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Meditation: the art of focusing your mind

We spend almost every day in the fast lane of life, facing enormous challenges like juggling finances, family, career, and relationships all at once. Ever feel like you’re running on empty?

Keeping up with such a hectic pace produces high anxiety and stress, which causes us to become disconnected, mechanical, and sometimes numb. We end up living in our heads when we were created to live from our hearts.

One solution to this is to develop or strengthen a regular yoga practice. But today, we’re diving into yoga’s sister: meditation.

Meditation is often referred to as the art of doing nothing. While it certainly is an art—in the sense that you must practice it just like you do your physical asanas—there’s a lot more going on in your body and mind than what this catchy phrase suggests.

I prefer: the art of focusing your mind. And it does take work to quiet your busy mind. But the more you practice and the more you’re able to quiet your thoughts, the more you will experience a sense of true presence – creating the mind-body connection yoga is known for.

Meditation offers a wide range of amazing benefits, including:

  • Stress and anxiety reduction
  • Enhanced self-awareness
  • Lengthened attention span
  • Reduced age-related memory loss
  • Improved sleep

There are two major styles of meditation:

  1. Focused-attention meditation: concentrates attention on a single object, thought, breathing pattern, or mantra.
  2. Open-monitoring meditation: encourages broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, including thoughts, feelings, or impulses you might normally suppress.

The following 7 meditation styles all fall within one of these two groupings.

Transcendental: In transcendental meditation, you remain seated with your eyes closed and breathe slowly while repeating a mantra (a word or phrase) with the goal of rising above your state of being. If you choose to try this meditation style, practice twice a day for 20 minutes each session. This allows time to settle inward to a profound state of relaxation and rest.

Breath awareness: Have you ever found yourself in your driveway with no recollection of your drive home? Breath awareness meditation ensures that this does not happen while you’re practicing. The goal is to keep your mind fully focused on the present. It builds patience for your everyday life. For example, rather than reflecting on the annoyance of a traffic jam, a skilled practitioner will simply note the delay without judgment.

Zazen sit: Similar to breath awareness meditation, the zazen sit style focuses on sitting in concentration while counting each breath. When zazen is deeply integrated, you should not feel that each part of your body is separate from the others—you should feel a sense of wholeness.

Walking meditation: This style will improve your cardiovascular health, boost your energy, stabilize your mood, and help you embrace the present. Begin by walking at a normal pace, tuning into your natural breath and noticing what it’s like. Then, refine your breath so it’s nasally and free of irregularities. Coordinate your breath so that you’re inhaling for four steps, then exhaling for another four. These should be short puffs of air. Continue for five minutes, then walk and breathe normally for three before repeating.

Guided meditation: For this meditation form, you don’t need any prior experience or knowledge; you’re simply required to listen to an instructor (a real person or via headphones). The goal is to form mental pictures based on situations and experiences you find relaxing. Use as many senses as possible—smell, sound, and texture—to evoke calmness.

Devotional or mantra chant: In this meditation style, you’ll chant a mantra (a sound like “om”) to keep your mind busy while you focus on breathing. This is a powerful and effective method because of the vibratory effects of the sounds that stimulate your body.

Yoga nidra: Also known as progressive relaxation or body scan meditation, the goal is to move through your body noticing areas of tension—then releasing that tension. You’ll start at one end of your body (usually your feet) and work all the way to the other end. You might envision a wave drifting slowly over your body. Because this meditation style slowly and steadily relaxes your body, many people use this to help them fall asleep.

As you can see, there are many different styles of meditation to choose from. I encourage you to give a few of these a try, while keeping a journal or log on your reflections about each type. You can truly practice meditation anywhere – from a quiet corner of your home to a crowded grocery store! So what’s stopping you?

photo courtesy of Shannon Austin

Tips for Creating Your Ideal Meditation Space

Interestingly, one of the main reasons we practice an active form of yoga is to help our bodies become capable of doing the opposite: sitting in stillness and meditation. This time of year, as we enter the busyness of holidays, parties, shopping, and cooking, I always find myself craving a quiet and meditative outlet.

