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.