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Diane Malaspina

Meditation Styles to Match Your Personality

6 Meditation Styles to Match Your Personality

Many shun meditation because they find it intimidating or too woo-woo. However, even a minor effort on your part yields positive results. Firstly, know that it’s possible to meditate for as little as 3 minutes per day and notice a difference.

It’s important to find a practice that suits your personality best. “Remember, there is no right or wrong way to meditate since there are different techniques or styles of meditation,” says Patricia Young, certified professional and holistic coach at Inner Prosperity Academy.

To begin the practice, you should discover the type that works best for you, as you will be more likely to make it a habit. These experts provide examples to try:

TRY: CANDLE STARING

This simple style is just like it sounds: Light a candle and stare. “If your mind has thoughts, just thank them and go back to staring at the candle,” says Young.

TRY: WALKING MEDITATION

“As you are walking, focus on the way your feet hit the ground,” says Tom Bruett, MS, a  licensed psychotherapist. He says to set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. “If your mind wanders, simply bring it back.”

TRY: MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

Don’t worry about freeing your mind and, instead, simply think about what is happening in the present. “This includes thoughts, sounds, feelings in the body and anything else present,” says Young. The idea is to observe “without judgment and remain open and aware.”

TRY: MANTRA MEDITATION

“Mantras can be really helpful. Repeating the same phrase over and over can help keep the mind from wandering,” says Valerie Knopik, PhDYoga Medicine instructor. “Some of my favorite examples: ‘I am enough’ and ‘I am.’ This meditation type works well right before a race when you want to cool your nerves and heart rate down to conserve energy.”

TRY: VISUALIZATION MEDITATION

“Many professional athletes use meditation to visualize the athletic abilities they hope to have,” says Alisa Duclos-Robinson, PhD, owner of Another Direction Recovery and Wellness.She says you might want to practice imagining yourself running at your goal pace, as well as any potential obstacles you could incur and how you will overcome them. “Try to be as detailed as possible in your visualization, and make sure it is realistic.”

TRY:  GUIDED MEDITATION

You do not need to meditate alone; look for outside help if you need it. “Meditation apps, for example, HeadSpace, can be really helpful for beginners,” says Diane Malaspina, PhD, a Yoga Medicine therapeutic specialist.

TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED

  • Start small. “Set your meditation timer for 3 minutes and work with that time for several weeks,” says Malaspina.
  • Practice in the morning. The “best time to meditate is early in the morning (before your coffee or tea), because that way you set yourself up for a peaceful start to your day,” says Young.
  • Choose a comfortable position. “Sitting on a cushion or blanket can ease discomfort in the lower body,” says Malaspina. “If sitting upright is uncomfortable, lean against a wall, sit in a chair or lie on your back.”
  • Slow down. “Direct your attention inward, and just notice your breathing. Do a gentle body scan,” says Ellis Edmunds, PsyD. He recommends starting with your toes and slowly shifting your attention upward to each body part.
  • Relax. “Every time your mind wanders from the point of focus (your breath), you gently bring it back without judgment or criticism,” says Duclos-Robinson. “Meditation is essentially like exercise for your brain. So your strength and ability will get better with time.”
  • Watch your inner dialogue. “Always make the statements you use positive and moving toward what you want,” says Tracie Strucker, PhD. She recommends something like, “I am … or I’m moving toward …” This way, you put what you want top of mind rather than resisting.

If you’re still on the fence about meditation, consider its benefits. “Regular meditation can enhance your wellness regimen,” says Malaspina. “It nourishes our mind and the mind-body communication system, improving performance, increasing immunity and easing the effects of chronic stress.”

Read on MyFitnessPal here.

Couples Yoga: Strengthen Your Body & Relationship

Sara Lindberg for Healthy Way discusses the benefits of couples yoga. Try these poses to strengthen your bodies and your relationship.

How Couples Yoga Can Strengthen Your Mind, Body, And Relationship

If you think finding a deeper connection with your partner, decreasing stress, enhancing your sexual relationship, and getting fit all at the same time sounds like a sweet deal, you might want to consider rolling out a yoga mat (or two).

