Yoga (2): meditate away the monkey mind

Calming the overactive mind: a nice idea, but impossible in reality, right? Not if you make meditation short and simple, says Josephine Fairley, author of Yoga for Life

We’re suffering from an epidemic of ‘monkey mind’, a mind that is constantly chattering and jumping from one thing to another. It’s the sensation of too-much-to-do-in-too-little-time, while being barely able, in some cases, to articulate anything longer than 140 characters.

The antidote, as far as I’m concerned, is meditation. But for whatever reason, that seems to be an aspect of yoga that some people – who have taken up yoga for its physical benefits – seem uncomfortable with.

It can feel like the ‘woo-woo’ side of yoga, and not everyone wants to buy into that. But meditation absolutely, totally, doesn’t have to be religious. Nobody’s asking you to become a Buddhist or a Zen monk, let alone swear a vow of chastity or poverty. You do not have to be Madonna to meditate, or a movie star.

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Just because meditation is simple doesn’t make it easy. When I first tried to meditate, my mind was like an entire troupe of chimps

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Over the years, such a huge body of research has built up extolling the virtues of stilling the mind that it is impossible to ignore. Recently, for instance, the Mental Health Foundation declared that meditation should be prescribed routinely for depression. (At the moment, only a handful of GPs do.) It is now thought that, when practised regularly, meditation can keep at bay a wide range of complaints, including headaches, migraine, asthma, eczema, PMS, hypertension and even heart attacks.

The act of meditation may be less-than-adorable to start with. Just because meditation is simple doesn’t make it easy. I am the first to admit that, when I first tried to meditate, my mind was like an entire troupe of chimps. Laundry lists, to-do lists, snatches of conversations, magazine article ideas: it seemed that the very best way to start my mind racing was to sit in cross-legged position and try to meditate.

However, here are several different meditation techniques you can ‘try on’, to see which works best for you. And if none of these works, there’s even a three-minute meditation exercise on Nintendo Wii-Fit, which is better than not meditating at all, to my mind. As Richard Rosen, author of The Yoga of Breath, explains: “Meditation is like exercising a muscle. First, it’s a chore. Eventually, it’s a pleasure.”

So: here’s how to get there from here.

A basic meditation

  • Don’t meditate with a full tummy. Or when you’re hungry.
  • Find a quiet spot. If you have created a ‘yoga space’ for yourself, go there. If not, find a room where you won’t be disturbed. If you need to, hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door.
  • Dim the lights or close the blinds/curtains. It’s easier to meditate when the lights are low.
  • Establish a regular time. Early morning or last thing at night are usually the easiest times to slip this into your routine.
  • Try meditating after doing yoga postures. If you have time, it can be wonderful to move into meditation after your yoga postures, before the relaxation. Or after relaxation. See what works for you.
  • To start with, set a timer (or your phone) to alert you in five minutes. That’s all you need to go for, to start with. It’s easy to lose track of time while meditating (or ‘trying’ to), but if you know that there’s a set time to stop, that’s one less thing to distract you. (Ticking clocks are not a good idea, unless the sound of a ticking itself is what you’re going to focus on; otherwise, hugely distracting.)
  • Make yourself comfortable. This is absolutely the most important thing. Sitting cross-legged can be quite comfortable at first, but after a few minutes you can feel like you’re on a bed of nails. It may take a few attempts to find the ideal position for you. Try sitting against a wall, if sitting upright puts any strain on your back or is not comfortable. You can put your legs out straight in front of you if that’s more comfortable than trying to sit cross-legged. If you prefer, sit in a chair that supports your back, with your feet firmly on the ground (or on a stool if that brings your feet to a more comfortable level). The only rule is not to lie down, because sleep – while joyfully restful – is a thing apart from meditation. This is about slowing not shutting down the mind.
  • Follow your breath. Allow it to settle into a natural rhythm. Feel the air as it enters your nostrils, moving down to fill the lungs. Rest a moment and then let it go gently, emptying the lungs. Count to four as you inhale; rest for a beat or two; exhale to the count of four.
  • Slowly deepen the breath. Observe how, after a few moments, the breath becomes slower and deeper. Breathe from the abdomen, not only the chest, so that you are using the whole of the lungs. This deeper breath is more calming than shallow, chest-only breathing. You want to feel your tummy swell as you inhale and empty as you exhale.
  • Keep the breath even. Keep the inhalation and exhalation smooth and even, especially as the breath becomes longer. If it becomes jerky or uneven or feels forced, relax and don’t try to lengthen it as much.
  • Try a mantra. Choose a favourite phrase, a word whose sound you love, even a line from a poem, and repeat it over and over. A mantra doesn’t need to have a meaning, though; it’s a sound that helps you focus, tuning out the rest of the world. But repeating your chosen mantra again and again and again, silently or spoken quietly (try both), can help to stop the constant flow of thoughts.
  • Or use a visualisation. You can also use images to still the mind. For the ‘golden flower’ meditation, when you breathe in you visualise light filling your body from head to toe. And when you breathe out, you imagine a darkness filling your body from toe to head. Alternatively, it can be helpful to find an image you find restful to look at, take a mental ‘snapshot’ of that image, and focus your mind on it as you breathe in and out. (An image from a magazine can be useful, and you could pin it on a wall to ‘refresh’ your memory between sessions.)
  • Start with a few minutes and gradually increase. But make it regular. When it comes to successful meditation, as with everything, Rome wasn’t built in a day. As meditation teacher Hugh Poulton has observed, “Just do it for as long as you can afford – three minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, twice a day. I see far more benefits in my students who meditate for five minutes a day every day than those who do a long session once or twice a week. It’s the regularity that is the key.”

So if you like the idea of quieting the overactive mind, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving meditation a try. Who knows, it could be goodbye to those chattering monkeys and hello to a whole new, peaceful you.

Read part one of Jo Fairley’s article: Yoga (1): not too late to start

Further reading The five best yoga websites