3 Meditation Techniques for a Happier, Healthier You
Here’s how to calm your stressed out, anxious mind, one breath at a time
It’s no understatement that the COVID-19 pandemic kept us on our toes in 2020, and continues to do so now. Between worrying about our aging parents and how to keep them safe, to dealing with “reverse empty nest syndrome” (as I affectionately like to call it), to concerns about our health and finances, we’re dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress. And we’re not out of the woods just yet.
Many of us are still struggling with bizarre sleep patterns, fatigue, and concerns over when we’re going to “return to normal.” Even Michelle Obama shared last summer that she was suffering from “low-grade depression.” And she’s not alone: according to data from the US Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, one in three Americans is dealing with symptoms of stress or anxiety. In addition, the JAMA Network reports that there is a “high burden of depression symptoms in the US associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
So how do we make peace with our minds during challenging times?
While there are many ways to quell anxiety, having a regular meditation practice is one of the easiest ways to incorporate Zen into our daily lives as well as improve our overall health. Because of its effect on the brain, long-term meditation may help cut the risk of depression as well as fight the signs of premature aging. It can also help reduce inflammation and may even control cravings. And while your default response might be “I don’t have time to meditate,” you may be surprised at how you can simply weave a meditation practice into your day — no fancy equipment necessary (fancy yoga pants optional).
“Anyone can practice meditation,” says Alysha Pfeiffer, a yoga instructor with The Valley OM Yoga and Bodywork, in Easton, Pennsylvania. “If you have a busy mind,” she adds, “welcome to being human. We all have thousands of thoughts in a day, and meditation is simply a way to observe the mind without trying to change it or fix it. The most important thing is to let go of judgment and expectations.”
Read on for three simple meditation techniques that will have you saying “OM” instead of “OMG” in no time.
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
Transcendental Meditation, or “TM” as it is commonly known, is a simple method that, once mastered, offers lasting benefits. “It’s an investment in the rest of your life,” says Bob Roth, CEO of David Lynch Foundation in New York City. The Foundation began teaching an evidence-based meditation technique to children in 2005 and found that researchers reported an improvement in attention, memory, and behavior regulation in those with ADHD. The Foundation is now actively teaching TM to adults, as well as veterans with PTSD, through its Operation Warrior Wellness. (An Operation Desert Storm vet reported his first full night’s sleep in more than 20 years after beginning TM.) Roth, who has been teaching TM for more than 40 years, says that it’s a “powerful tool that can be accessed at will.” What makes it different from other types of meditation, he explained, is that it is more a state of flow than a technique that you would call upon only when feeling stressed.
TM is practiced twice a day for 15-20 minutes at a time: once in the morning and once in the late afternoon or early evening, seated comfortably in a chair, with eyes closed. Once learned, Roth says, TM “allows for the body to enter into a state of rest, in many regards deeper than the deepest part of deep sleep.” This deep rest, he notes, eliminates the buildup of tension, stress, fatigue and anxiety, and “wakes up the creative networks of the brain.” For those who balk at spending upwards of 30-40 minutes a day doing TM, Roth reminds us that “there are 1,440 minutes in a day” and with so much of our waking hours spent taking care of others, this is a chance to increase our resilience. “This is what the body can do when we give it an opportunity to heal itself,” he says.
When asked if TM can be practiced lying down at bedtime, Roth explained that during TM, “the mind settles and is awake inside,” so late afternoon meditation acts like a “reboot” for both body and mind and allows you to be more present for both yourself and your family. Roth says that even though there is an inner calm with TM, it’s like “waking up fresh” (similar to the feeling we have after waking from a nap), giving you the energy to tackle your to-do list, get more done, and sleep better at night.
Learning TM takes about one hour a day over the course of four consecutive days with a specially trained instructor. To get started, Roth recommends first researching TM and then visiting www.tm.org to find a local teaching center. (You can also check the David Lynch Foundation for more information.)
The “STOP” Method
One of my favorite methods, because it’s both easy and versatile, is called the “STOP” method, developed by Deepak Chopra. It can be done nearly anywhere or any time, and it goes like this:
S: STOP what you are doing in that moment.
T: (Take) THREE deep breaths; in through the nose and out through the mouth or nose (your choice).
O: OBSERVE the feeling you’re currently having, and get specific. Saying “I’m stressed,” is vague. Are you feeling hurt, angry (hangry?), rushed, or simply unheard? Maybe you’re emotionally drained from yet another request from your sister asking if you can take Dad to the doctor because she’s “got a lot going on,” or maybe you’re frustrated because you seem to be the only one in your household who notices that the trash is full (again). Whatever it is, give it a name, and say it aloud if possible.
P: PROCEED with kindness and compassion, whether that be toward yourself or others around you. Remember that we don’t always know what others are struggling with. Keep in mind that everyone is the protagonist in their own story, and greeting them with kindness and compassion is a lovely way to move through life. (And remember to leave a little compassion in that well for yourself.)
And speaking of showing yourself some love and compassion, enter loving-kindness meditation.
While often incorporated at the beginning or end of a yoga class, it also works well as a stand-alone practice. Many find it helpful when having trouble falling asleep, or waking in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep.
When practicing loving-kindness meditation, Pfeiffer advises not to get frustrated if you have trouble staying in the present moment. “It’s common for the mind to jump back into the past and ahead into the future,” she says. “The important thing to do is come back to the moment whenever you notice the mind has wandered.”
To practice loving-kindness, close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath but don’t overly focus on it; simply notice it moving in and out. Let any thoughts or distractions fall away, and then bring your attention inside yourself.
Repeat this mantra as many times as you need until you feel yourself drifting off:
I am filled with loving-kindness.
I am well.
I am peaceful and at ease.
I am happy and content.
(When using this meditation to fall back asleep, it can be helpful to inhale to a count of three and exhale to a count of six.)
Pfeiffer adds that both stress and anxiety may be reduced with loving-kindness meditation.
“You may also find that you begin to cultivate acceptance, self-love, patience, and an overall sense of ease in your life.”
Seems like we could all use a little more of that.