Couples yoga is changing the way we look at the the role of exercise in relationships.

What are the benefits of couples yoga?

The benefits of couples yoga are similar to an individual yoga class and include stress reduction, increased range of motion, relief from pain, cardio and circulatory health, improved respiration and energy, better posture, and much more. Couples yoga takes these benefits one step further and also includes the element of bonding with your partner in a new way.

By creating a shared experience, the poses in couples yoga allow you and your partner to listen to each other and work together. “Couples yoga helps bring couples closer physically, emotionally, and energetically,” explains Beth Shaw, founder and CEO of YogaFit.

The benefits, Shaw says, include physical bonding, unifying goals of getting in the pose, teamwork building, and improved communication. “Couples yoga also gives couples an activity to do together that they can both improve with as time goes on,” she adds.

Psychotherapist and certified yoga practitioner Stefani Reitter says couples yoga can be a lifesaver for relationships in a rut. “Yoga can actually shift relational dynamics by decreasing the ‘fight or flight’ tendency that couples get stuck in while arguing,” she explains. “I have specific partner yoga poses that I have clients do in session and then assign for homework, so they have something to integrate into their daily routine.”

How do you get your partner involved if they’re new to yoga?

If you’re ready to sign-up for a couples yoga class, but your partner is still undecided, Topnotch Resort’s yoga instructor and art therapist Melisa Oliva recommends a one-class pass or an introductory workshop, so your partner feels invited to explore without the pressure to commit for an unlimited period of time.

Once you both commit to the idea of doing couples yoga, make sure you choose a class and instructor that works for both of you. Try to find a class that is beginner friendly so the poses won’t seem intimidating.

Are there therapeutic benefits of doing couples yoga?

Every relationship goes through its own challenges, with some more difficult than others. Finding healthy and productive ways to work through conflict or any other issues that relationships go through can help enhance and strengthen your partnership.

One of the appeals of couples yoga is the therapeutic benefits partners can experience while moving through the poses together. In fact, a study done by Loyola University Health System found that partner yoga may help couples who are struggling with sexual dysfunction by strengthening their relationship emotionally, physically, and spiritually to ultimately build a deeper connection and improve sexual health according to one of the researchers and professors.

“Even just reflecting about their shared feelings after a couples yoga class can be very beneficial, and it can even bring back a ‘lost spark’ that couples are always trying to keep alive,” explains Oliva, “giving them the opportunity to touch each other, to breathe together, and to remember the deep connection between them.”

Couples Yoga Poses to Try Together

Participating in a couples yoga class can help you build the foundation of the poses and learn from the cues of the instructor. Once you feel confident that you can do the poses on your own, try this couples yoga workout designed by Diane Malaspina, PhD, Yoga Medicine instructor, and psychologist.

Breath Awareness

Start seated in a cross-legged position with your backs leaning into each other. Rest your hands on your thighs, close your eyes, and follow your breath. Be aware of your inhales and exhales, then shift your attention to your partner’s inhales and exhales. Try to sync the breath by feeling the subtle expansion and contraction of your partner’s rib cage. Practice for 3 minutes.

Seated Easy Twist

Start seated in a cross-legged position, facing one another with your knees touching. For both partners: Reach your right hand behind you, across your back, to reach the right fingers toward the left side of your waist. Reach your left hand across and grab your partner’s right hand. Communicate with each other as to how much you’d like your partner to gently pull on your right hand to deepen the twist. Hold for 10 breaths and switch sides.

Seated Wide Leg Forward Fold

Stay seated and spread your legs wide, joining the soles of your feet with your partner’s. Reach forward and grab each other’s wrists, walking your hands to reach for their forearms. Communicate to decide who will fold first. Slowly lean back, gently pulling your partner into a forward fold. Communicate how deep you’d like to fold. Hold for 10 breaths and switch.

