Wellness Wednesday: How to Start a Meditation Practice

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Meditation can be intimidating, especially for newbies. Before jumping in, read this and learn how to start a beginners meditation practice. 

How To Start A Beginners Meditation Practice

I hope last week's post about the benefits of meditation got you excited to start a practice...but hopefully not so excited that you jumped right in without doing any research. Trust me, I know from experience that doesn't go so well.

When I first started practicing yoga, I was instantly smitten. Meditation didn't seem like a huge leap. I mean, it was basically built into the end of each yoga practice with shavasana.

So, I found a nice, comfy pillow, sat down cross legged and closed my eyes. Instantly, my mind jumped to my to-do list and I started worrying about what I should be doing instead of meditating. I noticed my heart rate jump - isn't meditation supposed to be calming? Then I felt an itch on my back, like, an intense one. The kind you want to take care of, Baloo the Bear-style. I decided scratching yourself while meditating is probably not allowed, so I concentrated intensely on it, willing it to go away.  Not only did it not work, but my foot started to itch. "Screw it," I said. I scratched, relieving my itch, but intensifying a sense of failure. About five minutes in, I opened my eyes, grabbed my cell phone to turned off the alarm I had ambitiously set for 30 minutes, and immediately checked facebook.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing.

It took me a few months to try again, but when I did, I studied first. As you can imagine, it went much better (although how could it go worse?). I've been practicing a couple years now, but by no means am I an expert. Frankly, I think I still qualify as a beginner and it's only now that I've been trying to build the habit of a consistent morning meditation practice. Still, I think I've learned enough to help a true newbie start. So alas, here's how to start beginners meditation, and what I wish I knew before I attempted!

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PICK A TIME AND PLACE

Meditation is more effective if you practice at the same time of day and in the same location. For most, morning meditation is best. It starts the day on a good foot, and you'll be less likely to procrastinate as your to-do list grows. However, if there is another time that works better for you, go for it. Some people like to meditate in the middle of the day or during lunch break as a pick me up. Others prefer it at night, as a way to destress at the end of the day and promote a restful night of sleep. You can meditate any time you like - just make sure it works with your schedule and lifestyle, and that you won't be interrupted.

Next, choose a comfortable location. Meditating in the same spot will condition your mind to more quickly go into a meditative state. Sometimes I meditate in bed, because our mattress is just so darn comfortable and it's really warm and cozy in the morning, but I wouldn't recommend it. Find a corner in a quiet room where you can place a comfortable pillow or yoga mat. Keep your meditation spot simple, or bling it out with a fancy meditation pillow (<--- I want!), candles and music. I usually use the comfy papasan chair in the corner of the bedroom, or when it's covered in dirty clothes (which is frequently), my yoga mat and a fleece blanket to keep me warm.

START SMALL

Bless my heart for thinking I could meditate for thirty minutes on my first try. Just like with dieting, people often want to start off big, but usually, that leaves you frustrated and feeling like a failure. You'll be more successful, at both meditation and at building the actual habit, if you start out small and build from there.

I recommend starting with 2-3 minutes, and certainly no longer than 5. Even on days you have zero willpower, it's hard to skip out or procrastinate on something that takes only a couple minutes. And even that little bit of time is enough to have a powerful impact on your day.

FOSTER A BEGINNERS MINDSET

There's a reason it's called a meditation practice. The first time you meditate, you won't have a deep aha moment or profound metaphysical experience. Stress won't disappear into thin air. You might even feel worse after meditating, especially if something negative pops up or if you went in with high expectations of the results. Let go of expectations and focus on the experience.

MEDITATE

Before meditating, stretch for a minute to release any tension, which can be distracting when you're laying down still for a period of time. Set an alarm with a pleasant ring. I use the chimes ringtone on my iphone. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position in your designated meditation area. If it's cold, wrap yourself in a blanket. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, slowly breathing in and out. Concentrate on your breath. Don't try to change your breathing - just breathe naturally and observe. A mental image can be helpful. I like to imagine the oxygen flowing into my lungs, through my blood vessels and into my body as I breathe in, and then leaving my body as I exhale. You could also visualize waves rising and falling or flower petals opening and closing.

Guided meditations are also helpful, especially for beginners. UCLA offers free guided meditations, many that are five minutes or less. Depak Chopra also offers meditations on his site, although some are oddly specific (awaken your summer love?).

Your mind will wander. That's okay and 100% normal.  Simply notice that your mind is wandering, without judgement or feeling bad about it, and direct your attention back to your breath. The more you practice, the quicker you'll notice when your mind begins to wander, and the easier it'll be to stay focused.

Once you get in the habit of meditating at a regular time, start to increase the duration of your meditation or start meditating multiple times during the day. Figure out a pattern that works for you.

INCORPORATE MINDFULNESS THROUGHOUT THE DAY

Deepen your meditation practice by incorporating mindfulness in to your daily activities. Think about the little things you do every day that don't require much attention, like doing the dishes, getting dressed, or driving to work. These are often the times we focus on our to-do lists or negative thoughts and can most benefit from mindfulness. Mindful eating is a great example, but also think of mindful runs, mindful cooking, or mindful cleaning.

For me, I realized walking the dogs in the morning was oddly one of the more stressful times of my day. My mind would fixate on my to do list or other negative thoughts. So, I started taking mindful walks. To do this, I imagined my eyes as a video camera. Sounds odd, but then again this is an article on meditation, so you had to expect some weirdness. Because a video camera captures everything without judging, it's the perfect metaphor. Now, instead of cruising on autopilot, I notice the flowers blooming in a neighbors yard, the historic details on the houses and the gnarled branches of an old oak tree.

EXPERIMENT

There is no right or wrong way to meditate, just what works for you. Experiment with different methods, like body scan (my personal favorite), keeping your eyes open and focusing on one point, or focusing on sounds instead of your breath. There's other methods like kundalini yoga or transcendental meditation you could try (I haven't, but let me know if you have!). Try changing positions from sitting to laying down or visa versa. You might find a mantra is helpful. It's common to use Sanskrit sayings, but why not come up with something meaningful to you. Since "live joy, give joy" is my 2015 theme, it felt natural to use it as a mantra. As I take a breath in, I imagine breathing in joy, and as I breathe out, I imagine sending joy out into the world. Again, it's odd, but it deepens my practice. And it's hard not to end with a big smile.

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I think the hardest thing about meditation for many people is that there are no rules. But that's the beauty of it. Don't be afraid to discover what works for you. This is your practice.

Have you ever meditated? If so, what helped you start a practice? If not, what intimidates you about starting a practice? 

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