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What's actually happening to your brain when you meditate?
You’ve read about the benefits of a daily practice. But what exactly is happening inside your body to produce these profound effects? Thanks to research done using fMRI scans of the brain, we know. Here, Rebecca Gladding, MD, a psychiatrist and co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, sheds some light on what’s going on in your gray matter when you meditate.
In the first few minutes of meditation, your ventromedial prefrontal cortex lights up. When you start to meditate, your brain jumps from one thought to the next. One of the reasons for this “monkey mind” is that this part of the brain is always active—unless we learn how to activate other areas (which is what a regular meditation practice does). “Interestingly, this part of the brain runs everything through a lens of ‘me,’” Gladding says. And it can prompt you to catastrophize. You might remember something you said at work and then think, “I’m going to get fired,” she says. Or, rather than brushing off a pain in your hip, you might jump to the (unlikely) possibility that you need a hip replacement.
Once you start to focus your attention, your lateral prefrontal cortex lights up. Whether that focused attention is on your breath, a mantra, your footsteps, chakras, or a soothing voice guiding your meditation, your lateral prefrontal cortex activates—and overrides the “me” thoughts in favor of a more rational, logical, balanced position. “This part of the brain helps you see things neutrally,” Gladding says. Which helps you settle into your meditation. Even better, the more you meditate, the more active your lateral prefrontal cortex becomes—and the quieter your ventromedial cortex (the “me” center that has a tendency to catastrophize) gets.
After 8 to 12 weeks of meditating daily, your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex gets activated. This is a part of the brain that helps us develop empathy. “It’s why the more we meditate, the more compassionate we become in life,” says Gladding. “This part of the brain becomes more active, more of the time.”
Join YJ’s March Meditation Challenge online at yogajournal.com/meditationchallenge, where you can participate in live sessions with master teachers, watch guided meditation videos, and follow as our editors try each of these meditation styles along with you.
Working with the side body can be a powerful way to foster trust that anything is possible. Here’s a practice for the next time you’re craving limitless potential.
Side body stretches not only feel good, but they can also help us stay open to possibility. Here are 9 yoga poses that will stretch your body and mind, helping you see the limitless potential in any situation.
Life is full of possibilities in terms of what we can become, what we can achieve, and who we are meant to be. But for most of us, our eyes and minds have been trained to look for a certain set of expected realities that often keep us closed to everything that is just at the edge of our consciousness.
The antidote? We have to ask that our hearts, minds, and eyes stay open to possibilities which we were previously unable to see. We have to remember, as Krishna reminds Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita time and again, that we each contain every possibility of existence inside of ourselves. That means there is no reason that we should not be able see what we were previously blind to.
Almost every Yoga teacher I know ends class by saying Namaste. While this term can roughly be translated as, “The highest in me bows to the highest in you,” there is also a prayer that is associated with this salutation which may help us in remembering to keep ourselves open to the possibilities that were previously unknown. It says, “I honor this place inside you in which the entire Universe dwells. It is a place of Peace, of Love, of Joy and of Truth. And, when you’re in that place in you, and I’m in that place in me, we are One.”
The entire Universe is limitless—there are no blinders, no closed doors, and all of those infinite possibilities reside deep down, inside of our own hearts. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re asking for. You just have to ask that your awareness be expanded to that which was previously unseen. I designed this sequence to help you do just that.
This Side-Opening Sequence Will Help You Stay Open to Possibility
Defining the ideal posture for each pose is not possible.
There is no such thing as perfect posture! Seek a posture that works, not one that is aesthetically pleasing.
As an overall concept, posture is not easy to define. It can refer to the alignment of the body’s parts, the average orientation of body parts over time, a particular position of the body, or the angular relations of the body parts. One definition considers “good posture” to be the place where there is a compromise between minimizing stress on the joints while also minimizing the work done by the muscles. What is missing in all these definitions is the reality of time and motion.
