Recent MRI studies concluded by researchers at Harvard University have shown that a consistent meditation practice causes physical changes to the grey matter in various regions of the brain. Such shifts in the brain in this way have significant benefits to one’s mood, overall health, and ability to live life more contently. For example, meditation has shown to increase self-awareness and compassion, reduce the effects of stress on the body, brain and immune system and can help decrease migraines, anxiety and depression, and more. It has been found that long term meditators have 80% less heart disease and 50% lower cancer rates
The thought of sitting with my thoughts in silence was dreadful to me before having no choice but to meditate for 20+ minutes every morning during my yoga teacher training. The process was not easy I won’t lie, but I can say that I now faithfully meditate everyday and believe in its power so much that it inspired me to take a mindfulness and meditation course which I am completing currently, through McMaster University. I think everyone should have access to these benefits, as meditation has made a profound difference in my own life along with many many others. The research about the benefits of meditation shows us this and it is only in its infancy! I used to be intimidated by meditation, I thought it was a serious and formal practice that I would never be capable of. In spite of how foolish I feel now for thinking this way, and how grateful I am to have found meditation for myself, here are few simple instructions to starting your very own self-guided meditation practice!
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Find a place to meditate:
To begin your meditation practice, start by finding a comfortable space where you are unlikely to be interrupted. A quiet environment is helpful to focus, however not to worry if you cannot escape all background noise, it will not be detrimental to your meditation.
The things I keep in my space are my yoga block, a thick blanket, my sage smudge stick and any stones I like to have near me. Aromatics like sage or candles, or healing stones are not necessary at all, just objects that bring comfort to me in my meditation space!
Find a comfortable position:
Find a comfortable position that allows you to relax but also to maintain a relative sense of alertness so that you do not fall asleep during your meditation. It is certainly okay to meditate in a lying position, but keep in mind it can be easy to dose off, especially if you are new to relaxing your body and mind in this way. As you continue to practice meditation, experiment with different positions until you discover the one most comfortable for your body and that is easiest for you to relax and turn attention inward, that is the most important part! It is often recommended, as I was first taught to meditate in yoga teacher training, to elevate the hips in some way so that the knees are sitting below the hips (or if you are sitting in a chair, knees level with the hips). This can be done by sitting on a yoga block or a meditation cushion to help keep the spine erect (a similar object like a stiff pillow or thick books will suffice!). The goal is to find a position that allows the spine to be lengthened and the natural curve of the lumbar spine to be present. If you often experience discomfort in your back, choosing to sit on a chair with a back to it, to align your spine, or propping yourself while sitting up against a wall can be a comfortable option.
Here are some demonstrations of meditation positions I have found helpful in my own practice:
Sitting on the knees, block or round bolster cushion between legs:
In this photo I am sitting on my cork yoga block to lift my hips, I added a thick folded blanket over top for comfort and a small roll at the back of the blanket to cushion my feet. This feels most comfortable for me !
Sitting on block or cushion, legs crossed in-front:
Do not worry so much about how you cross your legs, if they are much further away from you then mine are in this photo that is perfectly fine! If you can cross your legs into a full lotus pose (the traditional meditating buddha pose we may know), that’s great too. The most important part is that you are not in any pain, as that can make it difficult to focus on your meditation!
Try sitting in a chair with a back to help align your spine. Place a rolled blanket or a cushion on your lower back if desired to maintain the natural curve of the spine.
Try one of the first two positions and position your back to the wall to help support the spine, same as if sitting in a chair, provide support for the lower back if necessary.
You might choose to set a timer:
Set a timer for the duration you would like to meditate for. Start small and work your way up. Even just five to ten minutes of meditation a day studies have shown to have beneficial health impacts. Setting a timer is not necessary at all, but I continue to do this in my own practice to keep my mind from wondering how long its been, which I find makes it more difficult to settle into my meditation fully. For instance my fifteen minute timer sometimes feels like three hours when my mind is busy or is worried about something, where as other times its as if I shut my eyes, drifted off into my own space, and seemingly three seconds later, fifteen minutes has passed. My timer helps me to maintain consistency in my practice and ensures I sit in meditation for at least fifteen minutes a day or longer if I want to. When I began I kept my goal at meditation for at least 10 minutes per day, keeping it on the shorter end so that I was sure to always meet it, even on a busy day. If you keep up your practice, you may find yourself making more time to sit in meditation longer naturally.
Begin by finding your breath:
Sitting in your meditation posture of choice, gently close the eyes, or keep a soft gaze if preferred. The hands can rest comfortable somewhere on the lap or thighs. For example palms resting on the tights, gently holding onto each knee, or together resting in the lap. Ease into your meditation first by drawing your awareness to the breath. With closed eyes or a soft gaze, simply follow the rhythm of your breath as it goes in and out of your nostrils. To assist me with this in my own practice, I often begin with a breathing exercise to relax my nervous system. A great one for beginners that works well for busy or “monkey” minds is to simply count each cycle of inhalation and exhalation starting at ten and counting down to one. As you do this try devote your full attention to each breath and how it feels entering and exiting your body.
