I often hear people complain that they don’t like meditating because they cannot turn off their mind or they find it physically uncomfortable. And by people, I mean me. For years, I had a difficult time maintaining a regular meditation practice because, frankly, I didn’t like it. Often, it felt as if I was wasting 10, 20, 30 minutes ruminating on incidents from childhood or future worries - time that could be spent performing some activity that I deemed “important.”
One day I’ll write a blog about the benefits of meditation, but for now, I’ll let the Mayo Clinic do that work for me. I’m here to share with you strategies I’ve learned over the years that have helped me reap these benefits of meditation instead of grumbling about “wasted time.”
This blog has an accompanying YouTube video, and I encourage you to checkout both! I also encourage you to me on Wix every Thursday for a free "Yoga for Relaxation" course. We will do some light stretching, and perhaps some yin and/or restorative postures, and then finish with a Yoga Nidra. Hopefully, these tips will help you better appreciate that class.
Before meditation, take a few moments to make sure you are completely comfortable. When you’re sick, do you do your best work? Probably not. It’s because your cognition is limited due to physical discomfort. Similarly, if your back hurts or your legs go numb during meditation, these physical sensations will distract you from reaching higher levels of consciousness.
The traditional method of meditation is to sit in Easy Pose, spine erect, and chin parallel to the earth. This pose is NOT easy for many. Fun historical fact, the physical practice of yoga that we know today was created to prepare a yogi’s body for this sort of meditation (opening hips, strengthening the trunk, etc.). But, I digress.
If you do want to take a traditional seated meditation, here are a few things you can do to make it more comfortable:
Your legs do not need to be crossed. Feel free to sit with your legs straight in front of you, out to the side in deer pose, or in some other variation that works for you.
It is important to keep the spine straight so that you can fully fill your lungs as you breathe, but if it’s hard for you to engage the core and do this, it’s okay to have your back against a wall.
You can sit in a chair or even on the couch. The warning here is that we have a tendency to slouch on these more comfortable surfaces, which can constrict the breath. It's important to take deep breaths during meditation because this helps calm the body and mind. Thus, I advise sitting in a less comfortable office chair with a pillow or cushion beneath your seat instead of resting on your couch.
It is also okay to meditate lying down (on your back or on your side). The reason some meditation facilitators advise against this is that you may fall asleep. However, I agree with Dr. Theo Wildcroft here; if you are so tired that you nod off during meditation… NAP (I am giving you permission).
In Western culture, we tend to criticize rest. This needs to stop. Sleep and rest are imperative to prime human functioning (I’ll be talking more about sleep/Yoga Nidra in later blogs. For now, I highly recommend Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep).
If you opt to lie down, there are multiple options available. I like lying on my back with a thin pillow beneath my head and with my legs on a chair or couch (this is excellent if you have low back pain). If you don’t like lying on your back, you can also lie in a fetal position with a pillow or blanket between your knees.
Finally, if you have a difficult time staying still, a walking meditation may be best for you (we will post one next Monday, August 3 on the website). In fact, walking while listening to a Yoga Nidra is an excellent way to observe your shifting consciousness as you practice. As with a seated or lying down meditation, make sure you’re physically comfortable (shoes tied firmly but not too tight; clothes cooperating). I also recommend you bring your phone, let someone know where you’re going, and make sure you’re walking somewhere relatively quiet and secluded (a residential neighborhood, a park, your treadmill). Yoga Nidra, in particular, can induce a spacy feeling, so you want to make sure someone knows your whereabouts and that you’re not in danger of wandering into a busy intersection.
Release Physical and Mental Energy
Whichever meditation method you choose, consider taking a few minutes beforehand to perform what I call a “data dump.” This is where I write down anything that’s taking mental space. It could be a relationship I’m worried about, something inconsiderate I said 15 years ago, the fact that I need to remember to pay the cable bill… literally anything. You can set a timer or write for a set amount of pages. Releasing these nagging thoughts on paper gives your mind the cue that it’s okay to relax - you can deal with these pressing issues after meditation.
If you opt for a seated or lying meditation, you may also want to take a moment to release physical energy. There are multiple ways to do this, but two of my favorites are tension and relaxation and Bumblebee Breath.
Tension and Relaxation is exactly what it sounds like, you tense every muscle in your body for a few breaths (you can hold your breath during the tension portion, but do not do this if you cannot have pressure in your head due to hypertension, glaucoma, or some other medical issue). On an exhale, relax all of your muscles as you allow yourself to sink into the floor. Tense and relax at least twice.
Bumblebee breath (or Brahmari Pranayama) is, in the words of one of my yogis, just fun. It is also an excellent way to encourage relaxation and soothe a busy mind. To perform Brahmari Pranayama, place your thumbs over your ear flaps and press down. Fingers are on either side of your head. Place the tip of your tongue behind your upper teeth and inhale. On your exhale, with your mouth closed, create a buzzing sound, like a bee. Vary your pitch to feel the vibration across different parts of your brain. I recommend doing this two or three times.
Choose the Meditation That’s Right for You
My last piece of advice is to find a meditation that works for you. There are thousands… maybe even millions. Some people really like chanting mantras. Others like resting in silence for 20 minutes, simply watching as thoughts and emotions arise and float away. Some prefer a guided meditation, such as Yoga Nidra.
On our webpage, we offer a different type of meditation (for free) each Monday, but I also encourage you to explore on your own. There are many meditation apps (Headspace was one of my favorites), and some offer free trials, so you can get a sense of what works for you and what does not.