We rarely hold the body still for very long, so posture needs to include a dynamic dimension. However, in our yoga practice, we often maintain one posture for a minute or more before releasing and moving into another static position. For each pose there is a prescribed position, but defining the ideal posture for each pose is not possible. There is no static ideal that fits every body.
While standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) would appear to present the “perfect posture,” 30 percent more muscular energy is expended than when we are standing erect but relaxed.The Tadasana Posture
Consider someone standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as seen from the back. Notice the symmetry of the left and right sides; this is the supposedly ideal posture, which would include a neutral, erect spine, equal lengths for the left and right legs and for the left and right arms, and equal heights for each hip and each shoulder. The line of gravity, which is the line where there is an equal amount of weight on either side, falls from the center of the back of the head, along the spine and between the legs and feet, dividing the body into two equal, symmetric halves. In a frontal view, the line of gravity runs from between the eyes, the middle of the nose and chin, through the xiphoid process, the belly button and between the two feet. No one is perfectly symmetric, and many people have a side-to-side curve to their spine, a condition called scoliosis.
While standing in Mountain Pose would appear to present the “perfect posture,” when the posture is rigid, as in a military “at attention” posture, 30 percent more muscular energy is expended than when we are standing erect but relaxed.
From this we can question the value of mimicking in our yoga practice a strict, martial position of the body. In any case, individual variations in weight distribution throughout the body will require variations away from this idealized standard Mountain Pose posture; if the hips are heavier, if the breasts are larger, if the belly is bigger, if the head has a constant thrust forward, if the knees have painful arthritis, if the center of the ankles is forward of the heels, or for any of many other variations, the rest of the body will have to move away from the idealized line of gravity to maintain balance. The line of gravity has to shift to accommodate the reality of the body. All this is made even more complicated if the body is moving—and everyone sways a little or a lot when they stand, so the line of gravity is constantly moving and our nervous system and muscles are constantly adapting.
Common sense tells us that perfect posture will lead to healthier bodies, less pain, and ease of movement. Certainly if your posture is extremely different than the idealized version, pathology and problems can arise, but in general there is no proven link between the degree to which your posture fits the ideal posture and musculoskeletal disorders. This is worth saying another way: There is no such thing as perfect posture! Seek a posture that works, not one that is aesthetically pleasing.
To be sure, while there is no one posture that works for every body, or for one body all the time, there are many postures that can cause problems! In cases where a “bad” posture negatively affects function, it is often because the posture was statically held for many hours day after day, usually in a work-related environment. Changing habitual posture is very difficult, requiring a lot of training and time. If the cause of poor posture is muscular, it may be correctable with training. If the cause is skeletal, changes are very rare; yoga and other manual and physical therapies will not change the shapes of our bones. This is not to imply that no one can benefit from improving their posture—it simply acknowledges that to do so is difficult and rarely reduces pain.
Rather than compare our posture to an aesthetic ideal, it is better to work toward a functional posture, which varies moment to moment and movement by movement. Posture, like alignment, should be in the service of movement, not the other way around. We don’t move to get into the perfect posture; the posture or alignment we seek should be the one that allows us to move with minimal effort.
I have attempted to define good posture. Now let me define poor posture: any habitual pattern of holding the body that places it under constant and unnecessary stress. (Unnecessary stress is any stress that over time becomes unhealthy.) In other words, any position that is awkward and uncomfortable is probably poor posture. Change it. But don’t seek an ideal posture, because if held for a long time, any posture becomes unhealthy.
The body is dynamic, changing—and our postures should also be dynamic.The myth of “the static ideal”
The “ideal” Mountain Pose alignment is sought by many yoga students and prescribed by many yoga teachers—and it is a phantasm. Mountain Pose is a brief but static posture, one we pass through on the way to another posture, not a pose to be held for several minutes on end. In armed forces training, soldiers are drilled to stand on guard in this position for many hours, not because this is a healthy posture to maintain, but to build discipline, endurance, and subservience. Those are not the goals of most 21st-century yogis.
