The air rushes in through one nostril. Inhale. And pushes quickly out the other nostril. Exhale. Again, inhale through one nostril, and exhale through the other side.
About thirty seconds into this pranayama exercise, I silently begin to freak out and wonder if this is what hyperventilating feels like. How would I know the difference, I wonder, between deep breathing and slowly suffocating myself? Am I feeling light-headed because there’s not enough oxygen getting to my brain and I’m about to pass out, or am I doing it right? Am I meditating, yet?
These thoughts often bulldoze through any semblance of inner peace that’s created during my (almost) daily meditation sessions. After a few months of practice, I’m now able to usually shake it off and refocus. But my busy thoughts used to completely derail any mindfulness within me and left me feeling annoyed and embarrassed when I couldn’t “do” meditation right.
And as a health and wellness expert, I desperately wanted to master the art of meditation. I wanted to be able to meditate my way out of a bad mood, a bad day, or a stressful situation, just like Oprah or Arianna Huffington. And I also wanted to harness the physical benefits of meditation—multiple health and beauty experts I’ve interviewed have admitted their secret to glowing skin effortless weight loss is regular meditation.
Yep, it isn’t just helpful for emotional well-being. Yes, it’s been proven to have a positive effect on mental health ailments from depression to anxiety, but studies show that a regular meditation practice actually increases the size of the brain and permanently changes it for the better.
The pros clearly outweigh the cons, and if you’re still on the fence about meditating it’s time to suck it up and get mindful. But if you’re anything like me, jumping feet-first into a 30-minute daily meditation routine probably isn’t a realistic goal—no matter how badly you want to feel centered and relaxed.
So instead of setting myself up for failure, I decided to ease into this whole “mindfulness” thing. Because at the end of the day, all that I wanted was to feel centered and balanced. Eventually, it might lead you to regular meditation sessions—I find it easiest to pop into a class at Unplug or The Den—but hopefully, these steps will help you create inner calm and focus in your everyday life.
Following these steps helped me work up to a full-fledged meditation practice, while centering and grounding me on a daily basis.
Meditation always returns to the simple idea of noticing the breath. The basic idea is that when you focus on breathing—consciously inhaling deeply, and completely exhaling—it’s hard to really think of anything else. That’s the theory, of course, and inevitably your mind wanders. It’s cool—as soon as you notice your other thoughts take over, return to thinking about your breath. That’s not all there is to meditation, obviously, but it’s a good place to start if you’re resistant to the whole thing.
And don’t feel like you have to sit in lotus in order to notice your breath; it might be easier to find your breath during specific exercises. Yoga becomes an obvious choice (especially Vinyasa or Kundalini classes, which focus on pairing movement with inhalation and exhalation), as does running, for a moving meditation of sorts. But there are other activities don’t involve working out that work equally well. Cryotherapy involves standing in a small chamber or tank for up to four minutes in -200 degrees F. The treatment is said to help with inflammation, tissue regeneration, and anti-aging, but fans also rave about the mental clarity they experience after a session in these human-sized freezers. Perhaps because, in order to get through it, they need to focus on breathing?
Another off-the-radar way to reconnect to your breath? Floating. Float tanks are pod-like structures filled with thousands of pounds of salt and purified water that’s perfectly heated to 98.6 degrees. For a floating session, you get inside the pod (it’s very reminiscent of “The Matrix” or some futuristic dream machine) and shut the top tightly. Because the pod is essentially a sensory deprivation chamber, it’s pitch black and quiet. Yes, it sounds scary, but it’s actually the perfect environment to focus on breathing. Not down with the pod situation? Try connecting to your breath just before you fall asleep—it’s not exactly the same, but works just as well to calm your mind and help you doze off peacefully.
This step is clutch. Emotional intelligence, or the ability to identify your feelings and the feelings of people around you, is a skill that’s often taken for granted. A lot of us struggle with emotional intelligence—we know we feel stressed, but we’re not sure exactly why we feel that way. For many millennials, it takes a bit more introspection for us to realize that we don’t feel stressed—we feel anxious, or tired, or depressed, or angry. It takes a bit of practice, but once you can pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling, you can decide what to do to fix it.
Often, acknowledging your current headspace is the first action you take when you plop down on your meditation pillow. Honing your emotional intelligence now will make it easier to let that sh*t go if you decide to try meditation.
You know that sort of wired, crazed feeling you get after a long day filled with sugar, caffeine, and one too many trips to the vending machine? It’s almost impossible to slow down your mind and find your center if you’re eating crappy food—it isn’t a coincidence that Buddhist monks that meditate for hours on end eat a strictly vegetarian diet that’s devoid of sugar and coffee.
When you’re feeling anxious, processed sugar is one of the worst things you can put in your body. Research continually finds ties to sugar intake and increased likelihood of depression; this could be because sugar increases inflammation in the body (which messes with your brain chemistry). Plus, the extreme highs and lows experienced after a sugar binge can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and impair the body’s ability to cope with stress, according to Psychology Today.
In the age of social media and incessant emails, it’s easy to get distracted from the task at hand by incoming messages or phone notifications. All that multi-tasking can lead to majorly cluttered thoughts—when you’re trying to do a million things at once, something is bound to slip through the cracks—and a ton of stress.
If you know that you’re easily distracted by Instagram or Facebook, disable them from your computer or phone for a while so you’re not tempted to procrastinate. I highly recommend StayFocused, an extension for Chrome that blocks certain sites after you’ve spent too much time browsing.
One of the most important aspects of meditation is understanding that you will get distracted. Eventually, your mind will wander and you’ll start thinking about work, or school, or what to make for dinner. But if you can acknowledge that you’re distracted and settle back into zen, you’re gonna be fine.
I hope these tips can help you find your calm and quiet in times of anxiety or stress—I know that when I feel like I’m about to keel over at my desk because work seems too intense, coming back to my breath is the best way to refocus and get sh*t done.