As a small business owner, I know as well as anyone the challenges of finding a time and space to rest. To breathe, to think, to relax, and to unwind. I know that adding time into your daily life for stillness sounds daunting, if not downright impossible.

Yet, spending time in stillness each day provides the opportunity to pay attention to our own, individual experience. This, in turn, lets us bring intentional awareness into our daily activities. Think of your formal meditation sessions, whether in studio or at home, as the training that allow us to be more present in our own lives.

So, today I want to share some of my tips for creating a meditation space that you can call home in both the good days and the bad ones, whether you’re seeking joyful meditation or a place of solace.

Find a place that feels secure.

What I’ve found absolutely critical to successful meditation is finding a place where you feel secure enough to open your mind to this practice. Whether that’s a designated room in your house, the floor of your bathroom, a corner with a folding screen, or your yoga studio, find a place that feels sacred to you.

Add beauty into your space.

Meditation at its core is about removing the barriers and obstacles that keep our minds in a state of frenzy. So, I highly recommend that you keep your area simple and uncluttered, like our peaceful and clean space at Yoga Fever. Choose a few items that bring peace and serenity. Some great options include: a pillow, statue, artwork, mat, throw rug, curtains, or natural light.

Create a lovely aroma.

Incense, essential oils, or candles not only help you stay focused but also provide beautiful and soothing energy. In the studio, we often will waft an essential oil throughout the room during savasana. Additionally, candles offer the extra perk of providing a meditative flicker of the flame. Try our Wednesday night candlelit yoga class if you don’t yet understand the beauty and peace of this particular idea!

Soothe your soul with music.

While this piece isn’t necessary, and won’t fit everyone’s preference, I love playing soothing music during my time of meditation. Really, any style of music that brings you tranquility and peace will do. Alternatively, you could consider adding a small fountain if you’re practicing at home.

If you think about it, the spaces in our homes are often classified by the activities that we do in each of them. We have spaces for eating, cooking, sleeping, and playing. Some of us have other areas for entertaining, exercising, reading, or painting. But sometimes it’s important to have spaces in our homes that we create simply to be in them.

Perhaps we can think of our meditation space, whether in studio or at home, as simply our being room. It’s a safe, sacred retreat on bad days and a place to center ourselves each morning. I challenge you to identify some space, anywhere, that you can dedicate to meditation. The more time you spend there, the more you’ll want to return.

STILLNESS

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons we practice poses, or ‘asanas,’ in yoga is to help our bodies become supple enough to do the opposite: to sit in stillness and meditation. 

Take a minute to think about the last time you sat in complete stillness, without wondering what you were going to cook for dinner or how you were going to accomplish all your weekend activities. We’ve talked before on the blog about busyness and the way yoga can decrease stress, depression, and anxiety, but today I want to focus on one of the hardest components of yoga: stillness. 

Stillness is a skill. And like any skill, it takes practice. 

WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO BE STILL?

Often, we’re instructed to “relax” and sink into a resting pose. As many of us can attest, “just relaxing” is a complex request. When we stop thinking about our breath, legs, core, and post-yoga plans, all kinds of scary thoughts can creep up to the surface. Mindful stillness is so challenging, you guys – even for the most experienced yogis.  

Over time, our busy lives leave us feeling exhausted, frustrated, and out of control. Yet, being alone with our deeper thoughts can be painful – so we tend to do whatever necessary to avoid moments of stillness. We add in activities and accept additional projects at work; we watch tv or turn on music when we’re home alone. While none of these activities are wrong in themselves, refusing to grant ourselves moments of genuine rest reduces our coping skills, sense of self, and even our relationships. 

HOW CAN WE PRACTICE STILLNESS?

This is why we infuse our yoga practice with moments of rest. We use child’s pose, sukhasana (an easy seat), mountain pose, and, of course, savasana to coax our bodies into stillness. Yes, it’s great to get active, to warm up the body, and to get nice and sweaty, but it’s equally important to do the opposite: create quiet and peace within the body.