The body is designed to move. Motion is the lotion of life! To pretend that there is one, and only one, correct posture that should or could be maintained for long periods is simply wrong. Paul Grilley termed this “the myth of the static ideal.” Imagine having to walk around all day maintaining a firm, erect Mountain Pose posture: the chest always lifted, the arms glued to your side, shoulders drawn down and back, your gaze constantly horizontal, your head immobilized. This would be neither comfortable nor efficient. The head is designed to move, the arms to swing, the spine to flex. The body is dynamic, changing—and our postures should also be dynamic.
There is no predetermined, ideal form for Mountain Pose or any other yoga asana. There may be postures that definitely do not work for you; poor posture may have consequences. But what is poor posture for you may not be a problem for someone else. There may be a posture that will work best for you, given your unique biology and biography, and given the time of day, what else you have been doing that day, what your intentions are, and how long you need to remain in the position. But whatever this ideal posture is, it will not be your optimal position for very long. We need to move. Even when we sleep, we move around.
There is a flaw in many ergonomic designs that focus solely on comfort, and in the idea that we must have “proper posture” to remain healthy: these designs and ideas ignore the reality that people need to move. For example, searching for a chair design that is comfortable for every body and for all time is a fool’s quest; human shapes are far too varied for one chair design to suit everyone. Even more problematic is that most chairs are designed to restrict movement, especially movement we consider improper. Slouching is verboten, and chairs can be designed to discourage it. We can be very comfortable in a nice, expensive, ergonomic chair for five minutes, maybe 10, but after 20 minutes in even the world’s best chair, we will be aching to move. If that expensive chair does not allow movement, suffering ensues.
The practice deliberately takes the student outside her comfort zone, but the postures are not idealized as being perfect.Fidgeting is Fine
In meditation classes, moving is called fidgeting. Fidgeting is frowned upon in schools, in the workplace, and in yoga studios. This attitude ignores the body’s need to move. This does not mean that sitting still for a period cannot be valuable; from a mindfulness, mediation, or discipline-building perspective, there may well be good intentions that require stillness, but these intentions will not include optimizing physical comfort. It is perfectly okay to challenge yourself to stay in an uncomfortable posture for five minutes or even longer in order to develop awareness and presence (as long as the discomfort doesn’t devolve into pain), but don’t claim that the chosen position is the ideal posture. The posture is simply a tool to achieve your intention. Indeed, the style of yoga known as yin yoga requires that the postures be maintained for many minutes. The practice deliberately takes the student outside her comfort zone, but the postures are not idealized as being perfect—they are simply tools to generate a healthy stress in the body’s tissues.
An ideal sitting position is not one with the spine ramrod straight, nor is it related to a precise amount of lumbar curve, or the height of the seat above the floor, or the position of the feet on the floor. The ideal sitting position is dynamic. For a while, we may sit up tall with the lumbar in slight extension, feet flat on the floor, but after five minutes, the ideal position may be to slouch for a little while, allowing some flexion to the spine, and then change again, perhaps to sitting cross-legged. (Slouching for hours at a time may not be healthy for most people, but slouching for a few minutes may be very healthy, depending upon the previous stresses on the spine.) Whether you’re standing, sitting or in any other orientation, your ideal posture is always changing.
Plus, how to fix each to stay safe when you practice.
Posture and injury are closely connected. Here are four common postural habits that have the potential to cause yoga injuries, plus the simple fixes that can help keep you safe.
Recent research suggests that yoga injuries are on the rise, but even the most devoted students among us practice for a mere fraction of the day. What we do the rest of the time—our posture and movement habits—has a far greater impact on our joints, muscles and fascia than our yoga practice.
So, while yoga might get the blame, sometimes a yoga pose is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back, highlighting long-standing biomechanical imbalances created in our lives off the yoga mat.
Here are four common postural patterns to look out for, the poses or practices where they might set us up for increased injury risk, and some tips on how to re-create balance in the affected area.
Postural Pattern No. 1: Upper Cross Syndrome and biceps tendonitis.