Choose a technique to help you stay present:
Focusing on one technique for the duration of your meditation practice helps to keep your mind focused, and gives you something to return to in order to recenter your focus when your mind starts to wonder off as it naturally will into its endless chatter and stream of thoughts. THIS IS NORMAL. It does not matter that your mind wonders, what matters is that once you notice it has, you return back to your technique. Continuing to follow the breath in and out is a great option. However, I do recommend testing several techniques to find the one that helps YOU to relax and focus your attention best! Which technique you choose is not as important as ensuring you try your best to stick to ONE technique for the duration of your meditation. Bouncing from focal point to focal point can make it very difficult to centre and silence the mind.
Here are a few techniques I have learned throughout my Yoga Teacher Training, Mindfulness Meditation education, and my own meditation practice that I recommend:
Focusing your awareness on the sounds in the space you are meditating in:
Acknowledge all subtle sounds without attaching any emotions to them, just sit an observe. For example, the wind blowing the trees outside, birds chirping, the subtle hum of the television in the other room, any sound in your present conscious awareness.
Focus on repeating a mantra with each inhale and exhalation:
This is one I use often. The first technique I became consistent with as a beginner is the “So-Hum” or “Hum-Sa” meditation, translating to a mantra which means “I am conscious awareness”. Which ever one you choose you simply just silently repeat each word to yourself with each inhale and exhalation. For example, Inhale “hum”, exhale “sa”.
You don’t have to use a spiritual mantra to use this technique. You can make your mantra as personal to you as you’d like, whatever helps you stay present. On days when my mind is anxious or I am having difficulty with my thoughts I like to repeat a mantra my YTT instructor taught me in Costa Rica “inhale- oh my mind, exhale- be kind to me“.
Focus your full awareness on the breath in the body
Dedicate your full attention to observing the breath. Not attempting to change it in any way, just notice the sensation of it entering and exiting your body. For example the sensation of the air in your nostrils, or the slight inflation and deflation of your chest or stomach.
Become aware of the sensations in your body: Body Scan Meditation
Follow the different sensations that arise in the body as you sit in stillness. You may even want to perform a body scan, focusing full attention on each body part from your feet up to your head, not attaching to any one sensation but just noticing and becoming aware of how your body feels. You might notice the subtle brush of air on your still, become more aware of the temperature of the room, or if your holding tension in your face. This technique can be very therapeutic for individuals who suffer from a mind- body disconnect as it encourages a sense of embodiment. For example, individuals struggling with body image and body dysmorphia, or an eating disorder. I find this technique very powerful and tend to incorporate it into my classes as a yoga teacher quite often.
Listening to meditation music, such as a track of meditating buddhists monks can also be a helpful technique.
Being Patient with yourself: Compassion is Key
The fear of failure when starting anything new can naturally lead us to feel frustrated when we convince ourselves that we are not doing something “the right way”. We may even tell ourselves that we can’t do it and that our mind is impossible to focus, so therefore it will never work anyways. I felt this exact same way when I sat for my first real silent meditation at teacher training. My mind felt like a bouncy ball, for someone who tends to keep busy to distract herself from her thoughts, I was sure if I had to do this everyday my head would explode. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there, I thought I just wasn’t cut out for it, my mind was just too busy. Of course after reflecting with my piers, we all came to acknowledge that this frustration was not an exclusive experience to any one of us. This is why we refer to our meditation practice as a practice. It is not bad that your mind wonders several times throughout your meditation. This is a natural tendency of the mind, especially in a world where we are now hyper stimulated in almost any moment spent awake. Think about how often you are multitasking throughout the day. This type of concentration will take time, be patient with yourself. It is the recognition that it has, and bringing the awareness back each time that is training the mind and quite literally re-wiring your brain to return to the present moment. During your meditation practice, getting frustrated at yourself for your wondering mind will only make it harder to settle back into the rhythm of your meditation technique. Rather than getting frustrated and criticizing yourself for getting lost in thought, once you notice your mind has wondered, acknowledge this with compassion and gently come back to your awareness with your technique. Rather than thinking “ugh I did it again, I suck at this”, label your thoughts by saying “thought!”, with no emotions attached, like you’re placing a file away in your mental filing cabinet, and return to your technique. All types of thoughts and feelings can arise in meditation, so there is no need to approach them with negativity. For example I find I a lot of creative ideas come to me in meditation, rather then clinging to them I try to think to myself “I like that thought, I can come back to that one later”. This is a very satisfying experience! Studies show that patients in mindfulness therapy groups, respond best when they enter meditation practices with an open and curious mindset. Therefore, don’t be so quick to judge your ability to develop your own meditation practice, it is a skill that requires patience, consistency, compassion and trust in the process. Although it may feel like a serious practice, it is important not to take yourself too seriously!
A successful meditation practice requires balancing polarities: focus and letting go, structure and freedom. You need to work with guidelines for posture, concentration, breath, awareness, self-inquiry. But you also need to know when it is time to let go of the “rules” and follow the signals that are coming from your own consciousness. And this requires, openness, creativity, and discernment.
–Sally Kempton, Yoga and Meditation Philosopher and author of “Meditation for the Love of It” and “Awakening Shakti“