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Meditation for Beginners: Break the Rules!

Meditation for Beginners: Break the Rules!

If you are new to meditation or maybe just tempted to try it for the first time you may find this post particularly helpful.  Meditation can be a challenge when you are just starting out (it was for me), but the benefits are significant.  I think everyone should meditate!  So, to help you over the initial frustration that often accompanies meditation I will share with you what I have learned. I found that by breaking some of the “rules” (I am using the term “rules” very loosely.  They are really more like suggestions.) I was able to reap the benefits of meditation without being a yogi master or a Buddhist monk.  Keep in mind these tips are drawn from my own experience. They may not fit the mold of proper meditation technique, but they have helped me find a deeper understanding of mindfulness and the pursuit of enlightenment.

First, what is meditation and what are the benefits?  Webster defines meditating as “engaging in contemplation or reflection.” So, it seems to be a misconception that you need to clear the mind completely during meditation.  It is more about training the mind to focus on one thought in order to gain greater insight, awareness, and self control.  That one thought can be a word, image, sound, breath, idea, or feeling.  Over time this practice can enrich and better your life in all areas- career, relationships, health, fitness, diet, mood, and overall well being.

Research as shown these to be some of the physical and mental benefits of meditation:
Lower stress
Increased energy levels
Slower aging
Helps diminish PMS symptoms
Better concentration and focus
Detachment from life's irritations and from pain
Happiness due to increased levels of serotonin
Faster post op healing
Boosts the immune system
Greater communication between brain hemispheres
Improved memory
Helps to cure insomnia
Relief from asthma
Lower blood pressure
Helps aid in weight loss
Less oxygen consumption
Calming of the central nervous system
Increased blood flow
Watch this clip about the effects of meditation on the brain.  It’s really interesting, and will make you want to give it a try too!  This is only part 1 of 6…
As you start your journey into your own mind, here are some nontraditional ideas that I can offer up. I like to do what feels good, and this way of thinking has been helpful to me.  (Not that I am some sort of rebel for taking this approach.  I doubt many hard-core “meditators” would dramatically disapprove…)Take what works for you, and leave the rest.

Rule:  Find a quiet spot, free from distractions.
I say: Meditate anywhere.

While peace and quiet would be ideal, it is not always realistic and can make us feel limited in when or where we can meditate.  For most people finding a quiet time in the day is next to impossible.  Even in our own homes we are kept company by our roommates, our kids, and/or our significant others.  It is not uncommon to be constrained by sounds of traffic, neighbors, TVs, radios, etc. For some of us, waiting for a quiet moment means we will never have a chance to practice our meditation. That's why I started doing it anywhere and everywhere. Try it sitting on the subway, lounging in the park, or perched at your work desk. These can be great opportunities to close your eyes and dive within. Yoga class is also a perfect time to meditate. I treat my entire yoga practice as one long moving meditation by focusing solely on my breath and letting all scattered thoughts float away. Walking meditation is another widely practiced form that you can do at anytime. Just focus on taking one step and then another. You may be surprised how easily outside distractions can melt away when you give it a try. It's better than waiting for a quiet moment that may never come, right?

Rule:  Start on the floor or pillow in a comfortable seated position.
I say: Sit however you want.
 The idea here is that you are sitting upright comfortably in order to relax and take deep full breaths, but beginners often find sitting on the floor without any back support very uncomfortable.  If you are straining to sit tall, and your back is aching, and your legs are falling asleep you are most likely going to have a hard time focusing your mind.  Aren't thoughts about your dinner plans and work issues  enough to distract you without adding aches and pains to the list? I suggest sitting in any position that is comfortable for you. Opt for a cozy chair or couch, a park bench, or a spot on the floor next to a wall.  As long as you can sit up tall to make room for the breath to enter the body you are in the clear.  Keep in mind that your core strength will improve over time if you practice sitting tall, and when you are ready and able the spot on the floor will still be there waiting for you.

Rule: Take deep breaths in and out through the nose.
I say: Breathe however you want.
If you are not accustomed to it, it can feel unnatural and forced to take exaggerated breaths solely through the nose.  The important thing to remember is that you should be breathing and relaxed.  If you find it hard to keep a natural rhythm going, throw all the frame work out the window and just breathe.  Do what feels right to you.  In time you will find that your breath will slow and grow deeper as your body and mind settles.  It does it automatically, so try not to stress about it.  The nasal breathing will come with practice as well.  The purpose of breathing this way is to warm and filter the air through the nose, and if you are aware of that objective it may help in the process.

Rule:  Clear the mind.
I say: Accept the fact that your mind will wander.