Ever felt a nagging ache at the front of the head of your shoulder after a few too many sun salutations? This could be related to a common postural habit known as upper cross syndrome.
Many of our daily activities, including driving and typing, involve our arms working in front of our body. This pattern tends to shorten and tighten our anterior shoulder and chest muscles (including pectoralis major and minor plus anterior deltoid) while weakening our posterior shoulder and mid back muscles (including the rhomboids, middle trapezius and infraspinatus). This imbalance pulls the head of the humerus forward in its socket.
When we take this altered position into weight-bearing poses, especially when our elbows are bent and gravity adds to the forward pull on the shoulders, we tend to lay on the biceps tendon (the tendon of the long head of biceps brachii) over the front of our shoulder joint. With repetition, the extra load on the tendon could create irritation and inflammation, leading to a niggling pain on the front of our shoulder.
• Soften chronic tension in your chest and anterior shoulders by incorporating both active and passive stretches for these muscles, such as humble warrior arms, reverse prayer position, or lying supine with arms out in a T-shape or cactus position (perhaps even with a rolled blanket or mat under your spine to create extra lift for your chest).
Reverse prayer position in Horse Pose
• Awaken your posterior shoulder muscles by utilizing arm positions that require active shoulder retraction or external rotation, such locust pose with T arm or cactus arm variations.
• Develop a more central weight-bearing position for the head of your shoulder in Chaturanga Dandasana by broadening your collarbones and turning your sternum forward. This position will be much easier to maintain if you stay higher in the pose, keeping your shoulders above elbow height. You might also consider skipping Chaturanga at times to build more variety into your yoga practice.
Postural Pattern No. 2: Lower Cross Syndrome and hamstring tendonitis
Another common yoga injury is pain in the proximal tendon of the hamstrings, where they attach to the sit bones at the base of the pelvis. This appears as a nagging, pulling pain just below the sit bones that often feels worse after stretching or sitting for long periods.
Most of us spend hours of each day sitting, and our soft tissues adjust to this habit. One such adjustment is the common muscular pattern called lower cross syndrome, where the hip flexors on the front of the pelvis and thighs (including the iliopsoas and rectus femoris) tend to become tight and the hip extensors on the back of the pelvis and thighs (including gluteus maximus and the hamstrings) tend to weaken, tilting the pelvis forward.
In yoga we often exacerbate this pattern by stretching our hamstrings far more often than we strengthen them. Over-stretching these weak muscles has the potential to irritate their tendinous attachment to the sit bones. The position of these tendons underneath the base of the pelvis also means that they are compressed every time we sit, potentially reducing their blood flow and making them slower to heal.
• Focus any hamstring stretches on the belly of the muscle. If you feel a stretch tugging on your sit bones when you stretch, move away from that sensation immediately by bending your knees or backing out of your full range of motion.
• Work on strengthening your hamstrings as often as you stretch them. Incorporate Locust Pose (Salabhasana) and Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) variations into your practice more often. You could also try stepping your feet a few inches further away from your torso in bridge pose to highlight hamstring contraction instead of glute contraction. Finally, keeping your hips square to the mat when you lift a leg behind you in Downward Facing Dog and the kneeling Balance Bird Dog Pose will highlight hamstring (and gluteus maximus) contraction.
Balance Bird Dog PosePostural Pattern No. 3: posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar disc injuries
If you’ve ever had a lumbar disc rupture or protrusion—or been one of the 80% of adults that have experienced any kind of low back pain—you’ll remember how vividly aware you became of the movements and positions that put pressure on your spine, and how many of those appeared in the average class.
Our column of vertebra is connected by two moveable facet joints at the back of the spine and are sandwiched together by intervertebral discs at the front of the spine. When we lean back or take the spine into extension (a backbend), we load the facet joints; when we lean forward or flex the spine (into a forward curl) we load to the discs. If we fold more deeply forward, add weight by reaching with our arms, add sheering force by twisting the spine, or alter our pelvic position by sitting, we significantly increase the load on our discs.
