Meditation 101: Easy Ways to Get Started
When you hear someone mention meditation, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it used to conjure up images of Buddhist monks, total tranquility and hours of sitting still. It all seemed too “woo-woo” for me. Besides, who had the time?
It wasn’t until I saw a segment on Dan Harris’ first book, Ten Percent Happier, in which he describes his journey from meditating skeptic to practicing believer. He busted my view of what meditation is and encouraged newbies to start with just one minute. Turns out, like most things in life, there isn’t just one way to meditate.
“Meditation can be a confusing term,” says Tom McCook, Pilates education faculty for Balanced Body and founder and director of Center of Balance in Mountain View, Calif. “My experience and understanding with meditation is that it’s really a practice of bringing your attention to the present moment, and your body and your breath tend to be the object of attention. Why? Sensation only happens in the present moment.”
“I hear all the time from clients of mine, ‘I tried meditating, but I can’t seem to slow my thoughts down enough to do it,’” says Amy Vales, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Many people think of meditation as spending an hour in silence, not moving and having a completely empty mind, when the reality is that there are so many ways we can meditate that don’t fit this picture.”
Vales says that she’s not a fan of putting boundaries on what meditation should look like, with clear indicators of success or failure. “Meditation is about slowing down, becoming aware of what is happening in your thoughts and emotions, grounding into what is real, and feeling relief from the experience of racing through life ‘without breathing.’ Anything that gets you to do that is an act of meditating,” explains Vales. “And the good news is this can be done by embedding meditative action into activities you’re already doing.”
Melanie Austin, OTD, associate professor of occupational therapy at New York Institute of Technology, agrees. “Practicing meditation does not have to take large amounts of time or dramatically alter one’s normal daily routine. Even brief episodes of meditation incorporated throughout one’s day may be beneficial for improving physical and psychological health, well-being and quality of life.”
“Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, brought meditation into Western mainstream medicine in the 1970s,” explains Patti Ashley, PhD, LPC, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of Shame-informed Therapy: Treatment Strategies to Overcome Core Shame and Reconstruct the Authentic Self, in which she provides meditation scripts. “Dr. Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response, revealed ground-breaking evidence that meditation improves overall health, lowers stress levels and increases well-being.”
Ashley cites a recent Harvard University study that suggests individuals who practiced 15 minutes of daily meditation over an eight-week period actually altered the functionality of their genes. “Dr. Benson’s research reopened a door that had been closed in the West for several centuries. Now that science has the ability to monitor the effects of meditation using devices that measure heart rate, blood pressure and brain waves, these ancient practices are once again seen as valid and beneficial to healing.”
In this particular Harvard study, participants with hypertension who responded favorably to meditation via lowered blood pressure, showed changes in the genes that affect systemic inflammation. Inflammation has been connected to a wide variety of disorders, including cancer, heart disease, liver disease and autoimmune disorders.
Citing a study by Gundel and colleagues, Ashley states, “Using neuroimaging studies, these researchers found that meditation experts exhibit neural changes that persist beyond the meditative task itself, suggesting that consistent mindfulness practice can result in long-term changes in empathy, health and metacognition.”
McCook concurs. “There’s been more than 50 years now of science-based research on the benefits of meditation to our health and wellness and the evidence is very positive,” he says. “It lowers blood pressure, assists in emotional regulation, lowers stress, cultivates resilience and personal responsiveness, and improves perspective. Meditation has been proven to be good medicine.”
How to Integrate Meditation Into Your Life and Coaching Practice
A common misperception about meditation is that it needs to be a separate, deliberate thing that takes up a lot of time. Deliberate, yes. Separate and time-consuming, not necessarily.
“You can incorporate meditation into the things you’re already doing,” says Vales. “Go on a hike and set an intention to notice things that are beautiful, take a walk on the beach and pay attention to how the sand feels under your feet, cook a meal and notice all the colors, textures and tastes that are going into it, or put on a song and allow yourself to express what you’re feeling through music and dance.”
Vales says you can even bring other people into your meditating practice. “Do these activities with your kids, friends and family to make it more of a communal activity. Get creative! If it slows you down, helps you notice what is present and makes you feel a little better, then you’re on the right track.”