Thoughts will come and go, so don’t get frustrated or beat yourself up over it. It takes years of practice to focus the mind for an extended period of time. The important part of meditation, especially for beginners, is to acknowledge interruptions and then refocus the mind on whatever you have chosen for your focal point.  Even if the mind wanders a hundred times bring it back a hundred times.  Maybe next time you give it a go it will only wander 99 times.  Also, start by choosing a focal point that really resonates with you, like your favorite flower, word, or person.  It is easier to stay focused on something you like and can relate to.  I made the mistake of choosing a Sanskrit chant when beginning to meditate for the first time, and it felt so foreign to me that I could not stay present.  Pick something close to your heart and it may help to open your mind.
If you are interested in learning more about meditation techniques in a formal setting here are some well reviewed places in NYC that you can go to take class:
Integral Yoga Center - http://www.iyiny.org/
The Shambhala Center -  http://ny.shambhala.org/
I hope this was helpful. Let me know if I can answer any questions or provide any other tips or guidance.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Hot Yoga

The very first time I had the opportunity to experience hot yoga, or Bikram yoga, I absolutely hated it. I believe the phrase I used to describe it to friends was  "a hell where they make you do yoga."  The postures didn't feel right to  me. They felt strange to my body, a body that was accustomed to the free flowing nature of the vinyasa practice. The breathing was odd and  silly. My back hurt. My mouth was dry. I was forced to stare at myself in a mirror while wearing nothing but shorts and a sports bra. The teacher seemed like a drill Sargent, not a yoga instructor. He did not allow us to wipe the sweat from our faces or take a sip of water until a specified moment in class. We could not fidget or fix our clothes. And on top of all of this there was the heat...the  unbearable heat... the heat ranging from 105 to 110 degrees was by far the hardest  part.  Lightheadedness, dizziness, and oh yes, even feeling like you are about to vomit are the inevitable vices when practicing in the heat. (I have to admit that my first hot class was atypical in that it was part of my yoga teacher training, and we spent close to 2 and 1/2  hours in the heat instead of the regular 90 minutes. Most people may not have the same nightmarish experience.)

After class I was truly surprised at how challenging the traditional  hot practice was.  Being a fitness trainer and yoga instructor I pride myself in being tough, strong, and adaptable, but here I was feeling weak and defeated. This class did not seem like yoga to me. At least not the yoga I knew and loved. In my power vinyasa classes I indeed felt challenged, but the fact that I was able to move and breathe at my own pace made it easier.  Also, in vinyasa I was in a judgment free zone, free from mirrors where I could pick apart my physique and bring awareness to my flaws.  Plus, in my vinyasa practice the heat naturally rises, as it would in any room full of moving, breathing bodies. You still sweat with vinyasa, but you don't leave the room feeling like you need to chug a gallon of water.

I wanted to know more. Why would people want to practice yoga in this way?  What were the benefits of subjecting your body to the extreme  heat? What were the dangers? And more importantly, was it worth my going back?

I started doing my own research. Here is what I found out:

In terms of benefits there are actually a few things that hot yoga can offer that other forms of yoga can't (Please note--Any yoga practice can offer these benefits, but hot yoga can do quickly and to a greater degree.) Here is a list:

Detoxification - The excessive sweating cleanses the body by releasing toxins that build up over time.

Calorie burn-The average calorie burn for an hour of hot yoga is approximately 630, compared to the average of 445 calories per hour in a vinyasa class.

Increased flexibility-The heat makes muscles more pliable. I will use the silly puddy example-- if you put silly puddy in the fridge it will get hard and break when bent.  Warm silly puddy will stretch easily. Muscles and connective tissue like the heat and will respond accordingly.

Weight loss-Hot yoga promotes faster weight loss.  This is not only because of the number of calories burned, but also because of the amount of water weight you lose due to sweat.  (Keep in mind-- it is just water weight though...It can be put back on just as easily as it came off.)

Great stuff, right?

Here are some of the dangers I have found as well:

Overstretching of muscles and ligaments-Because the tissues become more pliable in the heat there is a danger of pushing the body passed it's biological limit without realizing it. Major damage can be done to the joints if you are not careful and attentive to what your body is telling you.  That is why Bikram's practice is often not recommended for beginners.

Dehydration-Because of all of the water loss during a hot yoga class it is very important to hydrate before and after you practice.  Dehydration can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, increased heart rate, and increased respiration.

These are some pretty serious dangers, but with mindfulness one can navigate around them.

So... although my first experience did not go well, I did make it back to hot yoga.  In fact, I have made an effort to integrate the hot practice into my weekly routine. I could never leave my beloved vinyasa behind, but I find the hot to be a nice addition to my regimen. I find the challenge exciting, and I look at it as a mental challenge even more so than a physical challenge. Self discipline is an important part of any yoga practice, and Bikram's style definitely promotes self discipline. I hate that I can't wipe the sweat from my face! But maybe that is exactly what I need... Joseph Campbell said: "Where you stumble, there lies your treasure."

Give it a try and decide for yourself. Use caution doing so, and you may discover something new and interesting.

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