Ah, the wayside—a place brimming with the best of intentions, like donating that pile of clothes, learning French, or finally starting a regular meditation practice. After all, it’s easy to wait for the right time (when you finally become a wake-up-at-5-a.m. kind of person) or the right prop (a promo code for that herringbone meditation cushion should slide into your inbox soon, right?).
Yet the truth is that a meditation practice is designed to transcend those elusive perfect conditions; it just fits into your life, whether you do it at sunrise or smack in the middle of your busy schedule. “You’ve just got to do it, not just think it’s a good idea,” says Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. “And that’s what’s hard.”
As with asana, there are many meditation styles and traditions, and they aren’t all suited for everyone. Finding a technique that speaks to you may take some experimentation, but Sally Kempton, author of Meditation for the Love of It, recommends trying to stick to one style every day for a week—or better yet, a month—before ditching it for another. This gives you a chance to figure out whether you’re reaping those sweet, science-backed benefits, such as reduced stress, anxiety, and pain. “Over the long term, you will start to see the results of your practice—not in your sitting session, but out in your life,” adds Cyndi Lee, a yoga and Tibetan Buddhism teacher. Salzberg agrees: “A regular meditation practice will show in how you speak to yourself when you make a mistake, how you greet a stranger, or when you’re meeting some kind of adversity. That’s where you’ll see the shift."
The Challenge: Stick to a Meditation Practice This Month
Ready to start a committed meditation practice? First, read on to learn more about five common—yet different—meditation styles. They unfold as a progression, from meditation preparation (often called mindfulness practices) to more traditional, deeper, and esoteric forms of meditation. And while they all offer benefits, the idea behind mindfulness is to train your mind for the deeper, more esoteric styles. If you are new to sitting still with your thoughts, mindfulness practices like guided meditation are a great place to start. “Before we can be fully absorbed in what’s happening in the moment, we have to learn to narrow our attention,” says Ashley Turner, a yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles, pointing out that in Patanjali’s prescribed path in the Yoga Sutra, concentration (dharana) comes before meditation (dhyana).
If one of the styles resonates deeply, dive right in and practice it for 5–20 minutes every day this month. Can’t decide which one is the one? Try each style every day for seven days, then stick to practicing the one you liked the most.
Western mindfulness practices come from a foundational Buddhist practice called shamatha, which means “calm abiding.” It strengthens, stabilizes, and clears the mind, so that you stay present moment to moment. You do this by consciously placing your attention on an object or physical feeling. In a sitting meditation, that may be your breath; in a walking meditation, it is the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step, Lee says. “It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
After all, you’re contending with raw thoughts—what’s happening now, what happened before, and what may happen later. And that’s OK: The Tibetan word for practice, gom, also means “getting familiar.” “The idea is not that you’re going to have absolutely no thoughts,” says Lee. “What you’re actually doing is cultivating your ability to recognize that you don’t have to buy into everything that comes up. Part of the experience is recognizing that your mind will stray, so when it does, you bring it very gently with precision back to the feeling of your foot on earth. Step, step, step.”
What to expect
A teacher will get you started in a seated meditation, and then prepare you to move mindfully. “Start a little bit slower than your ordinary walk, so you can feel your feet and arrive in every step,” says Lee. At home you can try it around your dining room table or up and down a hallway.
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Guided Mindfulness Meditation
Nothing derails your ability to be present—during your yoga practice, at work, or while meditating—than what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” an untamed, capricious mind that swings from thought to thought. That’s why guided mindfulness meditations are an effective entry point for beginners: They teach you to focus, center, and find peace in our always on-the-go culture.
This style—a 21st-century Western adaptation of ancient Buddhist practices—has popped up everywhere from drop-in meditation studios (like INSCAPE and MNDFL in New York City and Unplug in LA) to popular apps (bet you’ve heard of Headspace). Guided meditation works by cultivating the “witness mind,” a judgment-free awareness of your inner dialogue. You begin to recognize the recurring thoughts and stories that incite anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear. “The biggest shift is that instead of reacting to a thought, you simply notice it, become curious about it, and choose whether or not to pay attention to it,” Turner says. The goal? “Eventually, you can begin to respond wisely—or not at all.”
What to expect
Think of guided meditation as if you have a coach supporting you step by step through the session, Turner says. No matter where you are—seated on your meditation cushion, on a crowded subway train, or drifting off to sleep—a teacher verbally directs your attention to physical sensations (such as temperature, sound, breath, and body) and what is happening in your mind. When distractions arise, take note—and refocus on the guided cues.
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Mantra, derived from two Sanskrit words—manas (mind) and tra (tool)—is a practice of chanting, whispering, or reciting (aloud or silently) a sound, word, or phrase. “Mantra actually changes the rhythm of your brain and takes you from the plane of the five senses into what I call a ‘super’ consciousness, in which you are tuned in to unbound intelligence,” says Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace. You can use this deep awareness to remove obstacles in your life or even reconnect to the divine, says Finger.
