My first meditation was recently approved and published by Insight Timer, a meditation app I have been using on and off for ten years, although regularly for the last three.
It is a simple breath and mindfulness practice, running at just under thirty minutes, and is suitable for all mediators, including beginners. You can find it on my teacher profile here.
Last week we touched on different postures for meditation, this week I want to focus on the most common and most popular position: sitting cross-legged on a cushion.
But, hang on a minute, do you need to have a meditation cushion?
The short answer is: no.
The longer answer is: no, but…
These days, with many of us spending eight-hours or more at a desk, very few people have the mobility to comfortably maintain any type of cross-legged position. The result of this is that, when we sit down to meditate, it can take a while to find a comfortable position and our practice is distracted, because we are constantly thinking about when we can get up again and relieve the discomfort.
The most common cause of discomfort when sitting to meditate is feeling that the back is not supported. Given that 70 – 90% of Australians will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives and 16% live with chronic back problems, this is definitely something to be addressed. Causing our bodies pain or forcing them into unnatural, uncomfortable positions for the sake of meditation is a bad idea and counter-intuitive to the practice.
And this is where a meditation cushion comes in handy.
Using a meditation cushion elevates your hips and allows them to tilt forward slightly. This supports the natural curve in your lower back and helps align your spine. Once your spine is aligned the rest of your body will follow. Ironically, despite this being a natural and safe position, it can feel uncomfortable at first as we are so used to holding ourselves in stiff, unnatural positions during the day and, as a result, our back and trunk muscles tend to be weak. As long as the discomfort does not turn into actual pain, however, continuing to maintain a sitting posture with the help of a cushion will become easier over time and your back and trunk will strengthen as well, which will result in better posture and less back pain over all.
As for what kind of cushion you should buy, it really depends on the individual. I like quite a firm cushion, but others prefer something much softer. There are many reputable online stores that sell meditation cushions (Yoga King and iYoga Props are two I would recommend) and, while many teachers recommend a round cushion, this again is a matter of personal preference: my cushion is square and I like it that way.
So, while you don’t need a meditation cushion, I would highly recommend one. Not only will it assist with posture and help to relieve back pain, it will assist with making your practice a habit. Set your cushion up each day prior to meditating and, before too long, your body will know that, when you sit down on your cushion, it’s time to unwind and turn inwards.
Of course, for those unable to sit on the floor for health or other reasons, you can still gain the benefits of meditation sitting in a chair or even lying on a firm surface. But, if you can sit on a cushion, the benefit to your practice will be well worth the temporary discomfort of adjusting to a new position.
Article by J. Byers
Note: Neither Yoga King nor iYoga Props are in anyway affiliated with Barbell Dancer and Barbell Dancer is not in anyway affiliated with Yoga King or iYoga props. These are simply two suppliers that I have used and whose products I can thoroughly recommend.
When you prepare to meditate, how do you position your body? It’s a common question faced by beginning mediators and is also one of the most common reasons why so many people give up on or never start this powerful practice.
Posture is important in meditation, however it is not the be-all and end-all of the practice and conflicting advice, along with the fear of having to adopt uncomfortable or even painful positions, can put people off meditation.
So, with this in mind, what is the right position?
The good news: the right position is the one that is best for you.
Many meditation guides and teachers will recommend a seated posture, most often cross-legged or a variant of the lotus pose in yoga. If you can comfortably maintain a lotus then I encourage you to go for it, but if – like me – the position is painful for you then by no means do you have to use it. My favourite position is cross-legged, my hips raised on my cushion (more about cushions next week), and my hands either resting on my lap on in Gyan mudra.
If you would like to sit but are unable to sit cross-legged or find it very uncomfortable, there are a number of other seated positions you can try.
Some people find kneeling very comfortable, and you can sit your buttocks right back on your heels or, to prevent your feet from going to sleep, you may like to part your knees slightly and rest your buttocks back on the floor. Many women find this position quite comfortable for meditation, so if traditional seated positions aren’t your thing, you may like to try this one out and see how you go.
