We’ve all heard of meditation, right? And we know it can have huge benefits on our mental and emotional wellbeing. But what exactly is it and how should it be practised?

Did you know there are many different meditation techniques you can try, some of which you’ll find more effective than others? Throughout my book The Practice of Mindful Yoga: A Connected Path To Awareness, I share several different calming meditation practices, so I thought I’d collate a few of them into this post.

What is meditation?

So, what exactly is meditation? Is it simply clearing the mind, as many seem to believe? Well, yes and no. We are aiming to quieten the mind, by which we mean quieten our thoughts, but we’re not aiming to stop our thoughts altogether, because that’s impossible!

According to a team of psychology experts at Queen’s University in Canada, research conducted in 2020 suggests the average person typically has more than 6,000 thoughts in a single day. That’s a lot of thoughts to try and stop!

So, instead, our task in meditation is to simply observe when our mind has started following, or become attached to, a thought and bring it back to an anchor, such as the breath. Every time our mind wanders, we simply ‘catch’ it and bring it back. Sounds simple, right? But, this way of training our mind can actually be incredibly challenging. And there’s a reason it’s called a practice. Because meditation isn’t necessarily something to master, but rather to practise on a regular basis. And this is where the amazing benefits come in.

The benefits of meditation

I won’t go into too much detail here, as I could write another whole blog post on this! But meditating on a regular basis can have huge psychological and neurological benefits, including:

  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Reducing negative emotions
  • Calming the nervous system
  • Managing stress and anxiety
  • Reducing depression
  • Shifting perspectives
  • Developing patience and tolerance
  • Enhancing imagination and creativity
  • Improving relationships and communication
  • Regulating mood
  • Increasing focus and productivity

Finding the right meditation posture

Meditation doesn’t always have to imply a formal sitting practice, which is the image most commonly associated with it. You can also practise mindfulness and enter a meditative state whilst doing a number of other activities, like walking, running, swimming, or even during mundane tasks, like washing the dishes, vacuuming the floors or brushing your teeth.

However, for the practices I share in this article, it’s best to start in a static meditation posture, at least until you’re more familiar with the techniques. So, here’s how to find the right posture for you.

Option 1: Lie down

You can lie down to meditate as long as there’s no risk of you falling asleep. So, if you’re feeling sleepy, it’s best to choose a different option. If you do lie down, make sure your back is fully supported and your head isn’t tipped back. You might want to keep your knees bent with your feet flat on the floor to release any tension in your lower back.

Option 2: Sit on the floor

This is the option that’s most commonly associated with formal meditation practice. The most important thing to remember when sitting is to keep your back straight. If you’re able to sit cross-legged, make sure you can stay upright without slouching. You might want to sit on a cushion, yoga block or other support to help elevate your spine. Make sure there’s no strain on your knees and that they’re not lifting up off the floor. If they are, try putting cushions or blankets underneath them for support.

Option 3: Kneel

Many people find kneeling more comfortable than sitting and this is a particularly good option if you’re unable to sit cross-legged. The best way is to sit astride a stack of cushions or blocks, so that the fronts of your shins are in contact with the floor, either side of your stack. You would normally sit on a higher seat than if you were sitting cross-legged, so if you’re not finding this position comfortable, try raising your seat even higher.

Option 4: Sit on a chair

The final option is to sit on a chair. It’s best if the chair has a back, so a dining or office chair works well for this. However, rather than leaning into the backrest, you want to sit with your lower back right up against the backrest, with your shoulders in a straight line above your hips. This will pull your upper back away from the backrest slightly, allowing you to keep your spine straight. Your legs should be uncrossed with your thighs parallel and your feet flat on the floor.

A note about hand position

Whichever option you choose, it’s important that your hands are comfortable. If you’re lying down, they can rest palms-down somewhere on your body, or palms-up on the floor beside you. For the kneeling and seated positions they can either rest on your thighs or knees, or one on top of the other, palms-up, in your lap.

If your hands are in your lap, it’s a good idea to rest them on something, like a cushion or blanket, so that there’s no danger of them pulling your shoulders down, which will encourage you to slouch, especially if you get tired. Another tip to counteract tiredness is to touch the tips of your thumbs together. This way, if your hands start drifting away from each other absentmindedly, you’ll feel that your thumbs are no longer touching and bring them back together with awareness.

The most important thing when meditating is to be comfortable. This isn’t an exercise in torture! So, take some time to get your setup right before you start, and you’ll find this makes a big difference to your ability to concentrate and be fully present during your meditation practice.

4 calming meditation techniques

Calming meditation techniques

Ok, so now that you’re sitting (or lying or kneeling) comfortably, let’s have a look at those calming meditation techniques. If you can, give each of these a few tries to see which feels right for you, as the first time we try something new, it doesn’t always work straight away. And, of course, you can always mix and match the techniques according to your mood and preference on any given day.

1 – Counting the breath

Counting the breath can be a very useful tool for keeping your mind from drifting off during meditation practice. There are many different counting techniques, from the simple to the more intricate.