Not all of us experience Lower Cross Syndrome; for some, slouching in our seat creates the opposite postural pattern, sending our pelvis into posterior tilt. The altered pelvic position has flow-on effects, one of which is to flatten the natural curve in our lumbar spine, bringing it out of extension into slight flexion. This means that in what we perceive as our neutral posture we are already adding extra load on our intervertebral discs, before we even start to fold forward, add weight, or alter pelvic position.
In healthy discs, adding load isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if our discs are damaged or degenerating, the extra force we exert in a yoga practice could be the last straw that leads to disc injury, causing the jelly like protein filling of our disc to leak out, potentially irritating neighboring nerves as well as reducing spine function in that area.
The overall theme of reducing risk injury is to use your yoga practice to develop keener awareness of your posture. Once you know what a truly neutral lumbar spine and pelvis feel like, you can make a deliberate decision as to whether to add load to the discs by flexing the spine, rather than allowing your posture to make the decision for you.
• Pay particular attention to what is required to create a neutral spine and pelvis in seated poses; that might include propping your sit bones on the edge of a blanket to lift them away from the floor and guide the pelvis out of posterior tilt into a neutral position.
• Learn to maintain a neutral lumbar spine in movements that load the discs as well. The transitions between standing and folding forward, and vice versa, place particular load on the lumbar; using your core muscles and legs to share the workload is hugely supportive for the spinal discs - a helpful habit to take off the mat as well.
Postural Pattern No. 4: “tech neck” and neck injuries
Smart phones and other devices have become a dominant part of our lives, but the hours spent looking down at a screen can have unintended side-effects. Forward head carriage, also called text neck or tech neck, is a common pattern these days, thought to be driven by the habit of looking down at phones and other devices for hours of every day.
Tech neck is a common scenario where the weight of our head tilts forward from its natural weight-bearing position. Like all the postural habits discussed here, it can alter the biomechanical patterns around the spine, in this case placing additional load on the discs in our cervical spine. This could be an issue in any yoga pose but the stakes increase dramatically when we add body weight to the equation, as we do in certain inversions including Headstand (Sirsasana) and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana).
It’s challenging enough to create a neutral spine when we turn the world upside-down for headstand; the challenge increases hugely if our perception of neutral is skewed to begin with. Taking forward head carriage into Headstand means carrying our bodyweight in a way our body—including our vulnerable discs—isn’t designed to do.
Shoulderstand is another controversial pose, taking the forward head position of text neck and adding bodyweight to it; given how common tech neck is in yoga students, some argue that the therapeutic benefits of this pose may no longer be worth the risk of it reinforcing existing dysfunction.
How to reduce neck injury risk:
As in posterior pelvic tilt, the core of neck injury prevention is re-education: learning anew what a neutral head and neck position look and feel like so that we can choose when and how we load the structures of our neck, rather than allowing unconscious habits to do that for us.
• Practice finding and maintaining neutral head and neck in various orientations to gravity, from supine using the feedback of the floor, to upright with a wall behind the back of the head, then progressing to unsupported positions like Tadasana, Triangle (Trikonasana), Downward Facing Dog and Dolphin Pose (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana).
• If you do wish to practice Headstand, invest time and effort in building improved muscular stability in your shoulders so that (while neutral head and neck position is still crucial) you are able to efficiently carry the bulk of the load in your arms instead of your head.
• If you enjoy practicing Shoulderstand, experiment with stacking blankets under your shoulders to reduce the degree of neck flexion required to create a straight line in the remainder of your body, or stay flexed in your hips so that you are able to support more of your bodyweight through your arms and hands and carry less in your head and neck.
Any physical activity has its risks and yoga is no exception. However, the recent rise in reported yoga injuries may be less a reflection of the practice, and more related to the habits we take into it. One of the great benefits of yoga practice is the opportunity it creates for reflection; rather than giving up on our practice because of the risks it could entail, we can choose to use it to become more aware of our posture, and more mindful in the way it influences us.