Types of Meditation
Are you already using meditation and don’t even realize it? You might find that you already practice some of the following meditation techniques.
- Mindfulness Meditation: Involves paying attention to your thoughts as they pass through your mind without judgement, simply observing and noting any patterns
- Spiritual Meditation: Can be a form of prayer, a means of strengthening one’s connection to God
- Focused Meditation: Using any one of your senses to focus either internally (your breath) or on something external, such as a candle flame or a picture
- Movement Meditation: Moving mindfully, paying attention to your movements and how your body feels; you can also take notice of your environment, especially if out in nature; activities such as yoga and tai chi incorporate movement meditation
- Mantra Meditation: Repeating and focusing on a word, phrase or sound; you can use a word of intention for this
- Transcendental Meditation: A more involved form of meditation that is done as a seven-step process and ideally learned from a certified instructor; uses silent mantras to “transcend” your normal thinking process
- Progressive Meditation: Sometimes referred to as body scan meditation; can involve contracting and then relaxing one muscle/muscle group at a time, working down your body; is a great way to unwind at bedtime
- Lovingkindness Meditation: Practicing accepting and allowing love from others and, in return, sending love and well-wishes out to loved-ones, friends, acquaintances and the world
- Visualization Meditation: Using visualization to bring feelings of peace and safety; this method can also be used to gain clarity about your future by picturing yourself succeeding in certain situations and circumstances
“Throughout the day, you can take small, mindful moments to breathe and help calm the mind,” adds Ashley. “Some examples might be to take a minute to be mindful of the way the water feels in the shower, to sit in nature or to pet your dog. Cultivating an attitude of mindfulness by drawing attention to the breath—focusing on each inhale and exhale—helps to let go of worry thoughts and reground in the present moment.”
If you’re ready to get a little more structured with meditation, Austin suggests starting slowly. “The key is to get started with small steps. Start slowly to build new meditation muscles and endurance. There are many types of meditation techniques to choose from. Choose a technique that aligns with your unique self and your goals, and begin with an open mind and positive attitude, situating yourself with a comfortable posture in a quiet location. Try beginning and ending each day with one brief meditation session. Slowly increase your practice to one, three, or five-minute sessions as part of your daily routine.”
“One distinction of meditation that’s important to know,” adds McCook, “is that you’re not attempting to interpret [or judge] your thoughts. Through practice, we can gain a greater understanding of the mind and begin to tame those [thoughts], letting them go and bringing our attention back to the present moment.”
A simple way to introduce meditation to your clients is with a technique called the body scan. “Guide and direct your client in scanning and feeling each part of their body,” instructs McCook. “It’s possible to feel each part of the body when you put your attention on it. This also opens up the possibility to let go of tension and become more internally relaxed and present.”
“As you get to know your clients, start tailoring your meditations to their experiences,” recommends Vales. For example, let’s say you have a client who is an anxious mom who has forgotten how to slow down because she has so many activities going on. She might benefit from a meditation wherein she creates a “container” to place all her “to do” items into. You can be creative when it comes to meditation interventions.
Austin concurs. “Use a client-centered approach for determining what types of meditation may align with their personality and/or lifestyle. Support clients in understanding the benefits of meditation as an added strength to be utilized for eliminating barriers to achieving health success. For example,” says Austin, “when a client presents with challenges for staying on track with their health goals, health coaches can emphasize the importance of mindfulness meditation for achieving greater insight and awareness as to what may be sabotaging or preventing long-term health success. Health coaches can also use these meditation strategies as an outcome measurement tool, thereby monitoring client progress while highlighting the benefits of meditation throughout the process.”
If you’re not already, begin incorporating meditation into your own life before you introduce it into your practice. Experiment with different types of meditation, have fun with it, and tailor the types of meditation you use with your clients to their personalities and goals. Lastly, be careful about placing hard boundaries on meditation, because, as Vales says, “If it’s going to be one more thing that makes you feel like you’re not doing enough or doing it right, who wants that?”