reduce the duration by two or three minutes. If you feel better, increase the length.
Get your environment right
Our internal space is cluttered enough without external factors distracting us too — this is why it’s best (although not essential) to meditate somewhere quiet, clean and cosy.
For me, that’s my bedroom. I dim the lights, plug in headphones (so I won’t be disturbed), wrap up warm (fluffy socks are essential) and, if I’m feeling fancy, light a candle.
Your environment depends on personal preference and convenience.
It’s easier to relax in a space sprinkled with beanbags, lavender and gemstones, but this is a luxury for most (it’s how I imagine every Etsy seller’s house to look). Just work with what you’ve got. Is there a quiet space in the office you could use? Does your train have a quiet carriage you could travel in?
Download an app
Having a voice to guide you can take away the stress that comes with meditation. Apps offer plenty of all-level sessions that you can do from the comfort of your own home. The experienced teachers explain what to do at every step while describing any sensations that may arise.
I’m a massive fan of Headspace. Their sessions span the whole emotional spectrum and offer respite for those struggling with cancer, sleep, focus, creativity, self-esteem, change, anger and more. This variety allows people to develop a practice that is unique to their specific needs.
I’m also a bit of a magpie — I love collecting shiny things. Headspace keeps users motivated with milestones, rewards and cute well-done animations. I’m easily bought.
Take a class
The benefits of classes mirror those of apps, with a few extra perks.
Firstly, it’s helpful to have a real-life teacher around. If you have any questions about meditation, they’ll be able to help. Secondly, there’s a sense of community. You’ll meet like-minded individuals who may share their experience and offer tips and advice. Who knows, you might even make some new friends!?
Classes are great for beginners because they cover the basics of meditation. From there, you can take your practice home.
Hopefully, you’ve found the above advice helpful. Remember, meditation is a unique practice and looks different on everyone. Spend some time developing a method that resonates with you.
If you have any other tips for beginners, leave them in the comments below.
Originally published at antiunicornclub.co.uk on January 25, 2019.