MIND CONTROL

How to Start a Regular Meditation Practice 

A practical guide to finding rituals that work for you, all from the comfort of your own home. 
woman in the sun with eyes closed
Sabine Villiard / trunkarchive.c

Meditation doesn't make the uncertainty of life go away. But meditating can change the way you react in uncertain situations. A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that meditation might have a lasting effect on the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion. When presented with images meant to evoke various responses, fMRI scans revealed that subjects who had been practicing mindful-attention meditation, which involves focusing on your breath, were better able to control their emotions, even when they weren’t in a meditative state.

During times like these, that's particularly useful. "The need to find an internal compass with which to navigate our rapidly changing world has never been greater," says Kelly Morris, a meditation teacher based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and founder of The Infinity Call, a subscription service that posts a new guided meditation every day. "Meditation can provide that compass."

You don’t have to take a two-year vow of silence to reap the benefits. The participants in the aforementioned study had never meditated before and were evaluated after just two months of daily sessions. Better yet, there's no right or wrong way to meditate, but these guidelines can help get you started.

Don't overthink it

There’s an expression floating around the internet, an old Zen adage, some say: "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour." Wouldn't that be nice? Fortunately, even if your Google calendar resembles a game of Tetris, there's still a way to practice. 

"Meditation can be as simple as focusing on taking one breath at a time," says Alli Simon, a meditation and certified yoga teacher in Los Angeles. "Stop. Feel the earth underneath your feet. Bring one hand to the belly and take a deep breath." That seemingly simple act can help you keep your cool throughout the day, even when your WiFi cuts out mid-Zoom. To remember to take that one breath, associate it with a daily ritual — like while your morning coffee brews — or set an alarm on your phone. After you’ve gotten used to making time for just one moment each day, "try extending the session by a few minutes,” says Simon. 

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To help keep your breath steady, picture a balloon inflating and deflating with each inhale and exhale. A tool on the Calm app called the “Breathe Bubble” makes this visual. "It supports people to easily breathe in, hold, and breathe out at a pace that feels comfortable," says Tamara Levitt, head of mindfulness at Calm (the bubble’s speed is adjustable.)

Find your groove

If you’re quiet and focused on your breath, congratulations: You’re already practicing silent — or unguided — meditation. If it’s working for you, keep it up. But many beginners appreciate having their hand held (metaphorically) through guided meditation, in which a teacher leads you through the session. There are hundreds of techniques to choose from, so it’s important to find a guide and practice that resonate with you. Some common types of meditation include visualization (in which you focus on a mental image, like a stream of sunlight hitting your body), mantra (setting an intention by way of repeating a word, like "abundance," or a phrase), and body scan (becoming aware of each part of your body as you perform a "self- scan" from head to toe).

Many practitioners combine elements of different techniques, especially when designing meditations in pursuit of a particular goal, like better sleep or sharper focus. An easy way to parse out what works for you is by downloading an app: Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer all offer guided meditations that are organized by type, time, and goal, like a three-minute body scan to help relax you to sleep, or a five-minute meditation where you visualize something you’re having a hard time with and repeat "May I be kind to myself in this moment" to promote self-compassion. (These three apps also offer meditation boot camps for beginners, with exposure to many different styles, so you can quickly and easily find your favorite.)

Timing is everything

You really shouldn’t check social media before meditating for the same reason you should avoid it before bed. "Checking your email, scanning the news, or glancing at your to-do list forces the mind into a beta brain wave state [a term used in neuroscience]," says Morris. "That is useful for judgment and problem-solving tasks, but also characterized by [states of mind such as] anxiety and hyperactivity, which are not conducive to meditation." First thing in the morning — before you’ve been bombarded with the news of the day — is an ideal time to practice, says Morris.

Keep it consistent

Some research suggests that "committing to a style of meditation and practicing it consistently allows us to best experience the cumulative effects," says Ellie Burrows Gluck, CEO, and co-founder of MNDFL, a meditation studio in New York City that also streams live classes. Studies have shown that these beneficial effects include reduced blood pressure, eased anxiety, and help with insomnia. 

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If you’re able, Burrows Gluck recommends sticking to the same time of day, length of practice (once you’ve worked up to what feels comfortable), and environment. One study from UCLA compared people who meditated consistently for at least four years (with an average of 20 years) with subjects who had not, and found that the brain’s gray matter (the type of tissue associated with cognitive ability) was better preserved in those who meditated.

Embrace imperfection

"There is something pretty unnerving about the idea of doing nothing," says Simon. "[But] that’s why we practice; not to try to make something happen, but to notice what becomes available when we stop." If you find your mind wandering — because it will — be kind to yourself, then gently return your focus to your breath. 

According to Simon, "The fact that you are noticing that your mind is wandering is the practice." And remember, there’s no finite measure of successful meditation. However, says Levitt, "if you start meditation with a certain level of frustration, or impatience, and that diminishes, that is progress. If you start feeling self-critical, and that softens, that is progress. If you begin noticing you are able to pause and take a breath before reacting to people or events that cause you anxiety or anger, that too is progress."


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