As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a thought on gratitude. Lately, I’ve started class with a body scan. It’s natural for the attention to go straight to the sites of injury, tension, fatigue. (As my colleague Sara says, “The mind is a pessimist.”) And these are critical to notice as you begin an asana or meditation practice, so that you can see clearly what you’re working with.
But also take the time to find at least one spot, and ideally more, that feels totally fine right now. This could be “My right pointer finger is OK,” or “I don’t have a headache.” Let this expression of gratitude and appreciation for the good spots grow. Once you’ve found one, you can usually find several more. It makes a sweet practice out of counting your blessings, focusing on the sites of function rather than dysfunction.
In my last post, we looked at the reasons meditation is important as we age, and I offered a brief primer on how to meditate. Starting a meditation practice can be daunting, but once you begin, you have to create a habit that sticks: the magic of meditation comes from doing it routinely.
It is not imperative that you meditate every day, although meditation experts suggest it. More important than how often you meditate, though, is that you meditate with regularity. Whether you meditate daily, three days a week, or just once a week, find your meditation time and adhere to it.
Don’t fret about how long you “should” meditate for: starting out, go for a regular meditation practice but for short intervals of time. After all, if you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t start by running ten miles on your first day of training. First, you’d create a manageable weekly running schedule, and you’d commit to running at least several times a week. From there, you’d start with shorter runs and build slowly to running longer distances and covering more miles. It’s the same with meditation: make it a habit, and then add a little more. When you first begin to meditate, two to five minutes is plenty of time! If you do that successfully for a couple of weeks, consider adding an additional minute every few meditation sessions.
It’s just as important to have a set place as it is to have a set time. Some people enjoy having a meditation area in their home—a specific corner of the bedroom or an alcove near a window. You could put a yoga mat, meditation cushion, or candle there. That’s a nice idea, and if setting up a sacred area appeals to you, go for it. It’s also completely fine for your meditation “place” to be on the floor next to your bed—or even on your bed! Where you meditate doesn’t have to be special, but creating habits is easier when you do the same thing again and again: for that reason, meditate in the same place every time. (Of course, when you travel, this idea gets shaken up. But when you’re home, have a meditation place.)
You can vary the anchors you use: one day you might choose to focus on your breath, one day you might choose a phrase or mantra. When inspiration strikes, let it guide your practice. There will be plenty of days, though, that you won’t feel inspired to meditate on a new mantra or intention. You won’t feel inspired to meditate at all: the very act of committing to your meditation practice—actually sitting down and closing your eyes—will feel like a chore. For those days, you need a stockpile of go-to anchors. You might have a specific counting pattern you know captures your mind well. You might choose a simple mantra you use often: the word “peace” or a sentence like “breathing in, I am present; breathing out, I am here.” As you begin creating your habit of meditation, jot down a few anchors you can use any time you sit to meditate. When you don’t feel inspired, use familiar anchors.
Connect Meditation to Your Daily Life
The best way to begin—and then stick to—a meditation practice is to connect it to something you already do routinely. If you plan to meditate daily, perhaps you can sit down right after you brush your teeth every morning. You’ll use your already ingrained habit to trigger your soon-to-be-ingrained habit—and meditating with minty breath may even help you stay alert! Or maybe you unwind at night by reading. You can still do that, but sit in meditation first. If you have a daily or weekly yoga practice, add a few minutes of meditation before or after your practice. Instead of making your meditation practice something else you have to do, connect it to something that you’re already doing.
In my next post on meditation, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles and examine how you know when your meditation practice is working. (Preview: are you meditating routinely? It’s working!)
As you’ll know from decades of life and experience with exercise, sensation—even intense sensation—is a byproduct of effort. And this sensation is often necessary for growth. With no stress stimulus, there’s no adaptive response. No challenge, no change. But the trick is to learn how to find the right degree of stress, so that you grow and don’t break down. I wrote about this in Goldilocks and the Gauge.
Your asana practice—doing yoga poses—can be a laboratory so you can begin to discern between productive discomfort and unhealthy pain. This skill then can serve you off the mat, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Here’s how to begin to tell the difference; your body, of course, should be your number-one guide.
Productive discomfort can feel like . . .
Shaking in the muscles
Heat in the muscles (“feel the burn”)
A challenge to keep you focused
A challenge to keep your breath regular
Sensation that fades quickly when you leave a pose
Pain can feel like . . .
Sharpness in the joints
Aching in the joints
Too much to keep you focused
Too much to breathe through with a regular rhythm
Sensation that continues even after you leave a pose
Use your practice to help you find ways to stay present in the face of discomfort, and to recognize and avoid unproductive pain.
The idea of meditation has gotten increasingly popular in mainstream culture in the past few years. And there’s a reason for that: studies have shown that meditation changes your brain, making it more able to handle stress and better adept at finding focus and calm.
While many of us have grand plans to meditate, getting started and sticking with the habit of meditating can be hard. In my next few posts, I’ll write about how to get started, how to make it a habit, and how to know it’s working. (Early hint: if you’re doing it, it is.)
This week, let’s look at how to get started and how to actually meditate.
Start a meditation practice with modest goals. Decide to meditate a few times a week or even just on a special day, like Sunday night or Monday morning. Even if you feel ambitious and make a plan to meditate daily, limit the time you sit in meditation. Start with two minutes or five. If you aren’t used to being still with your thoughts, even five minutes can feel like a long time! Set a timer and get comfortable.