Tasha Eichenseher, Yoga Journal's Brand Director, talks about exploring meditation and the struggle to commit.
The March/April issue of Yoga Journal dives into all aspects of mindfulness and meditation—from psychedelics in yoga communities to learning how to be compassionate in your everyday life.
My meditation practice is relatively new—about two years old. And I am not the most disciplined practitioner, which is interesting, because I know how powerful the benefits can be.
In fact, when I do practice, it almost instantly changes my attitude, interactions, thoughts, perceptions, and anxiety levels. I become a more open and compassionate person. So why is it so hard to commit? Am I afraid of what I’ll find in the dark recesses of my mind? Of losing the stories I’ve held onto so tightly as my identity? Bottom line: sitting still with your thoughts is hard.
Enter this issue of Yoga Journal, dedicated to meditation and mindfulness. From Sally Kempton’s brilliant essay on working with your thoughts to Cyndi Lee’s calming (and unpredictable) slow flow sequence, everything about this issue asks you to pay more attention—to the way you think of yourself and relate to the rest of the world.
We also explore the resurgence of psychedelics in yoga communities. And we offer up plenty of support in finding tools, approaches, and styles of meditation, so that you can either get started, work to overcome obstacles, or find inspiration to move deeper into your own contemplative practice.
To be clear, we are not endorsing drug use, app use, or any one method. We simply want you to feel better too—to unlock the potential that exists when you are able to understand your own patterns, realize that you are not your reactions and emotions, and clearly comprehend how connected you are to your neighbor and the universe. The pure love that underlies and unites the contributions you are about to read is palpable, and it is giving me the courage and motivation I need to keep exploring my own $h*t.
Keep standing up your date with that meditation cushion? Here's everything you need to find a meditationstyle that resonates with you so you can (finally!) establish a daily practice.
Establishing a regular meditation practice can be challenging. Enter Yoga Journal's meditation challenge,
Ah, the wayside—a place brimming with the best of intentions, like donating that pile of clothes, learning French, or finally starting a regular meditation practice. After all, it’s easy to wait for the right time (when you finally become a wake-up-at-5-a.m. kind of person) or the right prop (a promo code for that herringbone meditation cushion should slide into your inbox soon, right?).
Yet the truth is that a meditation practice is designed to transcend those elusive perfect conditions; it just fits into your life, whether you do it at sunrise or smack in the middle of your busy schedule. “You’ve just got to do it, not just think it’s a good idea,” says Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. “And that’s what’s hard.”
As with asana, there are many meditation styles and traditions, and they aren’t all suited for everyone. Finding a technique that speaks to you may take some experimentation, but Sally Kempton, author of Meditation for the Love of It, recommends trying to stick to one style every day for a week—or better yet, a month—before ditching it for another. This gives you a chance to figure out whether you’re reaping those sweet, science-backed benefits, such as reduced stress, anxiety, and pain. “Over the long term, you will start to see the results of your practice—not in your sitting session, but out in your life,” adds Cyndi Lee, a yoga and Tibetan Buddhism teacher. Salzberg agrees: “A regular meditation practice will show in how you speak to yourself when you make a mistake, how you greet a stranger, or when you’re meeting some kind of adversity. That’s where you’ll see the shift."
The Challenge: Stick to a Meditation Practice This Month
Ready to start a committed meditation practice? First, read on to learn more about five common—yet different—meditation styles. They unfold as a progression, from meditation preparation (often called mindfulness practices) to more traditional, deeper, and esoteric forms of meditation. And while they all offer benefits, the idea behind mindfulness is to train your mind for the deeper, more esoteric styles. If you are new to sitting still with your thoughts, mindfulness practices like guided meditation are a great place to start. “Before we can be fully absorbed in what’s happening in the moment, we have to learn to narrow our attention,” says Ashley Turner, a yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles, pointing out that in Patanjali’s prescribed path in the Yoga Sutra, concentration (dharana) comes before meditation (dhyana).
