“Meditation has amazing benefits for stress” are words we’ve all heard a thousand times. But if you’re like any of my patients — we’ll call her “Penny” — sitting down to breathe, relax, and calm your mind is way, WAY harder than it looks. When she came into my office, she was struggling with anxiety, gut health issues, and other chronic symptoms that were clearly worsened by stress. But despite how much she tried, she just couldn’t get in the habit of meditating regularly. She said, “My mind is all over the place when I try to sit still.”
Does this sound familiar? Have you ever tried to meditate and gave up within two minutes because your mind was racing?
Meditation 101: Why meditate?
But, before we dive into the solution, I should first answer the question: Why meditate? The answer is simple: We’re all really stressed, and meditation is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to ward off the stress response. We all suffer from the physical and mental health consequences of stress, which can range from anxiety to panic attacks to skin rashes to flare ups of a chronic autoimmune condition.
12-Science Backed Benefits of Meditation
Why is Meditation So Hard?
Clearly, the benefits of meditation are prolific and hard to argue with. So why, then, do so many of us have trouble establishing a regular meditation practice. Studies show that the number of people who have tried meditation is quickly growing (increasing from only 4.1 percent in 2012 to almost 15 percent in 2017). However, we’re a lot less clear on how many people actually succeed in making meditation a regular practice.
Many of us try meditation a few times and then don’t try it again for months or years. Some of us get on a meditation “kick” for a few weeks or months, and then inevitably fall off when life gets in the way. There are so many reasons for this, but they all culminate with: “Meditation is hard.” “I don’t have the time to meditate.” “I can’t sit still and meditate.” To be honest, sitting alone, without distraction, with your own thoughts is hard… and downright scary at times. Who wants to really open that closet into the subconscious mind?
Meditation essentially is the opposite of what many of us are accustomed to experiencing in our everyday lives now. Our lives are full of distraction, excitement, and stimulations. Smartphones. TV’s. Digital Ads on the Highway. They all flood our visual receptors with more information than our brains know what to do with. And many of us move from one thing to the next, multitask, living just a little bit in the future or the past, instead of savoring the present moment. With meditation, the goal is to be present, focus on your breath, and just be. For many of us, that can immediately trigger feelings of restlessness, agitation, or even anxiety or panic.
With meditation, the goal is to be present, focus on your breath, and just be.
5 Ways to Meditate Without Feeling Like You’re Meditating
In a way, any type of movement can be made into a meditation. When I spoke with Penny, I suggested she start with activities that she enjoys doing like running, and then focusing on the breath. She found a lot of success taking a deep inhale every three to four strides on her runs, and then doing a nice long exhale for 6 to 8 strides. With this technique, you can breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. The key is to always breathe in through the nose. This combination of exercise and breathwork occupies the brain just enough that Penny didn’t have the bandwidth to go down the rabbit hole of all the things that make her anxious or worried. Starting with movement and controlled breathing is a great way to trick your body into meditating when you are an anxious person.
The 4-7-8 breath, also known as the box breath, is an incredibly, science-backed breathwork technique that involves inhaling through the nose for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth with pursed lips (as if through a straw) for 8 seconds. If you find sitting still is too much for you, try coupling the 4-7-8 breaths with light stretching to keep yourself moving. Use the breath to guide your stretches. Move into a stretch during the inhale, relax during the breath hold, and deepen the stretch during the exhale.
In a way, yoga is like a moving meditation. There’s the same focus on the breath and the present moment. There’s a ton of research showing yoga calms the nervous system and helps fend off the stress response. If you want to try yoga as meditation, try a gentle class or one that incorporates breathwork. Here’s how you can maximize its nerve-calming benefits: breathe in while moving into a pose, hold your breath while in the pose, and exhale when moving out of the pose. Let the breath guide the movement, and let the movement guide the duration of each inhale and exhale.
If you feel comfortable sitting for your meditation but don’t want to stay completely still, or find yourself getting anxious when left completely alone with your thoughts, alternate nostril breathing is a great technique to lean on to focus your attention away from your racing mind. I once heard a meditation teacher say, “I breathe in order to meditate.” In other words, breathe first, and meditation follows naturally. Alternate nostril breathing involves pinching one nostril at a time as you breathe in and out. You’ll breathe in through one nostril while pinching the other, then breathe out through the other nostril, while pinching the opposite one. It’s a little complicated to explain, so here’s a video demonstrating exactly how to do it.