Seated Easy Forward Fold

For this pose, one partner is in a seated forward fold and the other is in a supported backbend. Start seated in a cross-legged position with your backs leaning up against one another. Communicate to decide who will fold forward first. For the partner folding: Walk your hands forward coming into a fold. For the other partner: Lean back, keeping your bodies in contact and your hands on the floor alongside of you, palms turned up. Allow your head to rest on the rounding of your partner’s upper back. Relax and take 10 slow breaths, then switch.

Standing Forward Fold

Stand with the back of your hips leaning into each other. Bend your knees and fold forward. Once you’ve folded, reach back and grab each others’ hands, walking your hands toward their forearms, gently drawing your partner closer. Communicate on how deep you want to go into the pose. Knees can be bent or straightened. Hold for 10 breaths.

Tree Pose

Stand next to each other. The partner on the right will balance on the left foot, and the partner on the left will balance on the right foot. Bring the the non-standing foot on to the inner shin (toes can rest on the floor or on the shin) or the inner thigh. Avoid bringing the foot to the inner knee. Open the lifted knee to the side. Partner on the right: reach your left hand out to the side to join palms with the partner on the left (who will reach the right hand out to the side to join palms). Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and switch sides.

Supported Chair

Stand facing one another, feet pointing straight forward and hip-width apart. Clasp your partner’s forearms and walk your feet back so the arms are extended. Bend the knees and send the hips back as if you were about to sit on a chair. Use the bi-directional pull on each other’s arms to stay up. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. To release, straighten the legs and step toward your partner.

Standing Backbend

Stand facing one another, feet pointing straight forward and hip-width apart. Leave about a foot of space between your toes and your partner’s toes. Clasp around each other’s forearms with your elbows bent. Bring a slight bend to the knees. Lift from your chest, arch your upper back up, look up (but keep the neck long). The arms will straighten. Draw the shoulder blades together to open the chest. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths. Return to standing.

The benefits of couples yoga are endless for both you and your significant other. If you’re interested in trying couples yoga, make sure you read through the instructions detailed in the above exercises carefully, and refrain from any poses that cause unusual discomfort or pain.

How Trauma Can Impact Your Yoga Practice

Abbie Stutzer for Organic Authority discusses how yoga can be used to heal trauma for survivors. Learn some tips to make the process easier, and get started.

How Trauma Can Impact Your Yoga Practice

Yoga can strengthen a person’s body and calm their mind. However, the whole yoga practice—going to class, interacting with a teacher—can cause stress if a student has experienced trauma.

We reached out to a handful of yoga and medical professionals and asked them to explain how yoga is beneficial for many trauma survivors and detail how some survivors approach their yoga practice.

How Yoga Helps Heal Trauma

Yoga can serve as a healing tool for people who have experienced trauma. In general, a yoga practice teaches people how to remain present, slow down their breath, and become acquainted with their bodies, Diane Malaspina, PhD., Yoga Medicine® instructor, and psychologist says.

So, a yoga practice can help stimulate the part of a human’s nervous system that is related to calming, soothing, and healing the body, brain, and mind. “Through yoga, we learn skills that can help us regain a sense of ownership over our body and experience,” Malaspina explains.

In 2014, a study demonstrated that yoga is a useful adjunctive treatment for PTSD, Dr. Srini Pillay, Harvard trained practicing psychiatrist, adds. Basically, yoga can help survivors tolerate physical and sensory experiences associated with fear and helplessness. Yoga also can help survivors become more emotionally aware and manage their emotions more effectively. 

Yoga for Trauma Survivors 

Pillay says that trauma survivors may appreciate trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga, or kundalini yoga. “Trauma-sensitive yoga utilizes a series of postures and breathing aimed at strengthening self-connection after a traumatic event,” Pillay explains. “[It] removes strongly suggestive language, deemphasizes posture intensity, and eliminates hands-on assists from the teacher.”

Pillay adds that trauma-sensitive yoga places emphasis on feeling. “Typically, the yoga focuses on four themes: experiencing the present moment, making choices, taking effective action, and creating rhythms.”

“Debriefing may not actually be helpful,” Pillay adds; “focusing on resilience is key.

Brigitte Gordon, doctor of nursing practice (DNP), board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner, and past yoga teacher and practitioner, adds that the “best” type of yoga is different for everyone. 

