Have you found meditation boring and difficult to stick to in the past? This beginners’ guide from meditation coach Nahid de Belgeonne might help you change that, so you can reap the benefits of mindfulness with no stress.
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We know meditation has a positive effect on our mental health. Research has proven it and so have all the people who swear by it to help them manage stress and anxiety and achieve greater mindfulness. Yet, meditation is a hard practice to master. It requires discipline and it’s also a time commitment, even if you’re only doing it for a few minutes a day.
“To sit down for a long period of time and not think about anything is quite hard,” says Nahid de Belgeonne, a somatic movement meditation coach and yoga teacher. “I’ve had a long-standing meditation practice. But for this past year and a half, because my mind’s been so all over the place, I didn’t feel like I wanted to do it.”
Sitting down and doing nothing has been particularly hard for many people since the pandemic began. It’s been difficult to concentrate or focus on anything when the world around us feels so stressful. But this also means practices like meditation are more necessary than ever.
“I think after the sort of year and a half we’ve had, we really need to address calming the nervous system down and bringing it into balance,” Nahid says. “You don’t want to be in an active state all the time. You need time to be at rest.”
Researchers at the University of California-San Diego have found the human brain is inundated with 34GB of information every day, which is enough to overload a laptop within a week. Meditation can help our brains to truly rest and help stop us from feeling overwhelmed.
“The aim of meditation is to give you some space in life where you’re not reacting to what’s going on in the world,” Nahid says. “You’re creating a non-reactive space when you can meditate and breathe.”
Nahid says meditation should be flexible and work for you – and that doesn’t mean you have to sit on the floor and stare into space for an hour. “All these rules set up around meditation make us fail,” she says.
If you want to give meditation a go but haven’t been able to stick with it, Nahid has some advice to help you get started and persist with it to improve your mental health.
Start training your brain with breathing techniques
Although meditation encourages you to acknowledge your breath, it’s slightly different to breathing exercises. Where exercises are tailored towards counting your breaths in a regulated way, meditation just asks you to take note of the ways your breath is working.
Breath work can be easier to get into because it gives you something specific and achievable to focus on. “It’s a good first step to getting into meditation,” says Nahid.
Nahid suggests breathing in through the nostrils with one hand on your belly, for six seconds and then breathing out for six seconds.
“Why through the nostrils?” says Nahid. “Because it’s a much more efficient quality of breath. The calming receptors are at the lower lobes of the lungs. So if you breathe low into your belly, you’re going to activate those receptors which will have a calming effect on the brain.”
Start with two minutes of meditation
Once you feel comfortable with breathing techniques, you can try a more traditional form of meditation. Still think about your breath, but try not to count or regulate your breath – the idea is that you won’t be focussing on anything in particular while meditating.
Nahid suggests starting by setting a two-minute timer and doing this for about a week or so, until you feel comfortable to try meditating for a longer period of time, increasing the time limit by one or two minutes each time.
“Sitting there for hours and hours and hours thinking ‘I’m so crap’ isn’t very helpful,” she says. “It’s better to start with small, achievable steps.”
Make sure you’re sitting (or lying) comfortably
The traditional image of someone meditating usually sees them sat up straight and cross-legged, but it isn’t necessary to adopt this pose at all while meditating. The only thing that matters is that you feel comfortable.
You can sit back against a wall or, as Nahid likes to do, lie on the floor.
Link your meditation to something you already do in order to be consistent
If you want to see the real benefits of meditation, you have to make it a regular part of your life, ideally, a daily practice. Nahid suggests linking your meditation to something you already do every day, like brushing your teeth, so you remember to do it and make it part of your routine.
Make sure you keep your meditation separate from the act you link it to, as you want to avoid distractions. Anything that could distract you, like your phone, should be put in a separate space.
Don’t restrict your meditation to one specific time
“I usually have a formal practice in the morning of 20 minutes,” says Nahid. “And then I use meditation and breathing as and when I need it throughout the day.”
Nahid explains that she also practises meditation in moments of stress, like when she hears something on the news that upsets her or when she has been in a busy environment. Allowing yourself this flexibility will help you to feel the benefits of meditation to a greater extent.
You don’t have to empty your thoughts while meditating
The idea of clearing your head of thoughts while meditating may seem impossible but, the truth is, meditation doesn’t really require that. It’s more about focusing on different things from what you focus on in normal life, rather than thinking about nothing.
You could listen to all the sounds that you hear – “opening up your ears like microphones” as Nahid describes it – or ask yourself what you can feel, whether that’s the floor underneath you or the wall you’re leaning on.
This will help you be present in the moment and give you the headspace to think about something that isn’t linked to the stresses of day-to-day life.
Acknowledge your intrusive thoughts
Of course, intrusive thoughts might still enter your head. Nahid says the best thing to do is acknowledge your thoughts and use a verbal or visual aid to help get rid of them.
Nahid suggests thinking about tying your negative thoughts to a balloon and watching them fade away. Or, labelling your thoughts as “thinking” and filing them away for later.
Choose a different practice as well as meditation if you need it
If you find meditation is a time when you’re having lots of ideas or thinking about your to-do list, Nahid suggests finding some more time in your day you can set aside to think about these things. This means you can put these thoughts to one side while meditating.
“We’re not still very often and when you’re still that’s when your brain can get creative,” she says, adding that you could also make time for ‘creative dreaming’ in your day, which can be similar to meditation but is specifically designed as time for you to be creative.
“Meditation should be a different thing,” she says. “Because if you’re stopping it to write notes, then it isn’t really meditating.”
Don’t compare yourself or beat yourself up
Meditation shouldn’t be another thing to tick off your to-do list or to put on your Instagram story, so avoid comparing yourself to other people or holding yourself to high standards with your practice.
“It can end up being something you beat yourself up about, rather than actually engaging,” Nahid says. This is why it’s useful to ensure you’re not putting pressure on yourself as well as making sure your meditation practice is achievable for you.
Remember that meditation is productive
Maybe the reason you can’t get into meditation is that it feels like a waste of time? However, sitting around and not thinking about anything is not only good for your mental health but your productivity levels too.
“A really helpful way to think about it is that rest prepares you for action,” says Nahid. “If you gave yourself a few more times in the day when you weren’t typing and thinking and being on calls, you’d have more scope for creative thought.”
Make your meditation practice easy
“Make it easy and make it achievable,” Nahid says of your meditation practice. “That way you’re going to do it.”
She also says it’s fine to acknowledge if meditation isn’t working for you. If that’s the case you can try a different form of mindfulness, but it’s important to give it a chance in a realistic way to get the most benefit from it.
Nahid de Belgeonne, somatic movement coach and yoga teacher
Nahid, known as “the nervous system whisperer”, is a somatic movement coach and yoga teacher with a passion for sharing the healing benefits of movement and breath. She is also the founder of The Human Method.
Images: Getty and Nahid de Belgeonne