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A Beautiful Mind

You want to be calm, happy, focused—and meditation can help. To start, choose a meditation technique that works for you.

By Nora Isaacs

meditation HP

Ahhhh...meditation. Doesn't it sound soothing? In just 10 minutes, the experienced say, you can shift your mind from a state of distraction to one of deep concentration; transform your mood from anxious to calm; and tune in to the quiet, peaceful awareness that always abides deep within. And you've no doubt heard about the benefits of regular meditation. Studies suggest that meditation increases activity in areas of the brain associated with positive feelings, that it supports the immune system, and that it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is a natural stress reliever.

But here's the rub: Meditation—the act of residing in a deep state of concentration, uninterrupted by thoughts—is challenging. For most people, it takes a long period of daily practice to find that state of concentration and enjoy it for more than a few seconds at a time. So, to experience the benefits of meditation, you kind of need to fall in love with your practice. To start, you need a technique that resonates with you, so that you're inspired to return to it again and again.

Meditation techniques give your mind a single object to focus on, such as an image, the breath, or a sacred sound. Jim Bennitt, a ParaYoga teacher in Chicago, explains that this focus gives the mind something to do. "Our mind's job is to move," he says. But instead of letting it jump between thoughts about tonight's dinner or your work deadlines and vacation fantasies, a meditation technique gives your mind a simple, repetitive task that will ultimately slow down its movements and lull it into a calm, even state.

The three techniques described in the pages that follow—a visualization practice, a mantra practice, and a walking meditation—involve activities that you do every day, but here, rather than doing them unconsciously, you bring your total focus and awareness to the simple task at hand. If you're interested in establishing a regular meditation practice, you might try each technique for a full week. Keep a journal: Write down how you feel before and after each meditation session. Also, take note of how long you are able to meditate with each technique. After three weeks, you can look back over your journal to see which technique you are most drawn to. At that point, begin practicing it regularly until it becomes a habit—one that you'll enjoy and benefit from for a lifetime.

Sitting Pretty

Don't worry, you don't have to sit in a pretzel-like pose for meditation. "While the ancient yogis preferred to meditate in complex seated postures like Lotus Pose, most practitioners today don't have the mobility in their hips to do so safely," says yoga teacher Jim Bennitt. But that doesn't mean that you should just plop down without preparation. Experiment with the three options below, keeping in mind this tip from Bennitt: For maximum comfort, find a position where your hips are higher than your knees. This makes it easier to keep your spine long and your body relaxed and comfortable.

Cross-Legged: One of the most accessible meditation poses is called Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Sit on the floor and cross your shins to provide a broad base of support. If you're more flexible, you might create a stable base by sliding one heel on top of the opposite hip crease, so that you're sitting in Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose).

In either position, if you feel yourself slumping, sit on the front edge of a cushion, block, or folded blanket for support. Reach underneath each sitting bone with your hand and slide your flesh back so you can feel your pelvis rooting down firmly into the earth. Slide your shoulder blades down your back; broaden the collarbone. Lengthen the back of your neck. Rest your hands on the knees with the palms facing up.

Legs Out in Front: If you have knee or hip pain, extend your legs along the floor in front of you and sit with your back against a wall. Slide a cushion or a few folded blankets underneath your buttocks to bring your hips higher than your knees. Make sure that your head, neck, and torso are properly aligned. Rest your hands in your lap, palms facing up.

In a Chair: Let go of preconceived notions: It's still meditation if you are sitting in a chair. "In this case, just make sure your feet are firmly planted and your thighs are parallel to the floor," says Bennitt. Sit up straight and allow your shoulders to drop away from your ears. Reach the crown of your head toward the ceiling and rest your hands on the thighs with the palms facing down.

Turn Your Eyes Inward: Visualization

What It Is: The eyes are a powerful sensory organ, and they're typically hyperalert, focusing on the outside world. A visualization meditation can help you reverse this natural tendency. "Let's say you're walking down Broadway in Manhattan," says Nikki Costello, a yoga and meditation teacher based in New York. "Your eyes get pulled toward the flashing lights, the neon signs, the shop windows. When you sit for meditation, a visualization gives your mind an image to focus on, and it pulls your eyes inward." The mind naturally follows, and meditation becomes more effortless.

Most of the visualizations Costello teaches are based on images from nature: light, water, earth, sky, and mountains. They're soothing to the senses, they have a quality of purity, and they tend to bring us into the present moment. As a result, Costello finds, the mind relaxes and the breath deepens. Once you're able to relax, you can begin to invoke the qualities of the images you're visualizing—and this is where visualization can be transformative. "The idea is to picture something that's soothing or balancing," she says. "If you want your mind to be more clear, visualize a cloudless sky. If you want to feel grounded, visualize a mountain. Instill the quality of the mountain inside yourself."

Nature-based visualizations, Costello says, can help you harness your power of sight and use it in a way that is calming and beneficial. "Visualization can guide you out of a narrow thought pattern to something more expansive and free," she says.

Practice: The Spine Filled With Light
What It Is: Start in a comfortable seated position with your eyes closed and your spine erect. Allow your body to gradually become still. Bring your awareness to your breath. Observe it coming in and going out until it settles into a relaxed, natural rhythm. Then bring your attention to your spine. Feel its internal support extending from the steady base of the pelvis up through the crown of your head. Allow each breath to encourage a little more space between the vertebrae, gently elongating your spine.

