A beginner’s guide to meditation
Whether you’re struggling to get the kids to school on time or juggling multiple projects at work, daily distractions are everywhere. And the added pressures can take a toll on your health. This is where meditation can lift some of that weight off your shoulders and help turn your attention toward focusing on the present moment.
“We should meditate as a way of counterbalancing the inevitable stress we all encounter on a daily basis,” says Light Watkins, who has been practicing and teaching meditation since 1998 and is based in Venice, California. “Stress makes us mentally foggy, physically sleepy, and we become poor decision-makers, opting for short-term solutions at the expense of long-term consequences.”
Research shows the benefits of a regular meditation practice are seemingly endless when it comes to our health. So take a deep breath, close your eyes and discover how this practice can help you find your center and a sense of clarity.
Breathing long, beating strong
Meditation may improve certain health problems and promote healthy behaviors, says Wen G. Chen, a program director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health.
“Some research suggests it may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, pain, stress, anxiety and depression, eating behaviors and insomnia,” Chen says. “A number of studies have also helped researchers understand how meditation can physically change the brain and body.”
From a physical perspective, evidence shows meditation may help keep the heart strong. Tension can build up on the heart throughout the day, says Gopikumar Subramoniam, a yoga instructor in suburban Cleveland.
“The heart takes about 0.2 seconds for a compression and 0.3 seconds for rest,” he says. “During the day, due to stressful situations, the desired rest period does not happen, and the heart works harder without the necessary rest period, and stress builds up on our body and mind.”
When we sleep well, the body recovers from the rest we get during sleep and we are ready for another day, according to Subramoniam. Those who don’t get adequate sleep tend to suffer more from stress-related issues.
“By meditating, we are helping the body consciously to rest and relax,” he says. “Meditating for at least 20 minutes will the give the body the benefit of six hours of sound sleep. The mind is like a monkey — always jumping from one thought to another. Meditation helps in slowing down this chatter, and we will experience short periods of ‘no-thought mind.’ That’s when the healing happens.”
Holistic benefits may lead to greater peace, calmness, clarity and attention. It fosters better self-awareness for the mind and body, says Michele Patestides, a mindfulness expert and instructor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, who works with students who have learning disabilities.
“When we slow down and meditate, we become more aware, moment to moment, of the state of our body and mind,” Patestides says. “It can be a real wake-up call. As we become more experienced in meditation, we learn to notice physical sensations and thoughts without judgment while also releasing them and letting them go. I’ve experienced this personally in dealing with and managing pain from cancer treatment, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. It’s not a silver bullet but a complementary approach that can be helpful.”
Patestides says some of her students notice the benefits after about three sessions. “We just completed our student surveys, and some of their comments included: ‘I am able to manage my anxiety and keep my stress down.’ ‘It helps me relax.’ ‘It helps me stay focused and calm, and grounds my thinking. I love this group.’ ‘After group breathing and meditating, I feel like a weight has been lifted off me,’” she says.
Practicing meditation might not be the right fit for everyone. Although it can provide some psychological benefits, it’s not designed to address personal trauma or complex loss, says Pilar Jennings, a meditation expert and therapist in New York City.
“If people are trying to address complicated traumas through meditation without clinical support, they might find the meditation stirs up powerful feelings that are hard to sit with,” Jennings says. “It’s tempting, for most meditators, to at times hope it will be enough to change struggles with addiction, depression or anxiety. But I would recommend seeking the support of a good psychotherapist who has respect and appreciation for meditation as an additional healing, too.”
The mind matters
For newbie meditators, experts agree it’s highly recommended to take a class — whether it’s in a meditation or Buddhist center, or even online. “It’s extremely helpful to have a skillful teacher to explain the techniques, both physical and mental, that bolster a meditation practice,” Jennings says.
But remember there’s no real wrong way to do it. It’s helpful to learn from teachers, of course. But just sitting in stillness, noticing the breath, noticing when the mind wanders, and bringing your attention back to the breath is all that’s needed, says Michelle Gale, a mindfulness educator based in the San Francisco Bay area. “We are not meant to stop ourselves from thinking,” Gale says. “Thinking is normal. It’s the moment we notice our thoughts and choose to bring our attention back to the breath that we are practicing; we are doing it right.”
Watkins agrees, adding that you shouldn’t try to control your mind nor try be a monk. “Be yourself, sit comfortably, be natural, and allow your mind to do its thing — even if you feel like it’s not working,” he says.
Jenny Arrington, a meditation and yoga teacher at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago, says don’t go into a new meditation routine with expectations of a particular end result. “That just sets us up for failure,” Arrington says.
New meditators can expect that it will be challenging to not get carried away in their thoughts and to keep coming back to their focal point, Arrington says.
According to Patestides, building over time is the goal. “Don’t judge or feel pressure; just build it into a routine in your day and week,” she says. “Start with 10 minutes, and then increase to 20 minutes or so, even if it’s 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes before bed.”
Find your center
Most forms of meditation have four elements in common: a quiet location with minimal distractions, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention and an open-minded attitude, according to Chen. It’s often helpful to pick a word or a phrase as a point of relaxing.
To dive right in, follow these steps: Set a timer for 10, 15 or even 20 minutes (or you can keep an eye on the clock). Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet grounded and back straight and supported, and gently close your eyes, Subramoniam says. You can also sit on the ground and use a yoga mat, if you prefer.
“Take a few long and full breaths, and exhale slowly until the entire air goes out each time,” he says. “Go through all the body parts mentally and relax them consciously. Listen to all the sounds that you are hearing, like sound of traffic, people talking or music.”
Next, feel the sensation of touch between the body and the chair at all contact points, he says. “Feel the movement of air in and out at the tip of the nose first, then at the throat, and then feel the rising and falling of chest and abdomen,” he says. “Then look into the space in front of the closed eyes and just observe the thoughts and emotions.”
Then wait and watch the natural breathing of the body without disturbing its natural rhythm. After one breath, there will be a gap, and the next breath will start. This is the natural breathing of the body. Now focus on the gaps.
When the timer dings (keep the volume at the bare minimum), slowly move your toes first, then fingers, and then rub your palms together so you generate some friction. “Cup your eyes and feel the heat, feel the face, and look into the dark space in front of the eyes for some time, and then gently open the eyes,” he says. “Sit relaxed in the chair for few minutes to evaluate the experience.”
You just meditated.
Looking toward the future, Jona Genova, who’s based in southern California and has been teaching meditation for more than 10 years, “can’t wait for the day when we view meditation as a form of hygiene — as a way of being a healthy human,” she says. “We touch in on and develop what makes us human, and in that process, we also take better care of our vehicles — our bodies.”