Vocalizing a mantra and feeling the resulting subtle vibration quiets your thinking mind (the beta brain-wave state), so that you enter a more relaxed (alpha) state. When you can still sense vibration without uttering anything at all, you settle into a dreamlike state (theta). It’s here where you alter patterns grooved into the unconscious mind, Finger says. The primordial sound Aum, often spelled Om, takes you from theta into delta, he adds, a state where you may experience samadhi, or absorption—the final limb of yoga—without form or thought.
Neuroscientists and researchers have found mantra meditation practice may help calm the nervous system and induce deep relaxation. Studies also suggest that you gain the benefits regardless of the mantra itself. That means you have a lot of options. You might chant Aum, Sat Nam (which means “I am truth”), or long invocations to Ganeśha, the god of wisdom; you could repeat bija (seed) mantras, vibrations that activate the chakras; or you could recite the Lord’s Prayer, positive reinforcements like, “I am enough,” or any sound, word, or phrase—as long as you repeat something with focused attention.
And there are different ways to practice. Gurus often pass down a bespoke mantra to their students. And japa is a practice in which you move individual beads of a mala through your fingers as you repeat a mantra. In Transcendental Meditation, students hire and work with a trained meditation leader who initiates them with a mantra that isn’t to be spoken aloud or ever shared.
What to expect
Lying down or sitting comfortably, you’ll repeat a mantra silently or aloud and sense the accompanying vibration. You can do this in a certain pattern (for example, you might silently repeat the mantra once on each inhalation and once on each exhalation), or let the mantra take on a pattern of its own. When your mind wanders, simply notice and bring your attention back to the mantra.
STUDY WITH ALAN
Create space for your consciousness to return to its natural state in Alan's Master Class on how to find clarity and peace through meditation. yogajournal.com/meditation101
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Loving Kindness Meditation
In this meditation, you silently repeat mantras to direct love and compassion toward difficult people in your life—including yourself. “Lovingkindness is a practice of generosity," says Salzberg, “offering to ourselves and others a sense of inclusion and care.”
Salzberg’s been asked whether Lovingkindness—a translation of metta, from the ancient Indian language Pali—could simply be called love. “But love is very complicated, isn’t it?” she says. “‘I will love myself . . . as long as I never make a mistake. I love you . . . as long as the following conditions are met.’ But that’s not what metta really means.” Instead, Salzberg says she approaches love as an ability, or capacity, that you can expand. “People may inspire love, but ultimately, it’s inside me and it’s mine to cultivate and tend to. That is very empowering.”
In classic Buddhism, love is the answer to fear—making it an antidote to both chronic self-criticism and divisive sociopolitical dialogues. “It takes a lot of wisdom along the way, because making an offering to a difficult person doesn’t mean letting go of your principles. But it frees you of the corrosive obsession you may have with other people’s faults,” says Salzberg. “We may not want to spend time with difficult people, but we come to understand our lives are intertwined with theirs.”
What to expect
Select three or four phrases (examples: “May I be safe”; “May I be happy”; “May I be healthy”; “May I live with ease”). Begin offering these wishes to yourself, and conclude by extending them to all beings everywhere. In between, send them to other recipients: a mentor or someone who inspires you; a friend or loved one; someone neutral, like a shopkeeper; and then a challenging individual, such as a co-worker who triggers you or a political leader whose views you don’t respect.
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In Tantra practices, chakras are wheels of energy connected to different levels of consciousness. They are strung along the sushumna nadi—a central channel of prana, or life force, that runs from the base of your spine up through the crown of your head. In general, when the chakras are closed, your energies are blocked, leaving you dull and stagnant.
Drawing attention and directing your breath into the central channel turns your prana inward to open up blocked chakras and allow energy to flow harmoniously, Kempton says. “When the sushumna nadi opens, you lose consciousness of the shape of your body and find yourself in a spacious place of presence,” she says. “You become aware of the fact that your real body is not the physical one, but rather a formless, undulating center filled with bliss, expansion, and vast realms of light. The secret of actually being in meditation is being in the sushumna nadi. It’s fairly dramatic, and it’s completely unbelievable until you have the experience yourself.”
Of course, not everyone experiences the kind of subtle body explosions Kempton is talking about on the first try. “I did 10 years of mantra practice before I started meditating on the sushumna nadi, so my inner body was really primed when I started,” she says. However, since this practice is profoundly centering, even without the fireworks, it can be a powerful meditation style.
What to expect
In a seated position, you’ll use a combination of vertical breath
(inhaling and exhaling at certain chakra points in the central channel, like the root, heart, and third eye), mantra, mudra, and visualizations to tap into your subtle body.
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