As much as I adored my teacher Eknath Easwaran, he didn’t give us (his students) much instruction to prepare for seated practice: He told us to sit up straight and take mantram walks (repeating a sacred word or phrase in rhythm with breath and footsteps) during the day to keep our bodies strong for sitting. I learned much under his brilliant tutelage, but rarely was meditation easeful for me—it always seemed like hard work.
Over the last 40 years or so, I’ve found some practices that make my meditation not only less arduous, but often truly blissful. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. The whole set of practices below can take about 20 minutes, but feel free to experiment and find the ones that work best for you.
Before you begin, check the flow of air in your nostrils (known as swara in Sanskrit) to see which nostril feels more open: close one side and breathe in and out, and then do the same on the other side. Note the difference. You may find this interesting, as which nostril feels more open is said to reflect your brain’s hemisphere dominance (the right nostril is connected to the left hemisphere and the left nostril to the right hemisphere), and some say it also reflects the state of your nervous system. Many meditators express having feelings of greater mental clarity and calm when the nostrils are balanced. The practice below should help with that balance.
1. Tiptoe Pushups
Being distracted by “sleeping” feet can be a problem in meditation, and I find that this practice helps to keep mine “awake.” Plus, it strengthens the arches of the feet and helps with keeping the feet comfortable in seated postures.
Stand on one foot and do 10 heel raises. Then switch sides. You can rest a hand on a wall or chair for support.
2. Thoppukaranam, or Hands-to-Ears Kriya (Also Known as “Superbrain Yoga”!)
This practice helps on so many levels! It strengthens the gluteal and lower back muscles and also benefits the pelvic floor by engaging root lock as the legs straighten, so as to reduce the weakness that comes from the shortened muscles of a sedentary modern lifestyle. This strengthening can help you to maintain alignment in your seated meditation practice. Meanwhile, Ayurvedic acupuncture, or marmapuncture, suggests that bringing the hands to the earlobes stimulates the pineal and pituitary points (the earlobes are also associated with intuition). Plus, it involves crossing the midline, which research shows helps brain function.
Begin in tadasana (mountain pose). Place a block on its narrowest setting between your shins, which helps to keep your knees and pelvis aligned (knees stacked over ankles, shins vertical, and pelvis not tucked under). Avoid locking your knees. Bring your left hand to your right earlobe and your right hand to your left earlobe, and squeeze gently.
Inhale and squat (as you would for chair pose).
Exhale as you rise, lightly engaging your pelvic floor and keeping your elbows lifted so you don’t round forward. Start with 18 repetitions (you can work up to as many as 108).
Now check the swara again. Is the blocked side more open? It’s pretty surprising how well thoppukaranam kriya works!
3. Lateral Stretch
Keeping the block between your shins, interlace your hands behind your head, and press your head into your hands. Inhale here, then on your exhale, side bend to the right and hold this lateral stretch for three breaths, breathing into your ribs. On an inhale return to vertical, then switch sides.
The ribcage holds a lot of tension, and I find that slow, breath-focused lateral stretches bring about that lovely “buzz” that makes meditation much easier.
4. Twisted Agni Sara (Fire Essence)
Waking up the belly brain is a good way to improve focus. We know that the microbes in our gut affect our mental stability, and meditation is all about mental stability. This practice builds heat and brings a deep sense of ease.
Stand with your feet a bit more than hip width apart and bring your hands into anjali mudra (prayer position) with your elbows wide. Bend your knees until, when you twist, you can take your right elbow to the inside of your right knee without rounding your back. Gaze down toward the floor. Inhale here, then on an exhale, contract your pelvic floor and lower abdomen as you rotate your face upward and roll your left shoulder back. Inhale as you look down again, untwisting slightly.
Do three repetitions. (If you experience light-headedness, decrease the abdominal contraction.) Return to your starting position, take three breaths, then switch sides.
5. Scapular Rolls
Relieving upper back tension can make for a more comfortable sit. Stand with your arms out in a T, wrists extended as though you were pressing your hands into walls (fingers pointing up), and move your shoulder blades every which way—forward, backward, in, and out—as you breathe deeply.
Then, reach your arms straight out in front of you, still extending your wrists so that your palms face forward, and roll your shoulder blades every which way from this position.
6. Arm Swings
This practice has a “cooling” effect on the shoulder capsule, which can be very calming, and I find that it seems to deepen my breath (which is useful for meditation). Perhaps this is because of the effect it is said to have on the heart and lung meridians that run down the inner and outer arm.
From mountain pose, step your left foot forward and bend your left knee, as in warrior I, though your back heel may be off the floor. Bring your right forearm behind your waist and hinge forward from your hip crease, keeping your spine long. Swing your left arm like an elephant’s trunk (in circles, figure 8s, or however your arm naturally swings), using momentum, not muscular control, for three to five breaths. Then reach your left arm up toward the ceiling, step your feet together, lower your arms, and switch sides.
7. Singing Snake and Moorcha (the Swooning Breath)
Come to a seated position, cross-legged or in a chair. On an inhale, drop your chin toward your chest.
Then lift your chin, open your mouth, extend your tongue, and exhale fully.
Close your mouth and inhale with the chin up.
Hold briefly, then exhale and level your chin.
See if you feel a sense of deep calm afterward. Do three repetitions unless you feel dizzy. I often follow this practice with soothing, humming brahmari (bumblebee breath). It’s nice to practice humming at different pitches to find areas of tightness or blockage along the energetic channels.
Check the flow in your nostrils again. See if they are more balanced and if you feel more focused. It may inspire you to add an alternate-nostril (nadi shodhana) practice to further heighten the awareness of the breath for your meditation. This swara balance can be the transition from wrestling your way into meditation to gently falling into a meditative state.