Why do you want to meditate?
Maybe you’ve heard about the long-term benefits of meditation, and you’d like to dive into some of that goodness (including decreased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, and increased mental focus). You may adore the few minutes of guided meditation your yoga teacher offers during your weekly classes, and as a result, would like to cultivate your own habit outside of the studio. Or maybe you haven't tried meditation yet because you haven't found a style of practice that speaks to you (and there are many!).
Developing a regular meditation practice can help to quiet that chattering “monkey mind” we yogis so often refer to, and it can help us gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. But where should you start?
The basis of meditation is mindfulness, which can benefit many areas of our lives. Developing a regular meditation practice can help to quiet that chattering “monkey mind” we yogis so often refer to, and it can help us gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. But where should you start? If you aren’t sure, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list to help you familiarize yourself with the scope of the practice. Below is an overview of six styles of meditation and how they can benefit you.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation practice involves using the breath as the focus of attention. When distractions arise, simply allow yourself to observe them without attachment, and then draw your attention back to the breath. Feeling bored? No problem, just notice that you’re bored! Wondering if you’re doing this whole meditation thing wrong? That’s fine, just notice that this is what you’re thinking. Feeling wiggly? Wiggle away, just notice that you’re moving. The act of observing distractions as they arise, without becoming overly fixated on them, allows us to return more quickly to the breath and to stay in the present moment (which is what meditation is all about!).
Mindfulness meditation can be helpful as a reprieve during moments of stress, and at any other time you feel the need to reboot your cool, calm self and to breathe.
2. Mantra Meditation
Rather than focusing solely on the breath during mantra meditation practice, you continuously repeat a mantra—a sound, chant, or phrase. A mantra can be as simple as the sound of "soham," or it can be a personalized phrase that holds value for you (for example, if you are feeling anxious, you may choose a mantra like “I am at peace” for that particular practice).
Some students may accept a mantra from a trusted teacher for long-term use, especially in established mantra-based meditation programs.
3. Moving Meditation
For some, the physical practice of sitting still can be a barrier to beginning a meditation practice or achieving a quiet mental state. Enter moving meditation. If you find that seated meditations leave you feeling more restless, anxious, or agitated than when you began, walking meditation may be more your speed. Breathwalk, a kundalini yoga practice, encourages practitioners to synchronize their breath with their own footsteps as well as with a traditional kundalini mantra. Ideally, your mind still focuses on something that is occurring in the present (on body, breath, and mantra), which allows you to drop other distractions. Focused awareness allows you to break from thinking about domestic to-do lists, work stress, or any unproductive chatter that might otherwise cause heightened anxiety or stress.
4. Visualization Meditation
This form of meditation can be helpful if you have a specific goal you would like to achieve. Visualization meditation involves creating detailed mental images of what your desired outcome looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like. The idea behind this practice is that our bodies will respond to what we imagine. For example, if you are able to picture in your mind what complete relaxation would feel like, it may signal the muscles of your body to let go of unnecessary tension. You might also imagine gaining more strength or athletic capacity. Some studies have indicated a positive correlation between mental imagery exercises and muscular functioning.
5. Body Scanning Meditation
This technique involves bringing your attention to one area of your body (the top of your head or the bottom of your feet are good places to start), noticing any physical, emotional, or mental sensations you are experiencing in that area of the body, and then setting an intention to release tension. The scan progressively moves through the body until all areas have been addressed. This practice is especially helpful for physical stress (such as chronic tension in your muscles). Many of us inadvertently clench our jaws when we are under stress. (I didn’t realize I did it so often until my dentist pointed out the signs of it during a regular cleaning!) Over time, this can lead to jaw and neck pain, headaches, and dental problems—all from routinely gritting your teeth during moments of duress.
Body scanning meditations allow you to “clean out” the areas that become your personal stress dumpsters, and may even help you become more aware of how you hold and manage stress.
6. Gazing Meditation
This form of meditation, also called trataka, involves focusing on an external object. Practitioners often use the flame of a candle, but other meaningful objects (such as a crystal, a religious item, or a picture) that hold personal value or symbolize a personal intention can also be used as focal points. As the duration of your focus lengthens, you may notice your eye movements begin to decrease. One study indicated that gazing meditations improved neurocognitive functions such as memory, attention, and concentration, and also strengthened the ocular muscles in older participants.
How Long Should You Meditate?
Having reviewed these styles of meditation, you may wonder how long these practices will take. Your meditation practice (no matter the style) can be as short or as long as is comfortable for you. Aiming for one to three minutes of consistent practice is a good starting goal. As with any new habit, consistency is the real key! You’ll probably see more benefit from meditating for two minutes daily than you would from trying to practice for 30 minutes just once every few weeks. As you become more comfortable with meditation, you can gradually lengthen the duration of your practice.
As your practice becomes regular, you may also notice that you are engaging more fully in your daily activities—being fully present as you answer a work email or play with your child rather than mentally attending to multiple concerns and interests at the same time.
Everyone can find a meditation practice that is enjoyable, beneficial, and (most importantly!) sustainable. As your practice becomes more consistent, or as you find yourself in different situations along your life’s journey, you may also find yourself seeking a different method.
Finally, if you’d like additional assistance, these guided resources may provide more support. And of course, you can also ask your local yoga teacher about meditation!
Trust that as your exploration and practice of meditation develops, there will be many different ways to find the answers to any questions that arise. Most importantly, enjoy the process!