by Shawn Radcliffe, Yoga Teacher, Health and Science Writer
Meditation practice is more than just contemplating your navel (the belly button, that is, not the orange).
The benefits of meditation include helping you concentrate, relax, reduce your stress and relieve fatigue. Meditation has also been used alongside conventional medicine to improve the physical health of people with heart disease, inflammatory conditions like arthritis and digestive problems.
In spite of meditation’s potential for helping you feel better–spiritually, emotionally and physically–there are still many myths surrounding this practice. These misconceptions can keep people from trying meditation in the first place. Or they can cause people to give up before they have done enough meditation to fully experience the benefits..
To help you overcome your reluctance to try meditation or to commit to a regular meditation practice, here are four of the most common myths, along with tips for breaking the meditation ice.
Myth # 1: A meditation practice is for hippies, monks and yoga teachers.
While meditation is a common practice among many spiritual traditions, you don’t have to be religious or spiritual in order to practice meditation. You also don’t need to be able to do downward-facing dog, handstands or sit on a bed of hot coals for hours (toasty!) before you meditate.
In fact, meditation is for anyone who wants to give it a try. All you need is a body, a mind and your breath. Colorful, flowing yoga clothing is optional.
Tip: There are many ways to learn how to meditate. Taking a class with an experienced yoga or meditation teacher can be a great way to jumpstart your meditation practice. But you can also find many meditation books, videos, CDs and online courses.
Myth #2: Meditation is difficult.
Often when we think of meditation, we imagine bearded yogis or enlightened saints sitting for hours in perfect stillness, impervious to a storm raging all around them or to the hot sun beating down on their sweaty forehead.
Meditation is actually much less painful than that. And much easier.
The types of meditation vary, but often involve simple activities like watching your breath, reciting a mantra (a phrase), or keeping your attention on an object such as a candle or a photograph.
Tip: The hardest thing about meditation is overcoming your reluctance to give it a try. To help you get started and stick with it, find a friend willing to go to a weekly meditation class with you, or commit to a 30-day meditation challenge.
Myth #3: I think too much to be able to meditate successfully.
If you were perfect at meditation, you probably wouldn’t need to do it. It’s the same way with playing video games and lawn darts.
But even long-time meditators like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh still meditate every day. The benefits of meditation start to accumulate the very first time you notice your breath and continue for a lifetime.
Meditation never gets old.
Plus, your thoughts can actually help you succeed at meditation. The goal of meditation is not to eliminate your thoughts, but to become more aware of them.
Meditation is similar to training a puppy. In this case, your mind is the puppy. When you are training a puppy, you have to keep (squirrel!) bringing the puppy’s attention back (treats!) to you. With practice, though, the puppy will stay focused for longer (cat!) periods.
Tip: Whenever you notice a thought pop into your head while you are meditating, say quietly to yourself ‘thinking’ and bring your attention back to your breath (or other object). Labeling your thoughts in this way can help you become more aware of them and keep you from getting drawn into deeper daydreams.
Myth #4: I don’t have time for a meditation practice.
This may be one of the biggest myths about meditation. Just think of how much time you spend binge watching on Netflix or looking at cat videos on Facebook.
Don’t worry, you can have your Game of Thrones and meditate, too.
When it comes to meditation, I always suggest that people start small. Five minutes every day is much better than one hour every couple of months. Regular meditation practice will help you develop a strong habit.
After a few weeks of five minutes a day, try 10 and then 15. By then you will start to notice the effects of meditation, such as greater focus, more calmness and better sleep. This should be enough motivation to keep you going.
Tip: Find a time of day that works best for you, free of distractions, commitments or hunger pangs. This can be in between meetings at work or right before bed. You can meditate on a cushion on the floor or in a chair, whatever is most comfortable for you.
A Quick Home Meditation Practice
- Sit comfortably on a cushion or in a chair.
- Rest your hands on your knees. Keep your head upright, but gaze down at the floor a few feet in front of you. Keep your eyes open, but with a soft, relaxed gaze.
- Bring your attention to your exhale, noticing the breath leave your body, without trying to control it. Let your inhale happen by itself.
- Continue in this way, letting your mind follow each breath out of your body.
- If you notice that you are thinking about something, say quietly ‘thinking’ and return to following the breath.
- Stay with this until your meditation session is over.
Sometimes the thoughts that come up are obvious (what’s for lunch, did the cat pee on the carpet). Other times, you may find yourself thinking about whether you are doing the meditation right. And sometimes you are so stuck in your thoughts that you don’t notice right away that you’ve drifted off.
It helps to set a timer for your meditation session, so you don’t keep checking the clock. The more you practice meditation, the easier it will be to notice your thoughts. Over time, the space between thoughts will grow. You will also become comfortable meditating for longer periods.
To learn more about meditation, check out Shawn’s weekly Mindfulness Monday yoga class: Mondays 9:30-10:45 am at Tone Studio. The first half of class focuses on yoga poses to help you sit still for longer. The rest of class gives you a chance to work on your meditation practice. Each week, we try out a different type of meditation so you can find one (or more) that works for you. The meditations are also simple enough that you can do them at home.