Next, imagine that your spine is transforming from a solid structure into a warm, brilliant ray of light. In the same way you see light passing through a window or through leaves on a tree, visualize a ray of warm, sparkling light filling your spine. We often see our bodies as dense matter—can you imagine that effervescent light from your spine dissolving any heaviness so that all of your cells are filled with light? Focus on this image of light infusing all of your being, allowing yourself to become brighter and more radiant as you sit for 5 to 10 minutes of meditation.

Ideal For: Visual learners, or people who learn best through sight. If you are an artist, painter, or designer, you might find that meditations with strong visuals are easiest for you. If you always remember faces but you struggle to remember names, you are very likely a visual learner and might enjoy this practice.

The Power of Sound: Mantra Meditation

What It Is: Mantra meditation involves silently repeating a sound to help quiet the mind. Although there is no direct translation of the Sanskrit word mantra (the syllable man means "to think"), Richard Rosen, a Yoga Journal contributing editor, the author of many yoga books, and the director of Piedmont Yoga in Oakland, California, thinks of it as an "instrument of concentrated thought." A mantra can consist of a single letter, a word, or one or more full sentences. In the yoga tradition, Om is thought to be the "root mantra" from which all other Sanskrit mantras have emerged.

Yoga philosophy suggests that all sound emanates from universal consciousness, or the divine source of the universe. A mantra can help lead you back to this source, which also happens to be within you. As Rosen says, "Chanting a mantra can remind us that the individual Self and the universal Self are in some way identical."

In the traditional practice of mantra, the pronunciation of the sound is of utmost importance, and mantras were often held in secrecy, passed down from a teacher to an initiated student. "Traditional mantras have a particular energetic resonance that is conducive to concentrating the mind," says Rosen. But, he adds, any word or sound that has meaning for you will do. "What really matters is the ability to stay focused on the sound of the mantra in order to bring the wild thoughts or emotions under control."

Practice: The Unspoken Mantra
What It Is: The Ajapa mantra, or "unspoken mantra," presented here uses the sound of the breath as a point of focus. You can try this practice during seated meditation or any time you'd like to quiet your thoughts. "Your breath is with you all the time, so you can use it to calm yourself when you need to," Rosen says.

Sit quietly with your eyes closed and listen carefully to the sound of your natural breath. Tune in to see if you can hear a hissing "sa" sound with each inhalation, and a breathy "ha" sound with each exhalation. Don't be discouraged if you can't hear the sounds right away—just pretend that you do, and eventually they will come. You can also mentally say the sounds in coordination with the breath.

Spend a few minutes following these sounds. Eventually they will merge to become the mantra Soham (pronounced "so-hahm"). This mantra, which we involuntarily utter with every breath we take from cradle to grave, means "This am I," reminding us of our eternal identity with the soundless source. (It can also be interpreted as "I am it.") The practice will naturally draw your awareness inward, slow the speed of your breathing, and help soothe the tumultuous fluctuations of your consciousness.

Ideal For: Auditory learners, or people who learn through hearing or speaking. If you connect easily to music or the sounds around you, or if you find it soothing to repeat sounds or phrases to yourself, mantra meditation might be a natural fit for you.

Meditation in Motion: Walking Meditation

What It Is: Think of walking meditation as mindfulness in motion. Instead of focusing on your breath or a mantra, focus on the sensation of your feet touching the ground. "For some people, sitting meditation can cause a lot of restlessness," says Paul Weitz, who teaches yoga and Thai massage in Chicago. Similar to mindfulness meditation, walking meditation focuses on observing thoughts and sensations and labeling them as they arise.

As you walk slowly, you'll mentally note what is happening as you lift your foot, move it forward, and place it down on the ground. "You can track your movement through space as a way of staying present moment to moment," Weitz says.

During walking meditation, you might find that you have trouble balancing or that your environment distracts you. That's all par for the course, Weitz says. "There is a lot going on, but just allow the practice to be simple."

Ideal For: If you are a high-energy, restless type or if you have aches and pains that prevent you from sitting comfortably, try walking meditation. Weitz explains that this technique was traditionally used as an adjunct to seated meditation, and it's often used as a counterbalance for practitioners during long meditation retreats. "If you are sitting all day, it's balancing to stand up and walk." He also recommends using this technique if you meditate after eating, or if you tend to feel drowsy during seated meditation.

Practice: Mindful Walking
Ideally, you'll do this meditation in a clear, open space that's approximately 20 to 30 feet long. If you don't have a room that big in your house, you can walk in a hallway, around the perimeter of your room, or outside in a park.

With your arms relaxed by your sides, keep your eyes softly focused about six feet in front of you. Bring your attention to your feet. As you take slow, careful steps, mentally label the actions of each foot. First, bring your attention to the back foot and feel the sensation of the foot lifting as you mentally note "Lift." Then move that foot through space and notice the sensation of the foot and leg moving, silently noting "Move." Then place that foot on the ground and feel the sensation of the foot connecting to the earth, noting "Place." Continue the process for 10 minutes.

When you notice that your mind has drifted, mentally note "Thinking" and bring your attention back to your feet. If the distraction becomes especially strong, stop walking, take a breath, bring your attention back to your feet, and begin again. If you find that the mental noting interferes with your ability to be connected with the sensations of walking, then feel free to drop it. But if your mind wanders a lot, you can use noting to tether your mind to the sensation, to what is actually happening at that moment. When you need to turn around, simply note "Turning" as you slowly pivot on your foot.

Nora Isaacs, a former editor at Yoga Journal, is a freelance health and wellness writer.

February 2012

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