Isolating at home and social distancing can make us feel as if we’ve lost all sense of normalcy. Quarantine once looked like a slight inconvenience from which we would quickly move on. But after months of staying at home, it is still unclear when (or even if) we will ever return to our “normal” way of pre-pandemic life.
This type of upheaval can understandably take a toll on our sense of well-being. But establishing self-care strategies can provide a sense of grounding and help us work through challenging moments. Meditation, above all, can help us stay present and engaged at times when we are uncertain about what life has in store for us. It is a skill worth cultivating.
The CDC suggests trying breathwork, stretching, and meditation for managing feelings of depression and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re new to meditation or have never practiced it at home before, it may seem intimidating. However, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Rather, meditation is an accessible and powerful tool to help you mindfully negotiate both the present difficult time and whatever challenges lie ahead.
A good beginner’s meditation is to focus on being aware, fully present, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. We become more cognizant of our thoughts and behavior by simply focusing on our breath and noticing distractions as they arise. When our minds wander, which they will, we can practice letting the thoughts go by without being emotionally attached to them, and simply reconnect to the breath once again.
This straightforward meditation is easily accessible for those new to the practice, or for those who have dabbled a bit in meditation in yoga class and want to develop their own practice.
1. Just Breathe
First, take a comfortable seat. You can sit cross-legged or kneel on the floor, or you can sit in a chair if that’s more comfortable.
Once you are settled in, pay attention to your natural breath. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, you may find that elongating your exhale helps you to feel calmer.
When you first begin your meditation, keep your eyes open with a soft gaze and take five deep breaths in through your nose and out your mouth. If you’re comfortable doing so, at the beginning of the fifth breath, gently close your eyes. At the end of your fifth exhale, gently bring your lips to touch and transition to breathing in and out through your nose. Continue this way of breathing for the duration of your meditation.
2. Be Here Now
If you lose count, practice not getting frustrated with yourself. Just start again. Using the breath to create a singular point of focus is key for mindfulness meditation. That’s because meditation is about being present with how and who we are right now. The present is a midline—informed by our past, and aiming at everything we aspire to be. It all makes up the now. Everything is always now.
Keep your focus on your breath by counting up to ten in five-breath cycles. The first in-breath as one, exhale two, and so on. Once you hit ten, start again at one. As distractions arise, be aware of them and acknowledge them; do not react to them, or to the fact that they’ve momentarily derailed your focus on the breath. Instead, simply exhale and release the distraction, and begin counting the breath again.
Being in this headspace allows us to focus on the subtleties of the sensations of our body and mind. It teaches us to pause and respond, rather than react without thinking.
3. Let Go
When a thought arises in your meditation, inhale and acknowledge it without any associated emotion; then exhale, visualizing the thought dissolving from your mind. Then refocus on your breath and begin the process again.
A common misconception about meditation is that one is trying to rid one’s mind of all thoughts, flattening the mental landscape. That’s impossible. So if that’s your goal, it’s easy to grow frustrated and quit. Meditation teaches you instead to observe your thoughts, pause, and then respond to them with a sense of clarity. A classic example: If there's a problem that's out of your control—like the coronavirus, for instance, or the related response of others—being stressed out about it makes little sense. But if you are thoughtful about the concerns you can control (such as wearing a mask, social distancing, or limiting the people you are in contact with), then you empower yourself and can take steps to address them.
Over time, the meditation process becomes a tool to help control your impulsive actions and thoughts, helping you to think and respond in a more controlled, mindful way.
As a beginning meditator I tried to sit still in a cross-legged position and to “clear my mind.” Because I had tight hips, when I tried to sit this way, my feet became numb and my lower back hurt. Instead of focusing on my meditation, all I could think about was the physical discomfort I felt. It was discouraging and I thought meditation just wasn’t for me.
Aside from the physical discomfort I experienced, I couldn’t motivate myself to make time for meditation. It wasn’t until I made some slight but significant changes in my approach to meditation that I overcame these challenges. If you’re feeling similarly frustrated (or want to avoid feeling frustrated from the get-go!), try the suggestions below and see if they make a difference for you.
If you are in physical pain, first adjust your seat. When you sit cross-legged, if your knees are above your hips it might not feel great for your hip flexors or lower back. Low back pain in particular can be very uncomfortable and impossible to ignore if your low back is slouched while seated. Try sitting on a folded blanket (or two or more folded blankets) or on a block. You can also meditate from a kneeling position or seated in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and knees at hip height. If you are being guided in meditation and are not prone to falling asleep, you can try lying down. Just make sure you do whatever you need to do to get comfortable—so you can relax.
Develop a Routine
Find a time every day that you can designate for meditation. For many people, the morning is the most effective time, simply because there’s less chance of something derailing you. If you are not an early riser, start by waking up just three minutes earlier than usual. Stack your meditation practice along with the rest of your morning rituals so that every morning, for instance, you wake up, brush your teeth, and then begin your meditation.
The most difficult part of meditating is getting started. Try setting the bar a bit low so that you can feel successful from the start. It could be as simple as closing your eyes and taking ten deep breaths in through your nose, and then out your mouth. After a week, consider taking a couple of natural breaths after your ten-breath sequence. Do not put any time restraints on your meditation practice at first, so that you don’t feel obligated to achieve a specific goal. Eventually, this will help lead to a strong, sustainable meditation practice, rather than a frustrating cycle of starting, stopping, and restarting again.
Use an App
There are endless meditation apps to help guide you through your practice. Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier are some of the more popular platforms. Yoga International also offers guided meditations from some of the leading teachers in the field. All of them offer a free trial or series you can try, which allows you the chance to see which resonates most with you. You can even ask Google, Siri, or Alexa to “Start a guided meditation.” Using technology is great because it relieves some of the pressure of figuring out where to begin and what to do. It streamlines your meditation nicely, so that if you’re someone who mentally resists meditating, all you have to do is open the app and begin.
Designate a Space
For your meditation, find a spot in your home that is quiet and likely to be free from interruptions. It doesn't have to be luxurious. You can meditate on the floor in your bedroom or living room. Set up that area in advance with everything you need. Have a cushion, chair, or blanket to sit on comfortably. Creating a regular space to meditate helps reverse engineer the steps needed to complete your meditation. It’s one less obstacle in the way.
If being still is not working for you, try a moving meditation. Syncing movement with your breath is a great starting place for getting connected to your breath. Walking meditation, in which you sync your steps with your breath, is a great option.
And at the end of your yoga practice, lie down with your eyes closed for a few breaths in savasana. Meditating after exercise is excellent for those who need to move their bodies before they try working on their minds.
Stick to the Basics
Remember, you can always return to the basics of meditation as described above: Take a few deep breaths and focus on exhaling deeply out of your mouth. Then breathe deeply in and out through your nose, and count to ten breaths. If you lose count, just start again. Notice how you feel in the moment. As thoughts come up, observe them and let them go. If you lose focus, just begin again.
Remember that, like anything else, meditation is a skill. It takes time to develop a practice. But if you continue with it, meditation just may be the tool that helps you stay mentally steady through all times—challenging and otherwise.