For those of us coming fresh off the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and ready to kick off the new year with a long list of health-boosting practices and ambitious resolutions, how about taking this simple suggestion instead: Slow down with meditation!
Our nonstop modern world often creates a false sense of round-the-clock rush and urgency, but these tendencies can be harmful over time. For example, stress stimulates a steady release of cortisol, the body’s “stress hormone,” which at chronically high levels can cause problems like depression, anxiety, grief, memory loss, and weight gain, as well as conditions like type 2 diabetes and hypertension. But there is one proven way to combat this constant onslaught—through the healing power of meditation.
We know that meditation offers a bunch of benefits for the entire body: It improves brain function and boosts mood, combats stress and anxiety, lowers cortisol levels, increases blood flow to the brain, and activates the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part that is associated with judgment and impulse control). Plus, there are so many ways to meditate—you can create inner and outer goodwill with a loving kindness meditation, let go of old resentments with a session on forgiveness, or even center yourself with the goal of boosting your performance.
For some reason, meditation intimidates a lot of people, especially beginners, but there’s nothing to fear. If you’re just getting started, follow these 5 tips to make your new meditation practice a success.Just remember: Every time you notice your mind wandering off and you bring the focus back to your meditation or your breathing, that is the practice—you are doing it, not failing at it! Click To Tweet
1. Start small.
Many people think that they “don’t have time” for daily meditation, or that they have to meditate for long periods to make an impact. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Meditation is like exercise—it’s better to commit to a regular practice, even if the time spurts are shorter, versus scheduling a 1-hour session once a week. Try starting with even a few minutes of your day, or set a timer for every hour on the hour and take 1 or 2 minutes to recharge your battery throughout the day. Aim for consistency rather than committing to long stretches of time; this makes the practice less intimidating, too, and you’ll be less likely to put it off or tell yourself you don’t have time for it.
2. Lose the judgment.
If you’re berating yourself—during, before, or after—for the (very normal) occurrence of your mind chattering away as you sit in silence, you’re partially negating the positive effects of developing a meditation practice in the first place. Just remember: Every time you notice your mind wandering off and you bring the focus back to your meditation or your breathing, that is the practice—you are doing it, not failing at it! Many people hold the belief that in meditation the mind is supposed to magically “go blank,” but this is a common misconception. Instead, simply take note of your thoughts intruding without passing judgment, such as by telling yourself, “Thinking,” or by imagining your thoughts like clouds in the sky, just floating past your awareness—then you can gently regain your focus until the next thoughts inevitably intrude, and repeat!
3. Focus on the breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing (breathing from the belly, not the chest) is an easy and effective way to grab yourself some zen on the spot, no matter where you are—making it a great solution even in the middle of stressful situations. Try using a prescribed rhythm: Simply inhale for a count of 3 to 4 and exhale for a count of 6 to 8. Repeat this pattern, in and out, 10 times. Making the exhales longer than inhales helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s natural relaxation response. Numerous studies have shown the positive physical effects of breathing practices, but the counting and focusing on the breath also helps the mind stay focused throughout the meditation, helping promote mindfulness and staying in the moment.
4. Use helping hands to guide your thoughts.
As an alternative to focusing on the breath, which may feel a little advanced to some beginners, you can try incorporating other helpers. One technique is to use a mantra, which is a word, sound, or statement that is repeated over and over throughout the meditation session. (The most basic is “Om,” which actually incorporates three sounds, sounding more like A-U-M as it vibrates through the vocal cords.) Or you can play a recording of a guided meditation, which will usher you through a session with suggestions, music, breathing, mantras, or visualizations. Some people find this method easiest when they’re first starting out, since it takes the practice out of their hands and leads them from start to finish.
5. Set aside space and time.
If you aim to make meditation a daily practice—which, again, requires only a few minutes of your time—it’s a great idea to help form and reinforce the habit through repetition. For example, some people like to meditate right at the start or end of every day (or both), keeping a regular schedule so it becomes automatic, like brushing your teeth. Some prefer to create a designated meditation space with atmospheric elements like incense, mood lighting, or a cushion to sit on. No matter what approach you choose, stick with the practice every day for a decent length of time (start with one week or one month, for example) and see how you feel—you’ll likely notice a sense of calm, peace, and balance that will steadily improve your mental, emotional, and physical health as you progress!
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