For beginner yogis, the most challenging aspect of their practice is often not the asanas but the meditation. As a yoga instructor, I see how fidgety people can get during meditation; how often they open their eyes and glance awkwardly around the room, wondering when it’s going to be over. Many of us aren’t used to sitting still and doing nothing other than simply being. That stillness and quiet can make us uncomfortable.
Most of us lead busy lives with an endless to-do list. We feel guilty taking time to just sit and breathe. It feels too indulgent. This may be the first hurdle you need to overcome— believing that you deserve this time for yourself, and you do. The busier you are and the less time you feel like you have the more likely you need those moments of quiet and calm. Give yourself permission to take time out and make yourself a priority in your own life.
Learning to sit in meditation can also be a frustrating endeavour. How do you quiet your mind? It seems like the harder you try the louder it gets. Fifteen seconds in, and despite your best efforts, your brain has already bounced around: from your grocery list to that disagreement with your boss this morning, to the email you forget to respond to two days ago and what’s going to happen on This Is Us next week. In these moments it may seem like “inner peace” is a myth. Don’t worry, you are far from alone. Everyone has these struggles, especially in the beginning.
Working through the distraction and the discomfort is really what meditation is about. We’ve trained ourselves to be busy, to multi-task, and to distract ourselves from things that are uncomfortable. Undoing those habits and training the mind to gently concentrate and the body to be still and relaxed, takes time—like learning any new skill. Be patient with yourself. Nothing improves without practice and dedication.
The intent of meditation is often misinterpreted, which can lead to further frustration. Quieting the noise in your head is not the same as not thinking or having a completely blank mind. Our brains are designed to think, observe, and to communicate with our bodies. Attempting to have a blank mind is a futile task. What meditation can do is help you learn to reign in the whirling chaos of your mind and allow you to bring it to a place of calm. It teaches you to be in the moment, to concentrate your thoughts, and to work through feelings and sensations that are uncomfortable. Meditation can change how you relate and react to the world around you. This certainly involves thinking. It is learning to control your thoughts rather than them controlling you. Enter your meditation sessions not with the goal of creating an empty mind but with the intention of focusing on a single thought and bringing your attention back to that thought every time it wanders. And expect that your mind will start to wander.
There are a few simple techniques commonly used in meditation to help keep the mind focused and present. Taking your attention to your breath is one way that you can keep your mind from wandering and to direct your attention inward. While you can employ any pranayama technique that you are comfortable with, I find a Dirga Breath is the simplest and most relaxing. If you find that focusing on the sensations of breathing and noting where you feel the breath in the body is not enough, try counting. Decide on a comfortable length for you and silently count an equally timed inhale and exhale.
Another way to prevent your mind from wandering and to keep you connected to your intention is to use a mantra. A mantra is a sacred sound, word, or phrase used during meditation. You can make anything a mantra, but ideally, you want to choose something that has meaning for you or is connected to the intention you’ve set for your practice that day. It can be a single word, a prayer, a favorite poem, a quote, song lyrics etc. A mantra is personal. Find what resonates with you.
How you choose to recite your mantra is also a personal decision. Not everyone is comfortable chanting out loud, and it is certainly not required. The continual repetition of a mantra is referred to as “japa“ and there are four types of “japa”: spoken, whispered, mental recitation, and written. You can experiment with different mantras and different types of “japa” to see what fits best for you.
While it may take some dedication and perseverance at the outset, you will notice that with practice you are able to settle into a meditative state more quickly and easily. Your body will become conditioned and that quiet place of relaxation and calm will become much more accessible. It is worth navigating through the initial struggle to gain the many benefits a regular meditation practice brings.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”—Fred Devito