If you don’t want to sit or kneel on the floor, or can’t, then sitting in a chair is a good way to go. Dr. Ian Gawler, the author of Peace of Mind and one of Australia’s foremost mindfulness and meditation experts, recommends that you use a chair with a high back that allows you to sit with your spine straight and your feet on the floor. If the chair has arms you can rest your arms here, but if it doesn’t you can place them on your knees or cup them in your lap.
Finally, if you do not want to sit or cannot do so, you can lie on your back. To ensure your body is supported, it is best to lie on a hard surface, rather than a bed or a couch, and use either a blanket or an exercise mat between you and the floor. Your legs should be slightly apart with your feet turned out, but if this puts too much strain on your ligaments then placing a bolster or cushion under the knees can help. You can either rest your arms by your side, fingers up and lightly curled, or some people like to place their hands gently on their belly, so they can feel the rise and fall of the diaphragm as they breathe.
It is perfectly normal to experiment with different positions as you begin to meditate, and you may even find that some positions work better for certain types of meditations than others. It is also normal to vary the position depending on your status at the time of the meditation: if you are ill or tired, you may decide to lie down to meditate, rather than sitting up. It all depends on what feels right for you and your body.
Article by J. Byers
You know what it is, you know why you should do it, but you suddenly realise you aren’t sure how to do this meditation thing. You might turn to Google, but search for ‘how to meditate’ and you’ll get over 290,000,000 results in less than a second – enough to overwhelm anybody. You might decide to learn it the old fashioned way and pop into a bookstore to pick up a volume that will teach you everything you need to know, but which one should you buy?! The self-help section could be a meditation section all on its own and which type of meditation do you want to learn anyway: health, insight, visualisation, moving, relaxation… The list can seem exhaustive.
So where to start?
One of the best things about meditation is that it’s impossible to do it the wrong way and, given there are so many different styles, there’s always something for everyone. I find the best place to start with meditation is with your breath: take a moment now to pause and notice your breathing. Do you breathe through your nose, your mouth or both? Does your belly rise and fall or is the movement confined to your chest? Are you breathing quickly or slowly? How does it feel to breathe? Noticing the breath is the first step to mindfulness and a fantastic stepping stone to meditation. The breath will always be there, so we never have to worry about forgetting it or leaving it behind, which means we can take a moment to focus on our breathe wherever we are: home, work, school, on public transport, waiting in line, while we’re cooking, the possibilities are endless.
It can take a while to become comfortable noticing the breath and that’s perfectly normal. Some may even find it a little disconcerting to begin with, as becoming aware of the breath can sometimes lead to reflections on mortality, but the key to dealing with these kind of intrusive thoughts when you’re breathing mindfully is to acknowledge they’re there and bring your attention back to the breath. While the human mind can focus on many things at once, if you make a concentrated effort to focus on one thing and one thing only, it will obey you.
Once you’ve had some time to practice focusing on your breath, you can find a quiet, comfortable spot and prepare to meditate. Make sure you let your partner and children know what you’re doing, so you’re not disturbed, and keep any pets out of the area you’ve chosen. It’s also best to try and find a relatively clean space, as the external environment affects our internal environment and I have found in my own practice that a clear meditation area often results in a deeper and more focused session. When you’ve found a space where you’re not going to be disturbed, you can start to find a comfortable position. The most common position to meditate in is sitting cross-legged, however you can meditate any way that feels comfortable for you. The only criteria is that your head and neck should be in a neutral position and your spine should be relaxed.
And now you’re ready. You might like to place your hands on your belly the first few times you try this, and feel it rise and fall with your breath. This can be very grounding and gives you a second point to focus on, along with the breath. How long you stay here is entirely up to you; most teachers and coaches will recommend ten minutes, but, if you are brand new to meditation, this can seem daunting. When I started I would sit for just two minutes, and when that became too short I moved up to five, then ten, then twenty, and now regularly meditate for thirty minutes a day. Even starting with just two minutes, you will begin to notice some benefits, both immediately following and long term. US based psychologist and meditation coach Tara Brach says ‘everyday, no matter what’ and beginning your practice with just two minutes a day is a good way to cultivate this attitude and begin a lasting practice.
