So You Want to Start Meditating
From mental benefits to breathing techniques, here’s what you need to know to begin your own mindfulness practice.
Meditation seems like a simple practice. Breathe in, breathe out, be still. At least, that’s what it looks like to the casual observer. But there’s more—a lot more—that goes into doing this activity right, the most basic of which is learning how to be “present.” Being in the here and now is, for many people, nearly impossible without practice.
Imagine, for a moment, that meditation is like surfing. “If you show up on the beach and have never had instructions, you don’t know how to walk out to the water with the surfboard, pop up on the board, recognize waves or stay balanced,” says Light Watkins, a Vedic meditation teacher and author of Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation, Without Really Trying. “But if you learn, it can be fun and enjoyable. Meditation is the same. You have to know how to surf through your mind and thoughts, and then it will feel quite enjoyable and not hard at all.”
If you’re curious about trying meditation, these are a few things to know first.
Why You Should Meditate
Adding yet another item to your to-do list begs the question, why? For starters, it’s good for you. It settles the mind and body. “Meditating provides balance in your mental, physical and emotional health, which then allows you to be able to access more of your full potential,” says Watkins. By teaching you to tune into your internal rhythms and needs, meditation helps you feel in control of your body in a natural, organic way during a time when there is a trend toward information overload on every aspect of your health and fitness. In addition, research shows it can help lower blood pressure, ease emotional issues such as depression, and help thwart insomnia. That’s key during times when stress and anxiety are high.
“Anxiety is stress coming into the body, but not going out of the body,” believes Watkins. “If that continues on over a long amount of time, the body starts to become like a pressure cooker for stress and you’ll snap or experience some major health issue. Meditation is a way to relieve that stress by creating a release valve.”
“When the body experiences stress or anxiety, it goes into a fight or flight response,” adds trauma release specialist and meditation teacher Lissette LaRue, founder of Healing From Within in Gales Ferry, CT. “The sympathetic nervous system is activated and releases stress hormones in the body. Meditation helps calm your nervous system and bring the body back to a normal state faster.”
By focusing on your breath and allowing thoughts to enter and leave your mind freely, meditation trains your brain and body to let go of stress. And the more often you practice, the better you’re able to manage those stressful moments when they come up.
Tips to Get Started
While regular practice is important for tapping into all that meditation has to offer, the session itself doesn’t need to be long. In fact, just one minute of meditation can have a substantial impact on your body’s stress response, although three minutes or more is probably ideal. “That’s when you are beginning to work on your circulatory system,” says LaRue. “Three minutes is when you are going to feel more of an experience.”
As you are building your practice—one that Watkins says should be daily because stress doesn’t take days off—your goal is to get to know your breathing—intimately. Breathwork is the easiest point of entry into meditation, says LaRue. “Your breath is your power. When you are in an emotional state, it’s your breath that will literally give you the power to move that feeling out of your body,” she says, noting that most of us do this subconsciously already when we take a deep breath or sigh. “No one should think that they don’t know how to meditate or can’t meditate, because they are already doing it. The practice is about just consciously becoming more aware of it.”
If you picture meditation requiring a quiet room with soft lights, you’re not wrong—but you’re not seeing the full picture, either. There are many different types of the practice, from guided imagery to walking meditation to the more traditional sitting in stillness. Heck, you can even do it while washing dishes. But since you have to start somewhere, LaRue recommends a walking meditation—you’ll feel less self-conscious than sitting in total silence. To begin, try inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath for five seconds, and then exhaling for five seconds while walking. If you find your mind wandering, focus by mentally saying the word “sat” as you inhale, and “nam” as you exhale. This will give your brain something to do while still keeping it tied to the here and now.
Like anything else, what you put in is what you will get out with this activity. “The more you invest in, say, getting a teacher or taking a training, the easier and better your experiences, and the more support you are probably going to have,” says Watkins. If you are interested in just dipping your toes into the water, classic meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer are a great resource. “But eventually you want to graduate from the apps where you can get into a more structuralized training,” he says. “That is where you are really going to find that your practice takes off.”
And if you try a few sessions and find meditation isn’t your cup of tea after all, that’s cool, too. Taking long walks, easy runs or even certain fitness classes can be equally successful in lowering stress for some people. As they say, whatever works!