BY DEBBY COOK
MADE SAFE Science and Research Product Manager & Certified Yoga Instructor
How to Get Started
Meditation. My first experience with meditation was in third grade. The legislature in the state of Connecticut passed a law requiring public schools to begin the day with three minutes of “silent meditation.” My teacher decided that, in quiet protest, she would allow each of her students to have a day to play their favorite song during meditation. To this day, if I hear “Hotel California” I am transported to my third-grade classroom.
Fast forward to the early 2000s when I started practicing yoga. I loved the physical practice as well as the spiritual aspects. Did I think I practiced yoga poses to enable me to sit still and meditate for hours like the yogis of bygone eras? Nope. Not even close. Truth be told, after teaching for a few years, I realized that slowing down and being present was important as a teacher, but also for myself as a human. While I can’t say that I am a disciplined meditator, I can say that when I carve out time to meditate regularly, I gain something – a sense of calm perhaps, or at least a sense of being less frazzled.
MEDITATION CAN BE A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS
Meditation does not require sitting cross-legged, with your fingertips forming a circle as your hands rest on your legs while you chant “Om” with your eyes closed – but if that works for you, go for it.
Meditation can be a lot of different things, or practices. What the different practices have in common is that they are methods to “quiet the mind” in order to be present in the moment without judgement. If you read about Buddhism, you might be familiar with the phrase “monkey mind,” which means a sense of being unsettled or restless. But even if you don’t fancy a deep dive into Eastern religious philosophy, the “monkey mind” is a great image for your brain in daily life and how meditation helps promote calm or focuses you in the present moment.
Many meditation practices can be done while sitting. If you choose to try one of these you can sit on a blanket, a sofa cushion, or if you want to really treat yourself, Avocado’s MADE SAFE certified meditation pillow. Some meditation practices are done walking. While lying down is restful, it isn’t typically a pose for meditating, because it’s too easy to slip off into sleep if you’re lying down. For some meditation techniques, the focus is on your breath, for others you may be encouraged to use a mantra (which can be a single word or a short phrase – in your primary language or possibly in Sanskrit or another language). Some meditations even use a mudra (hand position) to help keep your mind focused on the present task (meditating) and not jumping back to your “to do” list or a vexing worry or problem.
The Benefits of Meditation
Research shows that meditation changes your brain and body and can potentially improve your health or promote healthier behaviors., Meditation has been touted as beneficial for improving your sleep, strengthening aspects of your immune system, decreasing pain, anxiety and depression, and an overall sense of wellbeing. The scientific literature on these topics is growing, and that’s important. No one is trying to say that meditation will cure any or all of your ills. Still, given our current situation, with a pandemic and an upcoming Presidential election, it seems as good a time as ever to support one’s body and mind with a little meditation practice.
As with any new physical challenge, start with a few minutes and, if that works for you, increase the time you spend meditating. When you start, and you notice that your mind wandered (to the grocery list, or whatever, because it will wander), remember to smile and be gentle with yourself as you refocus back into your meditation practice.
…given our current situation, with a pandemic and an upcoming Presidential election, it seems as good a time as ever to support one’s body and mind with a little meditation practice.
Here is an example of mindfulness meditation with a transcript and audio of a guided meditation. In a mindfulness meditation practice, the idea is to be aware of how your mind shifts. So if you choose your breath as your focus, when you notice that your mind has shifted from your breath, you’ll bring it back without judgement. There are many mindful practices, and one idea is to become comfortable enough with being mindful that you can bring it into other parts of your life outside your meditation practice.
Walking Meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh
In this practice, you’ll slow down and focus on the process of walking, the sensations of walking, and consciously be aware of your mind, breath, and body. There is actually a mantra used (“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I bring peace into my body”) though it may not be what everyone thinks of as a mantra.
Metta Meditation (Loving-Kindness Meditation)
Metta Meditation uses a few phrases (“May I be happy” is a common start, but the key is using a phrase that works for you to say toward yourself AND towards others). The focus is first towards oneself, then toward a loved one, and then toward a larger group. Some practices also include people who you feel neither like nor dislike toward, someone you don’t get along with, and then all of those people together. You can try one version here.
Focus on the Present
A teacher once told me that our brains cannot focus on more than one thing at a time, in spite of our current-day desire to believe in multi-tasking. If you’re still not sure that you are ready for meditation, you might try one of these techniques that refocus your mind on the present (aka being mindful).
Focus on your breathing
If you want to practice bringing your mind to one topic, you can bring your attention to your breath. You can do this sitting down, or it can be done walking or lying down (just, maybe not while driving since it’s best if you close your eyes). As you inhale, count the length of the inhale. Then, count the length of your exhale. As you continue, notice if your inhales or exhales (or both), change in length.
Use your senses
As you go about your daily routine, consider using your senses in order to experience the environment in a different way. See if you can engage all 5 senses (sight, touch, sound, smell and taste).
Try doing only one thing at a time
Challenge yourself to slow down by paying attention to one task at a time. Driving somewhere? Turn off your radio. Focus on driving. Folding laundry? Turn off the TV. Talking to someone? Listen to them (and if you can see them, look at them).
Interested in learning more about meditation and its benefits? Check out these resources for getting started.
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Still Running, the Art of Meditation in Motion by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard
For people who find that running (or walking) is the key to quieting their mind and being in the present, this book is a great resource.
- Another practice is outlined in Jillian Pransky’s book: Deep Listening
- The Principles & Practice of Yoga of Yoga in Health Care
A medical text that contains chapters by leading authorities on yoga and medicine.
- One yogi’s experience with meditation
- Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health’s Mindful Minute Meditations
- NY Times Guide: How to Meditate
Debby Cook is MADE SAFE’s Science and Research Product Manager and a Certified Yoga Instructor