After an exhausting day at the office, a strenuous string of classes, or a never-ending afternoon of shuttling your kids back and forth between music lessons and sports practices, how do you unwind? Do you work out and sweat it out? Call up your best friend for a five-minute rant? Or if it’s really one of those days, do you pop open a bottle of wine?
But what about meditation? Taking a few minutes out of your day to relax and reflect on your thoughts can do wonders for your mind, body, and stress levels. It’s even been shown to help with back pain. If you’ve never tried it before, you might have some preconceived notions about meditation and how to meditate. But in reality, meditation can be done in a variety of ways, and can be customized to fit your personal needs.
“A lot of people think meditation is about turning off your brain and floating a foot off the ground. They claim their minds are too cluttered to do it,” says Denis Faye, Openfit Executive Director of Nutrition and longtime meditator. “These are the people who need it most. Meditation clears that clutter, allowing you to think clearer for a deeper understanding of both yourself and your environment.”
He adds: “The floating thing is also false.”
There are many different ways to meditate, but Faye explains that there are five basic things to keep in mind when learning how to meditate.
How to Meditate: 5 Meditation Tips for Beginners
1. Find a distraction-free space and time.
Find a place where you won’t be disturbed by people talking, cars driving by, electric appliances humming, etc. Next, determine when your mind is least prone to distraction: morning, afternoon, or evening. (You should be able to figure this out after two to three sessions.)
2. Have a straight spine.
When you first begin, you might find it easier to sit in a chair with a back support instead of sitting cross-legged on the floor. If you prefer to sit on the ground, using a block can help lift your hips above your knees and keep your back straight.
3. Set a timer.
Letting the timer tell you when to finish means one less thing to think about. The timer on your phone will work fine. (But put it in airplane mode to avoid unwanted calls, texts, and notifications.) Start with three minutes. Even if you sit there wondering if the garage door is open the whole time, it’s a start. Eventually, three minutes of meditation will come easy. That’s when you switch to five, then ten, and so on.
4. Relax into your practice.
Gently close your eyes, take a moment to scan your body for anything that might distract you, and deal with it. Scratch itches, relax shoulders, get your hands into a comfortable position. When you’re ready, turn your attention to your breath, preferably breathing through your nose instead of your mouth. Take deep, even breaths, feeling the air every time it fills and exits your lungs.
5. Have a single-pointed focus, even if it shifts.
Everyone focuses differently. Unless he’s doing a guided meditation, Faye likes to focus on his breath. “I repeat in my head, ‘Breathe in, breathe out,’ like a mantra,” he says. Your brain and your body will try to distract you. That’s okay. Don’t fight it. If a powerful thought or emotion pops into your head, acknowledge it. Assign it a name and observe it passively instead of letting it take over.
Faye explains, “For example, if I suddenly remember something triggering said to me that day, I’ll assign the name ‘anger’ to that emotion, and shift my mantra to ‘anger.’ I’ll calmly repeat it until the feeling fades. ‘Anger, anger, anger… Then I’ll go back to, ‘Breathe in, breathe out.’
The same goes for bodily sensations. If your nose starts to itch, don’t scratch it. Instead, change your mantra to “itch,” and observe the sensation. Your nose isn’t going to explode. Eventually, the itch will fade and you can go back to focusing on your breathing.
Especially given all the scientifically proven benefits meditation provides, Faye encourages everyone to give meditation a chance. “Don’t let meditation’s hippy dippy reputation get in the way of trying this beneficial practice,” he says. “It’s only five, ten, or twenty minutes of your day. An investment you’ll get back exponentially by being more productive, relaxed, or just plain better.”
If you want to give meditation a try, and are looking for some guidance, there are plenty of apps that can help.
Headspace (free for iPhone and Android) makes meditation simple, and guides you through 10-minute sessions, all led by the calm voice of Brit Andy Puddicombe. After 10 free trial meditations, you can choose to upgrade to a paid plan that will give you access to specialized and longer guided meditations.
Relax Melodies (free for iPhone and Android) offers a variety of sounds to ease you through different types of guided meditations.
Buddhify ($4.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for Android) lets you customize your meditation by choosing your current feeling or activity as a starting place. It also provides over 80 guided tracks.