Keeping up with a consistent meditation routine can be a challenge. With the demands of daily life, weaving in time to sit on your cushion can feel impossible.
When you finally do sit down, nature calls, you realize you haven’t eaten all day, or maybe a wayward cat finds their way onto your lap.
Needless to say, it can be difficult to concentrate.
On the one hand, maintaining a practice in modern life can feel almost antithetical. On the other, this is exactly what meditation practice is for.
The purpose of meditation is to help us learn how to arrive in our situation as it is. It’s not about creating the perfect atmosphere or waiting until the perfect moment. In fact, when we’re right in the thick of it can be the richest, most fruitful time to practice.
I used to feel like I wasn’t “doing it right” when I sat down to meditate and couldn’t seem to quiet my mind. Sometimes, I’d even come away from meditation more frustrated than when I started.
I had heard people say that there’s no right way to meditate many times, but it took a long time to really sink in.
One day it finally dawned on me that however I show up to meditate is exactly how I’m supposed to show up. Meditation is simply the act of being with what is.
If I sit on my cushion and there’s frustration, I sit with it.
If there’s sadness, I sit with it.
I’m no longer using my meditation as a way to “fix” my feelings, but as a way to be with them.
That said, being with our feelings can be hard — really hard. In the end, the 101 distractions we encounter that keep us from our practice are just guises for this simple fact.
Luckily, I’ve learned some strategies to trick my mind into staying put, so I can work with it, not against it.
Essentially, you just have to give it a job.
Give the mind a job
The mind wants to feel important. It wants to feel like it’s running the show, or is at the very least the VP of operations.
If we know this coming in, we can work with the mind to make it less of a distraction while we sit.
Many people think of meditation as emptying the mind. While this idea is often associated with meditation, it’s actually considered to be the fruit or highest outcome of the practice in most traditions, not the practice itself.
Sitting down to meditate with the expectation of emptying the mind is kind of like sitting down to the piano for the first time and expecting to spontaneously play a sonata.
In other words, it’s pretty unrealistic.
Instead, you can use the techniques below to start working with the mind to slowly teach it to settle down, rather than expecting it to disappear altogether.
I learned most of these meditation techniques from my teachers at Trika Mahasiddha Yoga, but there are endless variations of meditation available. You can even get creative and come up with your own to find what works best for you.
Visualization is one way to work with the imagination during meditation. It’s especially great for people who have active imaginations and who enjoy daydreaming, as it’s familiar territory for the mind to work with.
Visualization comes in many forms. You can visualize specific colors arising in the body or see yourself in a natural, peaceful setting. You can even visualize a hero, mentor, or deity that you feel a special connection with.
One of my favorite simple visualization meditations is to simply see my body as a body of light. This meditation is straightforward and simple but has a powerful effect on me.
Visualize the silhouette of your body seated in whatever meditation posture you’re in. See the shape of the legs, the torso, the arms, and the head. Feel the body taking up space. Feel the shape of the body and the air against your skin.
Then see a red light arise within the body, like a red silk purse with the sunlight streaming through it. Imagine that red light to be brilliant beyond any shade of red you’ve ever seen.
See that red light permeate every inch of the body, filling your silhouette with ruby-red light. It grows brighter and brighter, spreading beyond the limits of the body and reaching out to touch all time and space.
You can practice this meditation for as long as you’d like, focusing on making the light brighter with each breath.
Say it out loud
Meditation doesn’t have to be silent. Mantras and chanting have been used since prehistory, and you don’t have to learn Sanskrit or Tibetan to use them. They’ve also gained attention in recent years for positive mental and emotional health benefits.
Probably the most well-known chant associated with meditation is “om” or “aum.” “Om” isn’t technically a word, but it still has a
Chanting automatically tunes you into the breath because you have to fill the lungs before each chant is sounded.
My favorite part of chanting is the vibration I feel throughout my body as I do it. I often focus on a specific area that’s holding tension, such as my head or my heart, and concentrate the vibration of my chant in that area of the body.
It can feel like you’re giving yourself an internal massage or your own private sound bath. One of the simplest chanting meditations I know is continuous “om” chanting.
Begin in a seated meditation position. Inhale deeply into the belly and chest. Begin chanting the syllable “om,” drawing out the vowel and consonant sound so that your chant lasts for at least 10 seconds.
As you finish your first “om,” inhale and begin again.
With each chant, feel the vibration spreading throughout the entire body. You can play with focusing it on specific areas that feel tense, too. Imagine that as the vibration touches each area of the body, tension relaxes.
Repeat as many times as you’d like.
Count it out
Some of us prefer structure in our meditation. This is where counting comes in. All you have to do to use this technique is to count each breath from 1 to 10. Once you reach 10, start over.
This can be a fun exercise to measure and improve your focus. Often, I’ll get to 23 and realize I forgot to start over at 10. If you tend to get frustrated while meditating, it can be a good opportunity to loosen up and laugh at yourself.
I prefer to practice this technique with eyes open and focused on a specific point on the floor. It helps me stay alert and makes me less likely to forget I’m counting.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture. Find a point that’s at least 3 feet in front of you and rest your eyes there. Inhale deeply into the belly and chest, and exhale fully. Then count 1.
Repeat the inhale and exhale, counting up to 10. When you reach 10, start over again at 1.
Notice if you forget your count or your eyes wander to somewhere other than the point you chose at the beginning of your practice, and with a sense of humor, try again.