The pause we take during these poses is not about falling asleep, hanging out, or waiting for the next movement. The pause is designed to foster a full awareness of our body and the way things are right now. We witness our breath flowing through our limbs, the way our heart beats, and the changes and evolutions that our bodies and minds go through.

When we do this, we experience an emotional release – from the day, from our stress or anxieties, from difficult relationships, and any multitude of other daily circumstances.

CREATING STILLNESS OFF THE MAT

Though we often are forced into moments of stillness when we step onto our mat, we don’t always allow our bodies and minds to totally obey, still retracting to those pesky thoughts and concerns. Not only do we each have room to improve on the mat, but we also need to put this into practice in our daily lives.

I know, adding time into your daily life for stillness sounds daunting if not downright impossible. Start small, with only five minutes of focused inactivity. Maybe you set your alarm for five minutes earlier each morning and spend some time in meditation or prayer. Or block out a five minute break at work and find an empty room with no distractions. Or commit to staying off your phone in the half hour leading up to bedtime to make stillness at night easier. 

Whatever you attempt, remember that your mind will continually try to rebel – but with practice you can help quiet it. 

 

Find time for rest. You totally deserve it.

 

Yoga Fuel: The Importance of Breathing

If we breathe automatically and hardly think about it during the day, why is breath emphasized so much during yoga class? And how is it even possible to breathe incorrectly?

These questions are common among beginner yogis, and they’re worth discussing! Awareness of breath, as well as synchronizing breath to movement, is an integral part of yoga,  – rather than gymnastics or any other physical exercise.

Mechanically speaking, the act of breathing can be either automatic (an unconscious, involuntary behavior) or deliberate (a conscious, voluntary behavior). By making an automatic behavior deliberate, we begin to affect our neurological programming through a state of intentional awareness. This conscious breathing affects us biologically, emotionally and physically.

Biologically:

During most of the day when we’re breathing unconsciously, our breath is controlled by the medulla oblongata (the primitive part of the brain). When we switch to conscious breathing, it stimulates the cerebral cortex (the more evolved areas of the brain). It’s in that moment that the magic starts to happen! Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on our emotions, which leads us into the next benefit of intentional breath.

Emotionally:

When you begin to tune into your breath like this, emotional stress and random thoughts vanish. Your whole system gets a break. Your body’s energy begins flowing freely, disrupting any emotional and physical blockages and freeing your body and mind. This results in that “feel good” effect you experience after a yoga practice.

Physically:

In our physical yoga practice, the breath works side-by-side with our structural alignment. Our natural tendency is to hold our breath or use stress-induced breathing (short and shallow) while holding a posture, especially in a challenging pose. This creates stress and tension in the body. That’s why you always hear yoga teachers reminding students to continue breathing intentionally during the toughest poses and sequences.

Now, you’re probably wondering exactly how you’re supposed to breathe…. In yoga, there are a variety of different breathing styles. We’ll highlight one here called Ujjayi (ocean sounding breath). When done correctly, it calms the mind, creates internal heat and gives an uplifting boost of energy. Like most aspects of yoga, it requires practice, patience and an open mind and heart. To do this type of breath, try the following sequence:

With your mouth open, try exhaling the sound “HAAAAH” – similar to the sound you make when you’re trying to fog up a mirror. Get comfortable with this sound to get the hang of the practice.
Close your mouth and attempt a similar sound, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages. If you’re doing this correctly, you should sound like waves in the ocean (or Darth Vader!).

Generally, you should incorporate a positive resolve or mantra into every yoga session. This can be a single word or phrase that serves as a goal for your practice. This mantra should be integrated into your breathing process. When you inhale, gather up the stress or worries in your mind; when you exhale, imagine that stress flowing out of your entire body.

We’re willing to bet you had no idea how important – and complex – your breath is. What seems like an automatic process is actually critical to mindfulness, stress removal and energy creation.

If you’re ready to practice the art of yogic breathing, come join us for a hot yoga class!!  And don’t forget to incorporate conscious breath into your daily life. When you’re feeling stressed or tired at work, school or home, spend two minutes focusing on deep inhales and exhales. You’ll be surprised how great you’ll feel after.

“A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.” -Swami Sivananda