One option is to simply count each round of inhalation and exhalation. You can count as you inhale or as you exhale, whichever you prefer. After one full round you silently count ‘one’, then after the next round you count ‘two’ and so on up to ten. If you get distracted and your mind wanders, simply return to one and start again.

There’s no goal here, so you’re not trying to reach ten and it doesn’t matter how many times you start again at one. In fact, you’ll be amazed how many times this will happen, and you may never even reach ten at all! The point is that you’re keeping your mind trained on your breath. Each time you notice you’ve stopped counting or have lost your place, this is the crucial point of awareness. This is the core of the practice.

For more breath counting techniques, check out my mindful yoga book.

2 – Focusing on sounds

This calming meditation method is my personal favourite and the one I use most often. As the name suggests, you focus your attention on the sounds around you, by allowing these sounds to enter your conscious awareness as they arise. It’s also known as ‘symphonic listening’, as it’s similar to listening to an orchestra, where the different instruments will come in and out of your awareness at different points.

So, here’s how to practise it:

  • Close your eyes and take three deep breaths through the nose to fully arrive in your body, in this moment.
  • Focus on the air as it travels in through your nose, down the back of your throat, into your lungs, past your ribcage, down into your stomach and all the way out again as you exhale.
  • Now, practise open and receptive listening and notice what you can hear in your surroundings.
  • If you’re indoors, you might be able to hear voices in the next room or building, the hum of a refrigerator or even the sound of your own breath. Outside, you might hear birds singing, traffic driving past or the general hubbub of people on the streets.
  • Whatever sounds you hear, try not to attach any meaning or judgement to them. You’re simply a curious observer, receptive to whatever sounds may arise.
  • Try not to fixate on any one sound, but keep your ears open, ready to hear different sounds, just as you would whilst listening to an orchestra.
  • You can either set a timer to signal the end of your practice, or just come out when you’re ready.
  • To come out, take another deep breath in and out through the nose, slowly open your eyes and come back into the room.

3 – Labelling thoughts

Labelling thoughts is a useful practice for distancing yourself from the constant chatter of your mind. It can be particularly beneficial if you spend a lot of time getting lost in your thoughts, get easily overwhelmed by your thought processes and often find negative, repetitive or obsessive thoughts spiralling out of control.

The most important – and most challenging – part of this practice is to ‘catch’ the moment when you realise you’ve become lost in your thoughts. As soon as you do, you can then apply labels to those thoughts, to help you identify them. You can use whatever labels you find most helpful, but some of the most common labels include: planning-type thoughts, where you’re preparing for some future event or conversation; dwelling-type thoughts, where you’re reflecting on the past or going over previous conversations; and worry-type thoughts, where you’re getting anxious about how things might pan out and even catastrophising about the worst-case scenario.

Some of the labels you might want to use include:

  • Planning
  • Criticising
  • Rehearsing
  • Reliving
  • Regressing
  • Dwelling
  • Worrying
  • Obsessing
  • Catastrophising

The more you can learn to identify and label the types of thoughts you’re having, the more you can start to distance yourself from them. Remember: you are not your thoughts! And thoughts are not necessarily real. In time, you’ll get better at identifying which of your thoughts are helpful to you and which ones you can simply observe, label as unhelpful and let go of.

4 – Body scan

If the techniques mentioned above aren’t strong enough to take you out of your repetitive thoughts, and you need a stronger distraction from your overwhelmed mind, you might find the body scan helpful. Many people prefer to lie down for this one, but you can also sit or kneel.

Here’s what to do:

  • Close your eyes and take three deep breaths through the nose to relax into your body, taking your attention inwards.
  • Starting at the top of your head and moving very slowly, bring your awareness to each area of your body and encourage it to relax. You don’t need to physically move that part of your body; simply bring your awareness to it and imagine the tension being released.
  • You might want to give yourself a running commentary in your head, as if someone else was guiding the body scan. So, you might say to yourself, “Bring your awareness to the top of your head, the sides of your head, the back of your head. Relax your forehead, relax around your eyes, your cheeks and your nose. Allow your tongue to drop to the back of your mouth, with your lips gently touching and your jaw relaxed. Be aware of the back of the neck and the throat, relax the tops of the shoulders,” and so on.
  • If you find it easier, you can listen to one of the many guided body scan meditations that are easily found online or in meditation apps.
  • Whichever method you choose, focus your entire attention on each body part as you slowly scan through your body. This will keep your mind centred in the present moment and help you to be less distracted by your thoughts.

How did you find these calming meditation practices?

Whether you’re new to meditation, or a seasoned practitioner, I’d love to know how you got on with these calming meditation practices. Did you find some easier than others? Were the instructions easy to follow? Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and discover additional calming meditation techniques, as well as learning more about yoga and the breath, check out my mindful yoga book. I can even personally sign your copy for yourself or a loved one – they make beautiful gifts!

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