If one of the styles resonates deeply, dive right in and practice it for 5–20 minutes every day this month. Can’t decide which one is the one? Try each style every day for seven days, then stick to practicing the one you liked the most.
Discover what type of meditation you want to practice.Moving Meditation
Western mindfulness practices come from a foundational Buddhist practice called shamatha, which means “calm abiding.” It strengthens, stabilizes, and clears the mind, so that you stay present moment to moment. You do this by consciously placing your attention on an object or physical feeling. In a sitting meditation, that may be your breath; in a walking meditation, it is the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step, Lee says. “It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
After all, you’re contending with raw thoughts—what’s happening now, what happened before, and what may happen later. And that’s OK: The Tibetan word for practice, gom, also means “getting familiar.” “The idea is not that you’re going to have absolutely no thoughts,” says Lee. “What you’re actually doing is cultivating your ability to recognize that you don’t have to buy into everything that comes up. Part of the experience is recognizing that your mind will stray, so when it does, you bring it very gently with precision back to the feeling of your foot on earth. Step, step, step.”
A teacher will get you started in a seated meditation, and then prepare you to move mindfully. “Start a little bit slower than your ordinary walk, so you can feel your feet and arrive in every step,” says Lee. At home you can try it around your dining room table or up and down a hallway.
Guided Mindfulness Meditation
Nothing derails your ability to be present—during your yoga practice, at work, or while meditating—than what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” an untamed, capricious mind that swings from thought to thought. That’s why guided mindfulness meditations are an effective entry point for beginners: They teach you to focus, center, and find peace in our always on-the-go culture.
This style—a 21st-century Western adaptation of ancient Buddhist practices—has popped up everywhere from drop-in meditation studios (like INSCAPE and MNDFL in New York City and Unplug in LA) to popular apps (bet you’ve heard of Headspace). Guided meditation works by cultivating the “witness mind,” a judgment-free awareness of your inner dialogue. You begin to recognize the recurring thoughts and stories that incite anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear. “The biggest shift is that instead of reacting to a thought, you simply notice it, become curious about it, and choose whether or not to pay attention to it,” Turner says. The goal? “Eventually, you can begin to respond wisely—or not at all.”
Think of guided meditation as if you have a coach supporting you step by step through the session, Turner says. No matter where you are—seated on your meditation cushion, on a crowded subway train, or drifting off to sleep—a teacher verbally directs your attention to physical sensations (such as temperature, sound, breath, and body) and what is happening in your mind. When distractions arise, take note—and refocus on the guided cues.
Mantra, derived from two Sanskrit words—manas (mind) and tra (tool)—is a practice of chanting, whispering, or reciting (aloud or silently) a sound, word, or phrase. “Mantra actually changes the rhythm of your brain and takes you from the plane of the five senses into what I call a ‘super’ consciousness, in which you are tuned in to unbound intelligence,” says Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace. You can use this deep awareness to remove obstacles in your life or even reconnect to the divine, says Finger.
Vocalizing a mantra and feeling the resulting subtle vibration quiets your thinking mind (the beta brain-wave state), so that you enter a more relaxed (alpha) state. When you can still sense vibration without uttering anything at all, you settle into a dreamlike state (theta). It’s here where you alter patterns grooved into the unconscious mind, Finger says. The primordial sound Aum, often spelled Om, takes you from theta into delta, he adds, a state where you may experience samadhi, or absorption—the final limb of yoga—without form or thought.
Neuroscientists and researchers have found mantra meditation practice may help calm the nervous system and induce deep relaxation. Studies also suggest that you gain the benefits regardless of the mantra itself. That means you have a lot of options. You might chant Aum, Sat Nam (which means “I am truth”), or long invocations to Ganeśha, the god of wisdom; you could repeat bija (seed) mantras, vibrations that activate the chakras; or you could recite the Lord’s Prayer, positive reinforcements like, “I am enough,” or any sound, word, or phrase—as long as you repeat something with focused attention.
