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Whether you’re new to meditation or practice on a regular basis, sometimes getting quiet and turning inward can be really tough. Here’s how to drop in, even when it feels out of reach.
Meditation can be challenging. Even after you’ve had a taste of its benefits—those sweet moments of inner calm, clarity, and deep connection—accessing them again can prove frustratingly elusive. If you’re like most, you may find that one day your mind is speeding into the future, your body feels agitated, and you can’t sit still, while the next day you’re so lethargic you can hardly stay awake.
Don’t be discouraged. Resting with ease in meditation doesn’t happen magically. But there is a path to help you get there: Through your breath, you can tap into the flow of prana (life force) to help increase, decrease, or focus your energy, making it easier to find that desired state of relaxed attention.
How to set yourself up for success
Too often, we try to start meditating without acknowledging how we feel—mentally, physically, and emotionally. So, begin by doing a quick body scan. Lie on your back with your legs extended and fill your body with awareness, as if you were filling a glass with water. Notice how your body responds: Does it begin to relax, or is there resistance? Close your eyes and feel the weight of your skull and pelvis, the contact of your back on the floor. Then mentally scan your body one area at a time. Begin with your toes and travel up to your legs, spine, and shoulders, then down your arms and hands, and back up your arms to your neck and head. Are there places that pull away from the floor and areas that are more in contact?
Check out the flow of thoughts moving through your mind. Do you have a perpetual to-do list? Are you rehashing some past conversation or planning the future? Then, place one hand on your chest and take a moment to feel the beating of your physical heart. Let your awareness settle into its rhythm, then drop your attention in a little deeper, sensing the emotional heart. Is there sadness, joy, or anxiety? Don’t go deeply into any one feeling; just get a sense of the overall tone in this moment. Notice the relationship between your emotional state and your breath, between your feelings and your physical body.
Finally, feel all of these dimensions at once: physical, energetic, mental, and emotional. Now rest in this spacious awareness.
Remember, your observations may change from day to day, depending on the hour, your schedule, and all of the other variables that affect your energy and mood.
Beat your meditation roadblock
If you observed that your breathing was labored, your mind dull, and your heart heavy, try an energizing practice. Was your breathing rapid, your mind racing, and your body tense? A calming practice might be most appropriate. Feeling scattered and disoriented? A focusing practice can help you quiet your monkey mind. Listen to your brain, body, and heart for guidance about a movement practice that can bring you into balance, ready to sit and draw your attention inward.
Set the tone
Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal)
This mudra, held in front of the heart chakra (anahata) or at the brow chakra (ajna), typically seals the end of our yoga practice as we say Namaste to honor the divine light in ourselves, our classmates, and our teachers. It can also be used at the beginning and end of our meditation practice as an expression of gratitude, or a symbolic joining of universal opposites, such as sun and moon or male and female.
If you can’t stay awake …
It can be incredibly challenging to keep your eyes open, especially if your body is listless, your mind dull, or your heart heavy. This practice will help awaken your energy for meditation. Remember, the focus here is not on alignment but on moving with the breath, specifically the inhalation: progressively lengthening the inhalations, inhaling in stages, and pausing before exhaling. Holding the breath for a moment after an inhalation can extend the energizing effect of the inhalation on both the mind and the body. However, do this with caution: If your breath becomes agitated at any point, return to a comfortable, natural rhythm, and keep your exhalation equal to or longer than your inhalation.
If you can’t sit still for more than 30 seconds …
Did your self-reflection reveal a rapid breathing pattern? Was your jaw clenched? Were you feeling anxious or irritable? Many of us are regularly in overdrive, and coming to sit for meditation at the end of a hectic day can feel like a jolting brake in a speeding car. Langhana (reducing) practices are calming, and can help you shift gears and transition smoothly into meditation. The practices are cooling and calming, designed to eliminate and reduce excess energy, thoughts, and strong emotions.
The emphasis in a langhana practice is on exhaling and holding poses—such as seated forward bends and twists—for several seconds. Less attention is paid to alignment and more to hugging the belly in toward the spine during exhalations, which lengthen progressively. Holding the breath for a moment after an exhalation can extend the calming effects, but this can be challenging. If your breath becomes strained, simply lengthen the exhalation and skip the pause.
If you have a crazy monkey mind …
A practice that combines energizing and calming principles (brahmana and langhana) has a balancing, or samana, effect. Begin with a Sun Salutation series and standing poses to engage the body and mind. While doing these, try taking inhalations and exhalations of equal lengths. Movements that bring your focus from the center of the body to the periphery and back, and bilateral exercises, which require the left arm and the right leg (and the reverse) to work in unison, can help cultivate balance between focused attention and relaxed awareness.