In the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we are taught that the science of yoga is all about learning to “restrain the modifications of the mind-stuff”. In essence, that means learning to be in control of your mind – not letting your mind control you.
Both my psychology clients and yoga students alike express great frustration when they first begin to tackle the task of learning to quiet the mind. Expressions like, “My mind is racing a mile a minute” aptly describes the experience most of us have when we first begin to listen in on our thoughts. Because these thoughts are “automatic” it initially seems like they are out of our volitional control – but the truth is, we have all learned how we think about everything, so we can relearn it too.
Rewiring your brain is no different than building a bigger bicep – both need time and effort to grow. Your mindbody connections are created through a process called neuroplasticity and this principle: neurons (brain cells) that fire together, wire together. The more you repeat a thought or action, the more automatic it becomes. Remember back to when you learned how to type: initially you had to think very intently about where to place each finger and which one belonged with which key. But with practice, however, you eventually typed without looking at your fingers and more rapidly than what could be controlled by conscious thinking. It became an automatic process in your brain.
Meditation is no different. The more you practice it, the better you will become. And like anything else you practice, you’re going to have good days and bad days. One day your mind will quiet quite easily; another day the thoughts keep rolling through like a busy freeway. Work with who you are and where you are that day rather than trying to fight it or give up.
So now that you have some background under your belt, where do you start?
Meditative techniques are generally divided into two categories: concentrative or focused meditation, and mindfulness meditation, but know that there is overlap within these types. With concentrated meditation, you are training your mind to stay focused on one thing – an image or picture, a thought or a sound (e.g., chanting “Om”). In contrast, mindfulness meditation is the practice of being an “observer” of whatever comes into your perception and noticing it without making any judgments. One article I read likened concentrative meditation to using a “zoom lens” and mindfulness meditation to using a “wide angle lens”. Regardless of which method you practice, the goal is to develop the ability to become absorbed – to just be fully present with yourself and whatever you are doing in that moment in time.
So to get you started, here are a few exercises to try but know that this list is by no means exhaustive:
- Mindful breathing: Place the tip of your tongue on the upper palate behind your front teeth and close your mouth. Invite your breath in through the nose and follow the air across the back of your throat, down behind your heart and into your belly, allowing your abdomen to expand. Now follow the air all the way back up behind your heart, across the back of the throat and exhale through the nose. Continue to follow the air all the way down and all the way back up. It might be helpful to imagine one color of breath coming in and another color coming out. Or count as you draw the breath in and count as you exhale. With practice, lengthen the count of both the inhale and exhale.
- Mindful observation: Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes. Notice and label what comes into your awareness. For example, if it is a thought, note the thought: “I have to remember to pick up groceries on the way home” and then put it on a cloud and let it float away. Then notice what next comes into your awareness, for example, “My neck feels tight” – label it and put it on the cloud, allowing it to float away. And so on. It might be a thought, an emotion or a physical sensation in your body. Learn to label it and let it go. Notice if these items become more or less frequent, or stay the same, but without judgment.
- Mindful movement or sound: Repetitive activities, whether repeating a mantra (like “Om” or “calm”) or walking/running, folding laundry or doing dishes, can also create a meditative state. Just be fully present in whatever activity you are doing at the moment, allowing any other thoughts to “float away”, as above.
You will find that as you learn to quiet your mind and become mindful, your whole experience of yourself and the world changes. There really is an “expansion” of the mind and you are able to hear your intuitive voice more clearly. It’s a little hard to explain in words – the knowing really comes from experiencing it for yourself.
The beauty of meditation is that is can be done anywhere, anytime. Start small and work your way up to longer or more challenging meditations. Technology also offers recorded meditation exercises that you can use anywhere, anytime, on your personal devices. If you get discouraged, remember that you’re a beginner in yoga for the first fifteen years of practice, so there’s no pressure! I also found it very helpful to work with a meditation teacher to learn a greater variety of exercises and understand the underlying principles.
So what are you waiting for? Remember, there’s no time like the Present, especially in meditation!!!