“Some individuals want to sweat, work hard, and not have to think,” Gordon says. “For them, an Ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar, or Bikram class may be best. For those who desire a slower, softer more gentle class (if they’re feeling vulnerable) may benefit from a yin or restorative class.” 

Finding the Right Teacher 

Ideally, a trauma survivor should work with a yoga teacher who is sensitive to their needs, Dr. Christopher Willard, licensed psychotherapist, educational consultant, and author, says. Survivors also could benefit from working with a teacher who is versed in adapting practices, poses, and classes for people with PTSD. 

Willard adds that there are many therapists who have experience with trauma and yoga; many therapists are also yoga instructors. “These [people] can be a great resource, so ask your therapist if they teach or have recommendations,” Willard says. 

“An instructor that offers modifications to poses and the option to take a break as needed can create a supportive environment,” Malaspina reiterates. “Providing the option to decline hands-on adjustments and using language that invites students to explore sensation as an inquiry into the body and mind is also supportive.”

Arrive Early

Some survivors gain comfort by coming to class early. This allows the student to familiarize their self with the studio, bathroom, and exits. Arriving early also allows the student to place their mat in a place that makes them feel comfortable.

“If triggered during class, some students will feel good going into child’s pose or using mindful grounding techniques, such as focusing on what you see, hear, feel, and smell,” Gordon says. “Focusing on your senses can be greatly grounding.” 

Be Aware of Triggers

If possible, a trauma survivor should become aware of the postures and poses that may feel triggering.  For example, some students may feel stress when opening or closing their eyes. Also, breath-work and visualization could feel challenging. “The idea with yoga and therapy is always to move at your own speed,” Willard explains, “not pushing yourself out of your safety zone.”

Trauma survivors also could benefit from finding a class that allows students to discretely tell a teacher they don’t want hands-on adjustments. “Studios are now offering smooth stones that a student can place on the corner of their mat to let the teacher know they don’t want touch,” Gordon says.

Gordon adds that a studio with an inclusive website that shows pictures of students and teachers who “look like them” (size, shape, ethnicity, etc.) can induce calm. 

Also, remember that what may trigger someone else may empower another person. “Don’t get into comparing yourself,” Willard adds. “Go easy, check in with yourself, and your teacher and therapist as you go.”

After Class

If you start crying or feel emotion arising after class, allow your emotion to release. “Holding the emotion in creates more tension in the body and mind,” Malaspina explains. “Crying stimulates the cranial nerves which soothe the emotional center in our brain.”

Malaspina adds that it’s also common for students to cry during a yoga class. After class, if you still feel raw or filled with tension, take slow deep breaths. “Emphasize lengthening the exhale, which soothes the nervous system,” Malaspina says. 

And if your feelings are overwhelming, reach out to a mental health professional for additional support.

Deep Six Muscle Group: Isolation Exercises

Diane Malaspina, Ph.D., e-RYT for Yoga Medicine® shares some poses that target the deep six muscle group through slow, deliberate practice. Learn how to make sure you are isolating the right muscles for the best results.

Slow Down & Pay Attention to the Deep Six

Many people try yoga because of hip pain or tightness, looking to gain more flexibility in the tissue and increased range of motion. Often, the goal becomes how deep a student can get into an asana. For example deep pigeon pose, with less concern on creating balance in the joint. When it comes to external rotation of the hip, there can be an overemphasis on stretching the muscles and little awareness on strengthening them.

The gluteus maximus is the most superficial muscle (closest to the skin) responsible for external rotation of the hip. Six deeper muscles work together to bring the femur bone into external rotation in the hip socket: the piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator externus, gemellus inferior, obturator internus, and the quadratus femoris. Conversationally, they are referred to as the deep 6 lateral rotators or the piriformis and the GOGOQ’s. These muscles lie below the surface of the gluteus maximus and are essential in supporting the weight of the body while standing.

