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Alexandra Branzan Albu, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Victoria BC and a mother of two, had a million things on her mind. She jogged regularly to help clear her head but often felt overwhelmed by the stress of juggling motherhood with a demanding job. Meditation promised the serenity she was looking for, but establishing a practice felt like one more thing on her endless to-do list, and the obstacles to getting started seemed insurmountable. “I was convinced I didn’t have time, that I had to focus on my family and getting tenure,” says Branzan Albu, who nevertheless made a deal with herself to meditate daily, and who now, three years later, wakes early most mornings to center herself before the day begins.
Her efforts paid off quickly. Within a month of beginning her practice, she says, she not only felt calmer, but found herself free of the insomnia she had struggled with for many years. “I started small, felt a shift, and just kept going,” she says.
The miracle of meditation is no secret. A vast and growing body of research shows that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits. We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as unimpeachably good for you.
But knowing that meditation is good for you is one thing—sitting down every day to do it is another. And consistency is the key to realizing the practice’s many benefits, says Sally Kempton, acclaimed meditation teacher and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.
Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, has taught meditation and yoga philosophy for more than 40 years, including two decades spent as a teaching monk in the Saraswati order. To help you establish your own practice, Yoga Journal collaborated with Kempton to come up with a program that gives both beginning and on-again, off-again meditators a taste of the rewards of regular practice—and puts you on the path to a habit that sticks.
The heart of the program is a series of four audio meditations of increasing length and complexity. While meditating for 30 to 75 minutes a day is ideal, Kempton says, beginners should start with shorter sessions and gradually increase the amount of time spent sitting. To that end, the first of the four meditations is just 10 minutes, to be done every day for a week. Each week brings a new practice, with each practice building on the last.
1. Choose a Technique
If you’ve ever thought about learning to meditate, you know that there are a potentially overwhelming number of styles and techniques to choose from. Vipassana or Transcendental? Visualization, prayer, or mantra? Music or no music? Decisions in the vitamin aisle at Whole Foods seem easy by comparison. Kempton’s advice is not to fret over the sprawling meditation buffet. Instead, think of the various techniques as tools or portals to give you access to the meditative state.
Which technique you use is less important than reaping the rewards of a quiet mind. Beginners, says Kempton, should start by finding a practice or technique that reliably puts them into a meditative state. Once this “core practice” is established, you can then begin to experiment with other meditation techniques and styles—always with the knowledge that you can return to one that works for you if you start to lose your way.
Over the course of four weeks, you will have a chance to try out several different techniques, beginning with the basic mindfulness practice of consciously following the breath. This technique gives a beginner’s busy mind something to do, explains Kempton: The exchange of air, as well the metronomic rhythm of the effort, steers the meditator toward the natural energy inside the body that wants to take the focus inward, an energy Kempton describes as the “meditation current.”
2. Establish a Habit
According to Kempton, it’s helpful for beginners to establish conditions for a meditation practice that will remain basically constant—the same time, the same cushion, the same quiet corner. Our minds and bodies have natural rhythms, and they respond positively to meditating at the same time every day and to visual and sensory cues like cushions, clothing, candles, and spaces dedicated to meditation, she says. Indeed, neuroscientists believe that we form habits by way of a three-step “habit loop”: The brain prompts you to perform an act in response to a cue, you do the activity, and you find it rewarding, thus strengthening the loop and making you eager to do it again.
When you create the conditions for your meditation practice, you’re not only setting up signals that tell your mind and body it’s time to turn inward, but you are making it that much more likely that you’ll sit down in the first place.
Of course, real life—in the form of work, significant others, and kids, to say nothing of laundry and dirty dishes—can make such constancy impossible. But don’t let the fact that you don’t have a quiet corner (or even a dedicated cushion) deter you. “Don’t get stuck on the idea that you must meditate at a certain time, or in certain clothes,” says Kempton, who has meditated on park benches, in buses, on airplanes, and even in a parked car.