You do not need to sit on the floor cross-legged. If that feels great in your body, you certainly can, but you could also sit in a chair, on the floor leaning against a wall, or even comfortably reclining. (Don’t get too comfortable, though, or you might fall asleep.) Definitely do not choose a position that causes you any degree of agony. Start in a sweet place.
Choose an Anchor
As you sit in your comfortable space for several minutes, your goal isn’t to clear your mind. Rather, your goal is to choose an anchor for your attention. Common anchors include your breath, a mantra (a phrase or intention you repeat, like “calm,” “present,” or “here now”), or counting. You can also meditate with your eyes open, focusing on a candle or an image that appeals to you and calms you.
Regardless of what anchor you choose, your attention will wander—probably within a matter of seconds. When you notice you’re thinking about something—plans, the future, some event that’s already happened—gently and kindly (and without judgment or frustration) move your attention back to your anchor. Reset. Start again. In each meditation practice, you will return your attention to your anchor again and again and again.
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This one is the most express of all, and you can do it virtually anywhere: mountain pose (tadasana). It’s simply standing there—simply, and profoundly just standing there.
When you learn to pay attention in mountain pose, both to your alignment and to your breath, you’ll have the ideal foundation for virtually every other pose. And you’ll gain experience in being present with what is happening right now, that is, mindfulness.
Stand tall with your feet under your knees and your knees under your hips. Experiment with the most comfortable distance between your feet. Hold your weight even across your feet. Level your pelvis so you feel your core muscles lightly engage. Lift through the crown of your head. Relax your shoulder blades down, and try rolling your thumbs out, as in the photo above, then keep that broadness across your chest and drop your arms by your sides. Take several breaths while feeling the groundedness through your feet and the lift through your spine.
Mountain pose is portable! You can and should do it anywhere. Shake things up by:
Closing your eyes. If that’s too destabilizing, blink in long intervals.
Lifting your arms. With your arms lifted, tuck your lowest ribs in so you aren’t arching your back.
Lifting your heels. Challenge your balance by creating some space between your heels and the floor. This could be a millimeter or six inches, depending on your balance. Keep breathing!
Finding mountain pose in a chair. Keep your ankles and knees in line as you reach your spine tall from your pelvis.
Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.
If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.
As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?
First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.
Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.
We are in the home stretch of drafting Lifelong Yoga, our book to be published by North American Books next summer. Our goal is to tell and show you how to develop and modify a practice to take you through your forties, fifties, and far beyond. We’re covering adaptations for common age-related conditions, appropriate expressions of poses for various bodies and needs, and yoga philosophy.
Here’s your chance to help direct the book. What are your biggest questions around making yoga a lifelong practice? How has your practice changed, and how did you adapt? What would you most like to learn about yoga through the years?
Please let us know in the comments and on Facebook. Thanks in advance!
We talk a lot about intentions in yoga. Intentions are different than goals. If you set an intention at the start of your yoga practice, it’s your starting point for the flavor of your practice. You might set an intention of peace, for instance. Or presence. Goals are different: they’re measurable achievements you arrive at later. You can certainly have goals in yoga, too. You might be practicing plank pose for successively longer numbers of breaths, for example. The number of breaths you’re working toward is your clear and stated goal.
With regard to why you choose to do yoga, it’s useful to have an intention, too. When I started doing yoga, I wasn’t always clear about my intention. I had a lot of goals—mostly based on achievement of certain poses—but I didn’t always have a deeper reason for my practice. This has changed. I do yoga with intentions that generally coalesce around the ideas of meditation, strength, relaxation, and injury prevention. Starting from one of these places, I create my sequences or choose which poses to do on a given day. If my aim is strength, I’ll probably do more core-focused poses; if my plan is to build focus or relax, I may do a restorative practice.
Because my intentions toward my practice are clearer, there are poses that I have stopped doing. These poses don’t feel good for me, regardless of how I tweak my alignment or use props to offer support. These poses don’t feel like they help me build strength, allow me to find meditative focus, or encourage relaxation. They feel stressful to my joints or potentially dangerous to more fragile parts of my body. They don’t align with my intention to use yoga as a tool to stave off injury.
Downward-facing dog is probably the most ubiquitous pose in yoga. If down-dog doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or wrists, try a modification. And if it still doesn’t feel good? If there is associated pain? If you can find alternative ways to strengthen your shoulders? Then take it off your roster of poses—maybe just for a while (as you recover from an injury, for instance, or build strength in another way) or maybe permanently.
If your yoga teachers says “listen to your body,” what he or she is really saying is “let your intention guide your practice.” But this begs the question: why do you do yoga? What intentions flavor your yoga practice? Getting clear on these questions can help you make mindful choices about the type of yoga—including which specific poses—you want to do.
In general, we use inhalations to support lifting actions. This holds true in backbends, as well. A full inhalation will decrease the curve of your thoracic spine, extending your back. As you hold a backbend like the chest lift depicted here, notice the sensation of length that rides on every breath in, and try to maintain it as you breathe out.
Breath and Forward Folds
As the spine moves forward, exhalations become your friend. As you hold a forward fold, you’ll notice that every breath in floats you slightly up, then every breath out will settle you deeper. Notice that exhalations can encourage you to round your upper and mid-back. Be careful with this movement, as too much forward flexion can be rough on the spine and disks. Keeping a longer spine is generally a good idea—even if that means you don’t fold very far forward.
As we age, we rely on our feet to keep us stable and secure. Our feet get stiffer and weaker over time, and although our yoga practice helps, there are additional ways we can build strength and keep our feet healthy.
Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.