How to Meditate Without Feeling Like You’re Meditating


“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?

If it does, you’re not alone. The good news is that after years of coaching patients on how to meditate, and having meditated myself for more than half of my life (since the age of 21), I’ve got a few expert tips and tricks to help you get the benefits of meditation, even if you’ve never been successful before. Many of these lessons are shared in my new book, The GUTSMART Protocol, and I wanted to give you a taste of them here, too.

Meditation 101: Why meditate?

Dr. Vincent Pedre

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

The science behind meditation is practically endless, and the science is merely reconfirming what we’ve known for thousands of years through the careful observation and internal reflection fostered by meditation. Research has shown that meditation has amazing benefits for our health — both mental and physical. Here’s what meditation has been shown to do: 

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.

So, what do we do? In my new book, The GutSMART Protocol, there are a ton of tips and tricks for optimizing every aspect of your health, including your stress levels. For now, let me start by showing you a few hacks that will get you into a meditative state but not feel like meditation.

5 Ways to Meditate Without Feeling Like You’re Meditating

1. Exercise, and focus on your breath

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.

2. Stretch and do the 4-7-8 breath 

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.

3. Take a yoga class and breathe intentionally with each movement

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.

4. Stop, sit, and squeeze alternating nostrils while breathing

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.

5. Sing, hum, and activate that vagus nerve 

When you meditate, it activates a part of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. Interestingly, this system is largely mediated by a nerve called the vagus nerve. Interestingly, low vagal tone (something I go into extensively in my new book, The GutSMART Protocol)  has been associated with a lower resilience to stress and a range of illnesses and symptoms. The good news is that there are fun ways to activate this nerve that don’t even feel like you’re meditating, so you can digest and poop better than ever! Activate the vagus by singing (yeah, put on those jams and hit that a capella shower time), humming, or even gargling for thirty to sixty seconds. Why this works? The vagus runs along either side of your vocal cords, so those vibrations there help send a signal, getting that lazy vagus nerve to fire, increase vagal tone and improving so many other physical and mental health problems.

In the last several years there’s been an explosion of research on gut health, the microbiome, and how lifestyle factors like diet, stress, and meditation affect our overall health. In my new book, I’ll teach you how to take all that new information and use it to actually improve the way you feel on a daily basis. This book isn’t just about nutrition, it also includes science-backed breath and meditation exercises to destress and improve your gut health as the gateway towards optimal physical and mental health.

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