3. Be Patient
I pencil in the 20 minutes before dawn as my optimal practice time and choose the guest bedroom as a quiet spot where I’m unlikely to be disturbed. On my first morning, I sit on the floor on a folded blanket with my eyes gently closed, my legs loosely crossed, and my palms resting softly on my thighs. The wall is close by to support my back if I need it. “You should make yourself comfortable so that physical discomfort doesn’t stop you from meditating,” says Kempton. Supporting the back against a wall with pillows, or even sitting in a chair is fine, so long as the spine is erect—a slumped posture constricts breathing, reduces alertness, and puts a kink in the energy running through the body.
As I listen to the first of the guided meditation audio recordings that make up this program, I focus on Kempton’s voice and on my breath. The air enters my lungs; the air leaves. My concentration is occasionally interrupted by thoughts of my son’s Little League team and the jingle of the dog’s tags, but following Kempton’s advice, I try to let these interruptions come and go, as if they’re pieces of driftwood floating toward and away from me on the ocean. Sometime during the first meditation session, my mind empties, my forearms and jaw feel wonderfully heavy, and I lose myself in the exchange of breath. Afterward, I feel relaxed, like the sediment inside of me has settled.
Was that the meditation current? I ask Kempton later. She affirms that it sounds as though I was drawn in. Some people, she tells me, are lucky to catch the current on the first try, but those less fortunate should be patient. The amount of time it takes to reach a quiet state varies by person and by level of experience. How to know when you’re there is another question with no hard-and-fast answer. You might experience a deep and relaxed state of awareness, as I did, while others might experience visions or sounds. And what happened in today’s session, Kempton tells me, may have no bearing on what will happen tomorrow or the next day. “Every meditation is different,” she says.
As the days go by, I discover that every practice does not bring bliss. In general, I don’t suffer much from the squirminess that often plagues the rookie meditator. But the mantra meditation of the second week doesn’t feel as successful as the first week’s breath practice. The mantra that I am focusing on—Ham sa, or “I am that”—hasn’t kept me engaged. In one session, I worry about a friend who has just lost his job. On another day, I can’t get comfortable. On a third day, my MP3 player mysteriously switches from Kempton’s voice to a singing Ray LaMontagne.
Kempton tells me that not every technique resonates with every person, and she reassures me that down days are part of establishing a practice. Even if some of my sessions don’t feel successful, she says, it is still time well spent. Pushing through uninspired sessions helps you build what is essentially meditation muscle. You’re training your body and mind to turn inward repeatedly—to persevere through one bad day or a series of tough days in order to better savor the great sessions.
I’m further reassured that virtually every experienced meditator I talk to says establishing a practice often comes down to simply showing up every day. I talk to an Idaho speech therapist with an eating disorder who initially found meditation so painful that she couldn’t sit for even one minute; a workaholic East Coast executive who had a hard time believing that meditating would pay enough dividends to make it worth his while; and Cherilynn Morrow, a retired professor of physics and astronomy at Atlanta’s Georgia State University and a student of Kempton’s who, despite repeated attempts at meditating, couldn’t quell her racing thoughts.
“The meditation I was doing wasn’t making me calm. I wasn’t settling down,” she says. On Kempton’s advice, she tried a different technique and was able to catch the meditation current by observing her fast-paced thinking instead of fighting it.
4. Find The Joy
As my experience of the 28-day program nears its end, I feel palpable but subtle benefits: heightened compassion, more objectivity, a greater sense of happiness and calm. When I am patient with my children as they get into their fourth argument of the morning, when I sit down at my desk and my mind focuses instead of racing, I can’t help thinking that I have meditation to thank. Still, I haven’t experienced any cymbal clashes or grand epiphanies. Meditation hasn’t stopped me from repeatedly checking my email, or from arguing with the cop who pulls me over for speeding. I wonder if I’ve somehow come up short.
Kempton reminds me that a final key to establishing a meditation practice is finding joy in it. That I am feeling happier and more at ease means that I am off to a good start, and I can expect these small joys to snowball—over the sessions and days, months, and years—into bigger ones. The final days of the program speed by as I truly savor each practice. Twenty-eight days in, I realize I’m closing the habit loop. Meditation has become an unquestionably rewarding part of my life.
