When you hear the word meditation what do you think of? Maybe some yogi on a mountaintop in India somewhere? Or a shaven-headed monk contemplating among the rice paddies in his tiny thatched hut? Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and it’s true that its history is closely tied to mystics and seekers. Nearly every faith tradition includes some form of meditative focus, but the benefits of meditation go far beyond spiritual edification. That’s why more and more people from all walks of life are incorporating this ancient practice into their daily lives as a way to promote physical and mental well-being.
What Does Research Say About Meditation?
Western medicine has long known that high levels of stress can have negative physical impacts. Meditation can help to reduce tension and prevent stress-related health problems. Researchers affiliated with Harvard University have found that the regular practice of meditation can result in changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and brain chemistry.
How Do You Meditate?
There are almost as many ways to meditate as there are meditators. You can meditate while sitting—on the floor or in a chair—standing, walking, or even lying down. Some people follow their breath, while others focus on a mental image or repeat a word or phrase to themselves, either silently or out loud. The easiest, most basic, form of meditation, however, and the one most often recommended to beginners, is silent, seated meditation.
Here are a few guidelines to get you started with meditation:
- Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Many people feel more “rooted” sitting on the floor, with a small pillow under their buttocks to prop up their hips. If you find this comfortable, go for it. Be sure to sit in a way that allows you to plant both of your knees on the ground so your body forms a stable “tripod” shape. If you can’t physically manage that, sitting in a chair is fine. Sit on the edge of the chair, with both feet flat on the ground.
- No matter how or where you sit, the most important thing is to keep your spine fully erect. If you are not used to maintaining an upright posture, imagine that the top of your head is connected to the ceiling by a taut string.
- Rest your hands softly in your lap. Some meditation traditions recommend holding your hands in one of a variety of specific positions, called mudras. You may do so if you wish, but this isn’t necessary.
- Tuck your chin in slightly, close your mouth and swallow, allowing your tongue to create a seal with the roof of your mouth. This will prevent excess saliva from being produced and minimize the need to swallow.
- Keep your eyes about halfway open to prevent yourself from falling asleep. Settle your vision on a non-distracting point on the floor or wall, and allow your focus to go soft.
- Take a few deep, cleansing breaths, then allow your breath to come and go naturally. As you breathe, focus your attention on the in and out flow of the air. Begin to count slowly each time you exhale. Breathe in. Breathe out and count, “one.” Breathe in. Breathe out and count, “two.” When you reach ten, start over again at one. If you find your mind wandering, gently shift your attention away from your thoughts and back onto your breath, and start counting again at one. You will find that it is difficult, at first, to reach ten without losing count. This is perfectly normal. Don’t allow it to discourage you. Over time, your mind will settle, and the spaces between your thoughts will grow longer.
- Sit for about five minutes at first. Trying to meditate for much longer than that in the beginning can become unpleasant or frustrating, and is the number one reason that people quit early on. It’s more important to develop a daily habit than to try to meditate for long periods at a time. If, after a week or two of daily practice, you find that the five minutes passes too quickly, add another five minutes. Over time, you may build up to a half an hour or more. Just be sure to take it slowly.
- Once you’ve developed a solid daily meditation routine, feel free to add to it. You may want to focus on an image or repeat a phrase that has meaning for you, or you may wish to break up long sitting periods with short walking breaks. By walking slowly and focusing on the sensation of your feet rising and falling from the floor, you can maintain meditative concentration even while moving. You may even want to find a meditation teacher in your area, or a group of people to meditate with.
Prefer a guided meditation? Try this one, or check the ones through podcasts or smartphone apps.