And there are different ways to practice. Gurus often pass down a bespoke mantra to their students. And japa is a practice in which you move individual beads of a mala through your fingers as you repeat a mantra. In Transcendental Meditation, students hire and work with a trained meditation leader who initiates them with a mantra that isn’t to be spoken aloud or ever shared.
What to expect
Lying down or sitting comfortably, you’ll repeat a mantra silently or aloud and sense the accompanying vibration. You can do this in a certain pattern (for example, you might silently repeat the mantra once on each inhalation and once on each exhalation), or let the mantra take on a pattern of its own. When your mind wanders, simply notice and bring your attention back to the mantra.
STUDY WITH ALAN
Create space for your consciousness to return to its natural state in Alan's Master Class on how to find clarity and peace through meditation. yogajournal.com/meditation101
Lovingkindness meditation involves directing love and compassion toward yourself and others.Lovingkindness Meditation
In this meditation, you silently repeat mantras to direct love and compassion toward difficult people in your life—including yourself. “Lovingkindness is a practice of generosity," says Salzberg, “offering to ourselves and others a sense of inclusion and care.”
Salzberg’s been asked whether Lovingkindness—a translation of metta, from the ancient Indian language Pali—could simply be called love. “But love is very complicated, isn’t it?” she says. “‘I will love myself . . . as long as I never make a mistake. I love you . . . as long as the following conditions are met.’ But that’s not what metta really means.” Instead, Salzberg says she approaches love as an ability, or capacity, that you can expand. “People may inspire love, but ultimately, it’s inside me and it’s mine to cultivate and tend to. That is very empowering.”
In classic Buddhism, love is the answer to fear—making it an antidote to both chronic self-criticism and divisive sociopolitical dialogues. “It takes a lot of wisdom along the way, because making an offering to a difficult person doesn’t mean letting go of your principles. But it frees you of the corrosive obsession you may have with other people’s faults,” says Salzberg. “We may not want to spend time with difficult people, but we come to understand our lives are intertwined with theirs.”
What to expect
Select three or four phrases (examples: “May I be safe”; “May I be happy”; “May I be healthy”; “May I live with ease”). Begin offering these wishes to yourself, and conclude by extending them to all beings everywhere. In between, send them to other recipients: a mentor or someone who inspires you; a friend or loved one; someone neutral, like a shopkeeper; and then a challenging individual, such as a co-worker who triggers you or a political leader whose views you don’t respect.
In Tantra practices, chakras are wheels of energy connected to different levels of consciousness. They are strung along the sushumna nadi—a central channel of prana, or life force, that runs from the base of your spine up through the crown of your head. In general, when the chakras are closed, your energies are blocked, leaving you dull and stagnant.
Drawing attention and directing your breath into the central channel turns your prana inward to open up blocked chakras and allow energy to flow harmoniously, Kempton says. “When the sushumna nadi opens, you lose consciousness of the shape of your body and find yourself in a spacious place of presence,” she says. “You become aware of the fact that your real body is not the physical one, but rather a formless, undulating center filled with bliss, expansion, and vast realms of light. The secret of actually being in meditation is being in the sushumna nadi. It’s fairly dramatic, and it’s completely unbelievable until you have the experience yourself.”
Of course, not everyone experiences the kind of subtle body explosions Kempton is talking about on the first try. “I did 10 years of mantra practice before I started meditating on the sushumna nadi, so my inner body was really primed when I started,” she says. However, since this practice is profoundly centering, even without the fireworks, it can be a powerful meditation style.
What to expect
In a seated position, you’ll use a combination of vertical breath (inhaling and exhaling at certain chakra points in the central channel, like the root, heart, and third eye), mantra, mudra, and visualizations to tap into your subtle body.
Join YJ’s March Meditation Challenge online at yogajournal.com/meditationchallenge, where you can participate in live sessions with master teachers, watch guided meditation videos, and follow as our editors try each of these meditation styles along with you.
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