And then, just days after I finish the program, I skip my practice to take a bike ride. The next morning I oversleep. On the third morning, I have to wake up early to get the kids ready for the day. I wonder if meditating hasn’t stuck after all, if I’ve lost whatever toehold I found in the meditation world. But on the fourth morning, the urge to meditate wakes me up before the alarm clock. I want what sitting gives me. In the darkness before dawn, I move quietly toward the room where my meditation perch awaits.
Andrew Tilin is a writer in Austin, Texas, and the author of The Doper Next Door.
5. Get a Good Seat
Proper posture is crucial for meditation, but you don’t have to sit in a classic yogic pose. The only absolute rule is that your back must be upright—straight but not rigid—to allow the breath and energy to flow freely. Beyond that, steadiness and comfort are key; you should be in a stable position that you can maintain comfortably for at least 20 minutes. Here are three options to get you started.
Once you’re seated comfortably, place your hands on your knees, palms up or down, with the thumb and forefinger touching. This completes an energetic circuit that allows the energy to expand and rise in the body.
In a Chair: Sit upright in a straight-backed chair with a flat seat, rather than one that tilts backward. (If you don’t have a chair with a flat seat, place a folded blanket under-neath your sitting bones, as shown, to tilt your pelvis forward.) Place both feet flat on the floor, and use pillows or bolsters behind your lower back, if necessary, to keep your back upright.
Simple Crossed Legs: Sit on the floor in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). If you’re on a hard floor, sitting on a rug or a folded blanket will cushion your ankles. Your hips should be two to four inches higher than your knees. If they aren’t, elevate your hips and buttocks with a firm cushion, a wedge, or two or three folded blankets under your sitting bones. This support will keep your posture erect and protect your psoas and the muscles of your lower back.
6. Begin With the Breath
This breath-awareness meditation is the first audio practice. When you want to establish a foundation for turning the mind inward, it’s important to work with a single core practice daily until it becomes a habit.
Against a Wall: If you find it difficult to sit upright on the floor, you can sit against a wall in Easy Pose and place soft pillows behind your lower back (keep the pillows behind the lumbar spine, rather than behind the middle back). Use as many as you need to support your spine and put you in an upright posture.
Sit in a comfortable posture with your spine easily erect. Inhale, letting the hips, thighs, and sitting bones become heavy as they sink into the floor. Exhale, feeling that the breath gently lifts the spinal column up through the crown of the head. Inhale, letting the chest lift and open. Exhale, allowing the shoulder blades to release down the back.
Inhale, and imagine that the sides of your ears move back just enough so that your head and neck feel aligned with your shoulders. Your chin should tilt slightly downward. Place your hands in Chin Mudra, thumb and forefinger touching, palms down on your thighs. Let your tongue rest on the floor of your mouth. Close your eyes.
Notice as your awareness comes gently to the flow of the breath. As the breath flows in and out, notice the sensations in your body. Let the inhalation bring your attention to any places in the body that feel tense or tight, and then, with the exhalation, release any holding there. Let the breath bring your attention to your shoulders, and with the exhalation, feel them releasing. Let the breath bring your attention to your chest and belly, and with the exhalation, release any holding in those areas. Inhale with the sense of allowing the breath to touch any places in your body that still feel tight, and exhale with the sense that your whole body softens and releases.
Allow the breath to flow at a natural rhythm. Notice how the breath flows into the nostrils with a feeling of coolness. It flows in and down the throat, perhaps coming to rest in the chest, and then flows out slightly warm as it passes up through the throat and out the nostrils.
Notice the gentle touch of your breath as your attention gradually becomes more and more settled in the flow of the breath. If thoughts arise, note them with the awareness “Thinking,” and bring your attention back to the breath.
As the breath flows in and out, you might sense that the breath is flowing in with particles of very subtle and peaceful light and energy. They flow in with the breath, down into your body, and out with the exhalation. You may visualize these light particles as white or blue or pink. Or you may simply sense them as waves and particles of energy.
Sense the enlivening caress of the breath, perhaps being aware of the breath filling your body with light particles, perhaps feeling the touch of the breath as it flows in through your nostrils, moves down through your throat and into your heart center, and then gently flows out.
To come out of the meditation, take a deep breath in and gently let it out. Notice how your body feels, how your mind feels, the quality of your energy. When you are ready, take up your journal and write what you remember about this meditation.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.