My client said to me the other day, “Well your just a relaxed person..you were just born that way.” I laughed. Hard. “No I am not”, I replied. “ I practice being this way.” Maybe there are people who are born naturally calm. It just so happens that I am not one of those people. I have had to learn how to cultivate peace inside of myself. Every day. Again and again.
One of the ways in which I work on that “peace” of my life is through meditation. I am going to write about different types of meditation as they apply to your mental health. First I will begin with the one I have been practicing the longest, yoga. Cultivating a meditative practice can be helpful to anyone. In a study done at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine, at The Mindfulness Institute at Thomas Jefferson University, after 8 weeks of meditation, presentation of symptoms of anxiety decreased by 45%, and presentation of symptoms of depression decreased by 35%. For more information on these studies Google Digital Commons at Jefferson University and then plug into the search engine, Dr. Diane K. Reibel Director of the center and, or Don McCown, mindfulness based psychotherapist, teacher and trainer.
When I first came to my yoga mat, it took me 32 years to get there, but when I finally did it felt like coming home. Before this point I just thought yoga was kind of cheesy. Some things are just like that. You start and you feel as if you have been doing it forever. My first class was my best friend’s qualifying class as a teacher. She offered, “Hey, you want to come take my class?” I said, “sure”, being up for anything physical and wanting to support her, “why not?” What she failed to tell me was that the class was comprised of every yoga position she had learned and was to be taught to her classmates and 30 other yoga teachers. Uh yeah, that was my first yoga class. Me and the 40 yoga teachers. I should have known. My best friend was notorious for understating things. It was a hell of a jumping in. I remember looking around as one leg after another popped up into head stand, hand stand, arm balances. It was a regular Cirque de Soleil. So I went for it. I did every pose, blocked everyone out. Had no idea what I was doing and had a ball. I started practicing then and have not stopped since.
Corpse pose, or Shavasana, in Sanskrit, is a pose that we take at the end of each class. You lay your body down. You can take a blanket to cover yourself and then the lights are turned low. When I first experienced this I thought to myself, Yay! It’s nap time. Sneaking a look at all of the sleeping bodies around me. Then it happened. The teacher came around and gently placed the cool, form-fitting, silk eye pillow across my eyes. The smell of lavender sifted to my senses as she anointed my shoulder with the oil. “I am a princess”, I thought to myself.
So ask yourself is that cheesy? I couldn’t remember another time in recent years when I had felt so cared for in this very specific way. When was the last time you felt like a prince or princess? We do not usually allow the time for us to feel this way. We consider it indulgent. I tell you it is essential to feel this way. There is a reason that it felt like nap time. When we care for children well, this is how we treat them. Carefully. Preciously. And the fact that we did this for ourselves, not a massage therapist or even a therapist, but that it is our own practice is what makes a meditation practice unique.
Practice: Yoga Practice is called a practice because it is just that, something you practice. You practice being accepting of yourself when you are doing yoga, of others in your class and in your life. And man does that require a lot of practice!
Beginner Mind: You will get better as you practice. It is pretty cool to see how you start to master different poses and watch your body and your mind change. But the goal is not to get better but to accept wherever you are. Every time you come to the mat your practice will be different. This is called a Beginner Mind, because each time you come to your mat in some ways it is as if you are a beginner again. You may do a pose really well in one practice and you want to hold onto that great feeling. But when you go to do that pose again it is going to be different, maybe not better or worse but definitely different. Certainly, as in life we want to hold onto the good, and feel it feel it feel it forever. But a meditative practice helps you to really appreciate it when it’s here and to take it easy on yourself when we are wobbly in our heads, bodies etc. This is what we practice. Acceptance.
Teachers: People you must really like your teacher. You are taking time to nurture yourself, away from loved ones, your kids, careers. You must like who you are spending time with. I had a client tell me once how much she had enjoyed her first yoga class except that she felt that the teacher had snapped at her when she was trying to do a position. “ But its OK”, she said. No it’s not! Look for the right teacher. As with anything else it may take some time to find the right one.
Flexibility: “I can’t do yoga because I am not flexible.” This is the sentence I hear uttered most frequently when discussing yoga. You mean you can’t be flexible in your mind or heart? Because that is all it takes folks. A yoga Teacher Trainer once said: “People who are less flexible physically actually tend to get more out of yoga because they have to work harder to not be judgmental of themselves which is the core of the practice of yoga. People who are very limber and slide easily into poses, do not encounter the same kind of resistance and are at greater risk of missing this very important piece of yoga.”
Beginner classes: If you are beginner take only what is labeled a beginner class. Steer clear of classes labeled All Levels. These classes often focus on more advanced poses and forget entirely about beginners. Every teacher is supposed to teach to the lowest level in the class. Often this does not happen. As a beginner you need to learn about the foundation of poses and how to do them without hurting yourself.
Empty Your Mind: The other thing that people say about practicing yoga, “I am not very good at this because I cannot get my mind to stop thinking.” Yeah, well, welcome to life. Who can? Our minds are made to think. It’s what we do. The point is to accept this. Not to use it as yet another opportunity to beat ourselves up.
Noticing: Every time that you notice that your mind has wandered away you have a choice. You can allow your mind to follow the thought or you can gently request yourself to return to your practice. You might do this 100 times in a pose or practice. Just keep working it. Our minds vary in their business.
Gentle: One of my clients asked me what I mean by gentle. Good question. Gentle means being loving and kind towards yourself and others. Not screaming at yourself in your head. Not cursing, calling yourself names or saying mean things to yourself.
All of this: All of these moments that you notice that your mind has wandered away and all of the moments you are focused on your yoga practice, and everything in between, all of this is the practice of meditation.
There is an allegory that I have used when doing training on yoga that describes the experience of yoga.
A student comes to his Yoga Teacher and he says,“Teacher, I don’t get it. My practice is horrible, my mind is all over the place, I’m falling out of my poses…I feel like I’m doing it all wrong.” The teacher responds, “This shall pass. Go and practice. Come back to speak with me in two weeks.” Two weeks later the student returns to speak with his teacher. “Teacher my practice has been incredible. I hold my poses the intended time. My mind is calm and I am peaceful.” The teacher responds, “This too shall pass. Go and practice. Come back to speak with me in two weeks.”
So what is the point of this allegory and all of this you ask? Each time you practice you are taking time out of your day to practice accepting where you are. So much of our lives are focused on where we are going and what we do not have. Which is not a bad thing. But sometimes when we spend so much time wishing we were somewhere else it can cause anxiety, depression and most of all we miss what we actually have. In a meditation practice we are working on accepting wherever we are: happy, joyful, content, angry, frustrated. When we accept where we are it makes it easier to be there. But most of all because it helps us to get down to the business of enjoying the life we already have.