Article by J. Byers
Once you know what meditation is, the next big question that often comes to mind is why? Either why should we meditate or why has it become such a big thing? Strangely enough, the answers to these two questions are actually very similar, as the personal and the universal often come together in meditation.
We’ve become very busy in today’s world: sometimes it can seem as if our lives have become one giant to-do list, where we mindlessly tick off each activity as we come to it. We get up, go to work, come home, have dinner, go to bed and then do it all again the next day, then when the weekend rolls around we are either rushing around doing everything we couldn’t get done during the week or we’re so lethargic we do nothing and then suffer serious regret about it when Monday rolls around.
Sheesh! It is any wonder we’ve seen a spike in mental illness recently? According to the results of a study published by the Australian government in 2016, 45% of the population aged between 16 – 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Even more alarmingly, 30% of those aged 4 – 17 who were surveyed were reported to have been experiencing two mental disorders simultaneously over the twelve months prior to conducting the survey. Given how busy the adults around them are, and how unhappy many of them will be, it’s no surprise that our children are beginning to exhibit signs of stress and anxiety at earlier and earlier ages.
When people get stressed, they start to look for ways to de-stress; something they can do to tune out of the stress and just relax for a bit. Given how luxurious it can feel to relax for even a moment in our busy, over-stimulated world, even the very act of stopping for a moment can feel quite radical. Some people like to read a book, others surf the net or go for a walk; others may fall into a habit such as having a cigarette or over-indulging in alcohol. It is this need to de-stress that has made meditation such a go-to in today’s world, as it is one of the easiest (not to mention cheapest) forms of relaxation. If practiced regularly, meditation can lead to lasting benefits, which further increases its popularity on a universal and personal level. There are no adverse health risks, it’s easy to learn and you don’t even need to leave your house.
But beyond these immediate, short-term benefits, there are several long-term benefits to starting and maintaining a regular meditation practice; not least of which that you will be less affected by stress in your daily life (doesn’t that sound good!). A 2017 study by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles found that, out of 38 volunteers, those who participated in meditation were found to have more relaxed nervous systems and exhibited less stress overall when exposed to common stressful stimuli. This study also found that meditation caused increased activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating our mood, and participants reported feeling healthier, happier and more energetic.
So, when it comes to meditation, instead of asking yourself why, instead ask why not; after all, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Article by J. Byers
Meditation has become quite a trend these days; from new age spiritualists to neurosurgeons, it seems everybody wants a piece of this ancient practice. A simple Google search for ‘how to meditate’ turns up over 290,000,000 results in less than a second, bookstores are filled with numerous volumes on how to create the perfect practice and a variety of professional and self-help programs teach meditation as a key component for health and wellbeing.
But, what is it exactly?
The word meditation comes from the Latin root medicus which means “to cure” and is also the root we derive the words medicine and medication from. Both meditation and medication seek to restore balance to the body and mind, ease ailments and allow us to live full, productive lives, but only one can be tailored exactly to our specific, individual desires.
While meditation is often thought by many to have its roots in the East, particularly India and China, these are only two places where this ancient practice has been used. Civilisations from all over the world, from Western Europe to the Americas, have practiced what would now be described under the umbrella of meditation for thousands of years, and it is an integral part of indigenous cultures the world over. It is one of those things that tends to resist a dictionary-style definition, given there are so many (over 1000!) different styles of meditation and each experience is unique to the individual.
The Meditation Association of Australia (MAA) and the Gawler Foundation developed the following definition, which acknowledges the breadth of meditation and gives those wishing to understand it simple terminology with which to do so.
“In its simplest and most general sense meditation is a mental discipline involving attention regulation. More specifically, the broad act of meditation can be sub-classified according to the processes it involves or the outcome it leads to.”
So whether we meditate to soothe our nerves or give ourselves some much deserved down time, the practice is no less meditative. Meditation can be energising, relaxing and many things in between; most importantly it is unique to every person. So if you’re wanting to bring a meditation practice into your life, instead of Googling ‘how to meditate’ and sifting through those 290,000,000 results, research the types of meditation and find the one the sounds right for you. Try out a variety of styles or find a local meditation group in your area to explore. After all, if the world’s your oyster, meditation might be that pearl you’ve been searching for.
Article by J. Byers