Meditation has gained a lot of attention recently as scientists begin to study the positive effects it has on the mind and body. From reducing stress to increasing focus and immunity, the benefits of meditation are vast. Like all yoga practices, the way meditation benefits the mind and body is different for each person. It is also something that is best done as a routine practice. Some benefits are immediate (relaxation, increased focus), but many come as a result of a long-term practice (increased immunity, stress reduction, improved mental and emotional function). Regardless of these great benefits, I know it is still very difficult for many people to meditate. This arises because we think meditation is harder than it actually is, or because we don't know where to start. I'd like to outline the basic process of meditation, as practiced in hatha yoga.
Step 1: Prepare Your Body
It is essential before you try to sit or lie still for any period of time that your body is ready to be in that position. If you are the type of person who has a hard time sitting still, it's important to do some gentle movements and stretches to get your wiggles out and find a more still state of body. If you have tension in your back or hips and find it hard to sit for long periods, sit in a chair, prop your hips up, or lie down. There is no one position that is perfect for meditation. You need to find the position that works for you. I recommend dedicating at least 5 minutes of your meditation time to moving. Wherever you tend to carry tension in your body - hips, shoulders, neck, back - take some time to gently and slowly move these areas so they can relax and distract you as little as possible. Then, take your time finding a position you can maintain for the rest of your meditation.
Step 2: Deepen Your Breath
In the Yoga Sutra, the quintessential ancient text which describes meditation and its effects in great detail, it says, "The regular practice of pranayama [the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath] reduces the obstacles that inhibit clear perception, and the mind is now prepared for the process of direction towards a chosen goal" (Yoga Sutra 2.52-2.53, translation by T.K.V. Desikichar). In this description of classical yoga practice, controlled breathing is not just helpful for meditation, it is essential. If you take a few moments to deepen and lengthen your breath, your mind will start to work more slowly. Your heart rate will slow. You are giving your body a signal that this is a time to relax and do less. Very often, we are working on many things simultaneously in our minds. One of the primary purposes of mediation is to maintain focus for an extended period. We almost never accomplish this perfectly. A sign of a relaxed, focused mind is the ability return back to focus quickly when attention wanders. So, after you have found a comfortable position, use a few minutes to just breathe. Use the ticking of a clock to slowly make your breath deeper and longer, or become completely obsessed with your breath, noticing every detail about the air moving in and out of your body. At this point, you are already meditating! This is a form of meditation known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness is maintaining focus in the present moment, often on sensation in your body. While you maintain focus, you also observe your own thoughts and reactions, almost like an observer in your own body. This form of meditation helps us to recognize sensations, emotions, and thoughts without reacting. By practicing mindfulness, we become more able to ride the waves of stress and emotion without being overwhelmed.
Step 3: Meditate
Once you are able to focus on slowing your breath for awhile and come into a more relaxed state of mind and body, you are ready to meditate. There are many different ways to meditate. The basic thing to do is choose an object of focus. In mindfulness meditation, the object is your own body, breath, mind, and emotions. In visualizations, the object of focus can be an image, a journey through the imagination, or focus on other imagery. Most meditation falls into these two categories. Some of the simplest involve simply staring at an object or image (or imagining the image), imagining taking a walk, or visualizing the flow of energy through your body. You can also get much more metaphorical and metaphysical with meditation - exploring deep within your mind, or meditating with a specific purpose, such as cleansing or healing. These kinds of meditations are best practiced with a teacher since they can sometimes take you places in your mind or emotions that you need some help processing. It is also very easy to choose a meditation like this that is not really appropriate, or not the best choice. Mindfulness and meditations that focus on keeping attention focused in the present movement, however, are safe for just about everyone.
Choose an object that resonates with you. If you like the beach, sit on the beach and watch the waves. If you like solving puzzles, take a walk through a maze. If you need help quieting your mind, gaze at a flower, becoming completely engrossed in its colors and textures. If you have trouble connecting to your body, or have a lot of difficulties with it (such as chronic pain), imagine cool, nourishing light flowing through every part of your body.
If might be the case that when you first start meditating, the preparation will be much longer than the actual meditation. That's fine! Every step you take to be mindful and calm your mind is a helpful step. Start with just one minute. Set a timer and commit to focus on your chosen object until it goes off. The next time you practice, try two minutes. Stay with a time until it becomes easy, then increase. One mistake many first-time meditators make is to make the process too challenging. Just because you want to work up to 10 or 20 minutes of meditation doesn't mean you need to start there.
Step 4: Reflect
Always take a little time after you finish meditating to notice the state of your mind after meditation. Don't make judgements or critique your session, just observe for a few moments. Give your body time to rest, especially if you stayed in a seated position for an extended period. Also give yourself time to transition. Sometimes your mind will take you to places you never intended, and it can be a bit of a shock coming back to normal thought and sensation. Once you've taken time to transition out of your meditation time, then you might evaluate and make decisions about what to do the same or differently next time. Think about when that next time will be, and make a commitment to yourself to keep the appointment. At first, it might feel like work. Hopefully, soon things will shift, and you will do whatever you can to keep your meditation appointment.
If you are interested in reading more about the science and research around meditation, check out these articles: