There I am, in my morning yoga class. As I unroll my mat, I eavesdrop on the conversation next to me. I don’t usually make a habit of it, but on this occasion, the local ‘yoga dude’ was explaining to a beginner what kind of meditation to start with – and I just couldn’t help myself.
He proceeded to knot his legs into a pretzel and started to take extremely loud, long breaths – all while contorting his abdomen to such an extent that you could make out each of his internal organs. He explained that you have to use your pranic force to open your third eye because of some sort of pineal calcification effect etc… and I just (mentally) facepalmed.
As meditation has gained in popularity, it seems everyone has jumped onto the bandwagon. There are systems that will sell you a personalized secret word that you repeat over and over. Others will have you picturing Hindu deities dancing in your lap. Some will even have you breathe at a pace that will make you hyperventilate. There is so much choice and confusion.
So what kind of meditation should I actually start with?
In reality, meditation has been taught for thousands of years. And it has always been introduced to a beginner in the same way. Thankfully it’s very simple and straightforward. No need to adopt any spiritual beliefs or affectations or pay thousands for secret techniques.
The truth is that meditation begins with the breath. Nothing extreme, nothing complex.
Why do we meditate on the breath?
1. Breathing is a process.
The human mind always seeks novelty. Our mind continually looks for entertainment and distraction. So if you begin meditation by simply concentrating on a spot on the wall, you would not last long. Within seconds your mind will be daydreaming or thinking of something different.
Breathing, on the other hand, is not just ‘a thing’ out there – but a process that is continuously unfolding in time. For the mind, this is a much easier starting point, and a great kind of meditation practice to start with. There is movement, there is change, and there’s a rhythm to it.
2. The quality of your breathing affects the quality of your mind.
This is quite apparent when you’re nervous. You’ll notice that when you’re nervous, your breath will be shallow and uneven.
For example – when you’re watching a scary movie, and you know that it’s building up to a frightening moment – if you turned your attention to your breath, you’d probably discover that you’re holding it in anticipation.
That’s why we’re often reminded to ‘take a deep breath’ to calm ourselves down.
3. As your breath relaxes, your mind will relax too.
This is very much related to no. 2 above. When we begin to meditate on the breath – just the very act of paying attention to it will start to transform it.
After a while, as your breath begins to become smooth, deep and relaxed, you’ll start to experience a deep sense of relaxation. A sense of letting go of all mental and emotional tension.
This in itself improves your ability to focus more fully onto the breath – which in turn relaxes and de-stresses you further – and so on.
What is mindfulness?
You may have heard of the term ‘mindfulness’. To put it simply, mindfulness is a way of paying attention that focuses on what’s happening right now in the present. It’s a way of perceiving something directly rather than thinking about it or reflecting upon it. It’s also another great kind of meditation to start with.
When I used to study art, I inadvertently learned mindfulness in my drawing class. When you usually look at an object, your mind immediately names it and begins to spin a narrative about it. So you see a chair in front of you – and you immediately know that it’s a chair, it’s used for sitting – this one doesn’t look that comfortable – in fact, you should probably buy a new chair… etc.
When you’re drawing a chair, you begin to look at it very differently. For a start what it is doesn’t matter. You focus more on the raw form, the textures, the colours… You notice the space around the chair… In this way, you’re perceiving the chair directly – rather than your thoughts about the chair.
Mindfulness on the breath is using this form of awareness, directed on your breathing.
So how do you meditate on the breath?
1. Sit comfortably upright.
It doesn’t matter whether you sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, or on a chair, or what kind of cushion to start with. The key is to sit with your back upright and without using the backrest of your chair. Here is a short guide on how to sit comfortably upright for meditation.
2. Relax yourself.
Before you begin the actual practice, just take a few slow, deep breaths. Relax your body – notice if you’re holding tension in your shoulders or in your face. Let everything go. A good tip is to relax your tongue – it helps to calm mental chatter.
3. Place your awareness on your breath.
Just begin noticing your breath. The most important thing is to stop any attempt to ‘control’ your breath. All you need to do is use a gentle, soft focus – and notice your breathing. It doesn’t matter if it feels restricted or shallow. Just give it some attention
Start at your nostrils, notice how the air moves in and out. Listen for the sound your breathing makes. Feel the sensation of your nostrils. You can shift your awareness from your nostrils to your sinuses, and bit by bit all the way through your lungs down to your diaphragm. Feel the sensations of the shifting air currents, the expanding and collapsing of your lungs, the movement of your diaphragm.
4. When you become distracted, bring your awareness back to the breath.
This is the primary workout in the beginning. This is where you build your ‘meditation muscle’. Very quickly, you’ll notice that your mind is full of thoughts – continually moving from thought to thought.
Don’t get disheartened – this is normal and expected. When you notice that you’ve gone off-course, just redirect your awareness back to your breath. It’s this catching yourself, and refocusing that is of prime importance in your meditation training.
As you can see, meditation practice is quite simple. But as you will discover – it is also quite challenging.
Now that you have an idea of what kind of meditation to start with, make your practice a little easier and use our Declutter The Mind app. The guided meditation lessons will stop you from getting lost and help to bring your attention back to your breath.
With a little practice, the benefits of meditation are incredible. It won’t be long before you begin to enjoy greater focus, more energy and less stress and anxiety. Make it a daily habit, and the benefits will subtly transform every aspect of your life.