Do it lying down
The classic upright meditation position isn’t the only way to do it. One of my favorite meditations happens while lying down. It’s called yoga nidra.
Yoga nidra is the technique of washing awareness through the body, one body part at a time, similar to a body scan. It also employs intention setting and visualization for a pretty full package.
When I’m feeling fatigue or overwhelm, yoga nidra is my go-to practice. It leaves me feeling settled, calm, and rejuvenated.
Sometimes, it also leads me into a nap. That’s fine because it’s just the body’s way of saying I need some rest.
The simplest way to do yoga nidra is to follow along with a recording. Eventually, you can make a recording of your own voice using the techniques, intentions, and visualizations that work best for you.
When you get really comfortable with it, you can lead yourself through yoga nidra without a recording at all.
To learn more, there are plenty of books on yoga nidra scripts for trying it out yourself, as well as free practices online.
Queue up your recording and get comfortable. Lie down with the feet slightly wider than hips-distance apart and the arms about 6 inches from the sides of the body. Let the feet splay open and the entire body relax.
Make sure you’re warm, using a blanket or socks if needed, and rest the head on a yoga mat, rug, or blanket. Avoid using a pillow if you can.
Once you’re comfy, press play and let the recording guide you. Yoga nidra is a little too complicated to do alone your first few times.
Focus on sensations
One of my favorite meditations for getting grounded is to focus on my body itself. I spend a lot of time working on the computer these days, and I have moments where I forget I have a body at all.
When I’m sitting or standing at the computer, I try to become aware of my posture. Am I leaning in a funny way? Is my spine straight? Has my foot fallen asleep and I haven’t noticed?
Just this little bit of awareness alone is a mini meditation practice.
When I actually sit down to practice, I meditate on sensations. It’s pretty remarkable how many sensations are occurring in the body at any given moment if we just tune into them.
This type of meditation practice can help us connect more deeply with our bodies and find acceptance for them, especially if we sometimes feel scared or anxious about the sensations that come up.
I love ending this meditation by sensing the energy of aliveness of the body. It’s a great way to evoke wonder and appreciation for the simple fact of being alive as well as the complex miracle that is our physiology.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture and let the eyes close. Begin to tune in to the shape and structure of the body, feeling the body as a cohesive whole.
From here, begin to feel the sensations that arise in the body. Maybe you feel a little tingle here or a buzzy feeling there. Maybe some parts of the body feel heavy or dense, while others feel light and airy. Some body parts may also feel hot or cold or even numb.
Simply observe the sensations with acceptance as they arise, orienting to them with a sense of curiosity and openness.
Move with it
Moving meditation is a great option for those of us who have trouble sitting still. It can also be a great option if you’re feeling sluggish and think a seated practice might put you to sleep.
There are plenty of movement meditation options out there as well, like labyrinth walking, tai chi, or qi gong.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate moving meditation is to simply add it on whenever I go for a walk around my neighborhood.
Begin your walk as slowly as possible, as if you’re walking in slow motion. As you inhale, begin to slowly peel your right foot off of the ground starting with the heel and working your way to the ball of the foot. Take your time before you fully lift the toes.
As you exhale, begin to lower the right foot back down in front of you. Allow the toes to touch down first, then slowly lower the ball of the foot and eventually the heel. Most of us walk by placing our heels down first, so this takes some extra awareness.
Repeat from right to left for the duration of your walk. Notice if you start to speed up or lose the connection with the sensations in the feet as they touch the ground.
Keep it short and sweet
Short meditation sessions are also a lot more practical. Sometimes, simply pausing in your work to take a few deep breaths can give you a little refresh in the middle of your day.
If you’re working with a seated practice, start with just 5 minutes. As you get accustomed to it, you can slowly inch your way up until you’re sitting for 20 minutes.
Meditation isn’t meant to be strenuous. I often instruct my yoga and meditation students to find the meeting place between effort and relaxation. This the optimum place to be to get the most benefit from your practice.
You don’t have to force the mind to be still. In fact, you can’t. The mind is pretty much like a toddler. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. The best way to work with it is to redirect it toward more positive activities until it learns how to settle down on its own.
If you’re feeling your meditation increase tension rather than relax it, you might be pushing too hard. Dial back the amount of time you’re spending on meditation and try to approach it with a playful attitude.
Being ambitious about your meditation practice won’t actually lead you anywhere.
Set yourself up for success
Play with different techniques and timing for your meditation to find what works best for you. Maybe visualizations really do it for you, or maybe all your body wants to do is lie down for a yoga nidra. Listen to your body’s cues.
Be realistic with when, where, and how you meditate. If you try to squeeze in meditation during the kids’ bedtime routine, it’s probably going to end up being frustrating for everyone.
Be intentional about how many times a day you want to practice and for how long, but if it isn’t working, don’t force it.
At the outset of quarantine, I tried to up my meditation practice to five times a day. I did it about twice before I realized that between a full-time job and managing my son’s school, it just wasn’t realistic.
Now, three is doing me just fine, and sometimes I swap out a midday seated practice for a yoga nidra. After all, meditation is about accepting what is and being flexible in the moment.
Meditation for real life
Having a regular meditation practice may feel elusive, but it doesn’t have to be. Approaching your practice with a flexible attitude and experimenting to find what works can help you make meditation a realistic part of your life.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.