Causes of Weakness & Tightness

For those of us who sit a lot, the external rotators are prone to be both weak and tight. Sitting creates a constant amount of pressure on the muscles, which reduces blood flow and nervous system activity. Over time, tightness can lead to discomfort, inflammation, and compression of the sciatic nerve. Furthermore, weakness in these muscles is associated with knee osteoarthritis and knee pain due to the significant role these muscles play in aligning the femur, which then impacts alignment at the knee (Prins and van der Wurff, 2009).

The piriformis is typically the most familiar of the deep 6 rotators. Many students are referred to yoga because of sciatica (a condition where the sciatic nerve root is compressed due to lower back disc issues like herniation or degeneration) or piriformis syndrome (where the piriformis muscle is so tight that is compresses the sciatic nerve). Both conditions create pain and/or nerve symptoms in the posterior hip, with sensation running down the back of the leg. Both conditions are also typically treated with yoga postures that stretch the piriformis muscles in external rotation of the hip, like pigeon pose and figure four.

How To Stabilize these Muscles

Stretching the deep 6 rotators addresses tightness in the muscles but doesn’t address weakness. These muscles are key stabilizers in the alignment of the pelvis, as well as controlling the movement of the thigh bone in the hip socket. Strengthening the external rotators brings alignment to both the pelvis and knees. As a group, these muscles stabilize the hip in weight-bearing yoga poses like warrior 2 and side angle pose.

From anatomical position, the piriformis is superior and superficial to the other five muscles in the group. Given its position, it is more easily identifiable (both through palpation and sensation) and more likely to fire in weight-bearing poses where the thigh bone is in external rotation (warrior 2 and side angle pose). Without much thought or even body awareness, the piriformis does its job and engages as we move through standing poses that require external rotation at the hip. But if we don’t slow down and work with controlled movement, we lose the ability to connect to what is happening in the deeper, lower five stabilizing muscles, and this can develop into a muscular pattern where the lower five muscles become dormant leading to less stability in the joint.

Building Awareness by Isolating the Deep 6 Muscle Group

Start with an isolated movement that focuses solely on the engagement of the deep six: external rotation. Isolated strength training targets the deep muscles and also can reveal muscular imbalances (such as when one side fatigues more easily) as well as build strength and endurance over time.

Clamshells

Lie on your right side with your head, back ribs, back pelvis, and sole of feet all on one plane (you can lean against a wall to find this). Lift the left side of your waist away from the floor and draw the low belly into the body. Keeping the feet touching, inhale and lift your top knee, exhale and lower the knee, without moving the pelvis. Repeat until fatigue and then switch sides. If you find that one side fatigues with less repetition, repeat the weak side a second time.

Butterfly Hip Lifts

Lie on your back and draw the soles of the feet together, knees wide. Walk the heels away from your pelvis, so that the legs create a diamond shape. Bring your hands to your belly. On your inhale, lift your hips a few inches off of the floor (keeping your feet together and your belly drawing into the body). Exhale slowly lower the hips to the floor. Repeat until fatigue and then rest.

Creating Awareness of the Lateral Rotators

An effective way to assess whether or not you are engaging the deeper muscles of the lateral rotators is through palpation. First, locate the piriformis muscle so you can feel its engagement. Start with your stance as if you were setting up for triangle pose – right leg forward. Bring your right fingers to the middle of your gluteus maximus muscle and notice if there is any muscular engagement (there should be minimal). The piriformis is positioned right below the center of the gluteus maximus. Keeping your fingers on your piriformis muscle, bend your right knee, coming into warrior 2. As you externally rotate the right thigh bone, you will feel the engagement of the piriformis under your fingers. Come in and out of warrior 2 a few times to create an internal awareness of when the piriformis muscle is firing. Then switch to the left side.

Finding the Quadratus Femoris

Next, locate the quadratus femoris muscle. Again, starting with the stance for triangle pose (right leg forward), bring your right fingers to your right sit bone, then move the fingers just lateral to the sit bone (to the right when working on the right side). Relax your lower gluteus maximus muscle. Keep your fingers adjacent to the sit bone and slowly bend your knee coming into warrior 2. As you externally rotate the thigh bone away from the midline, you will feel the quadratus femoris muscle turn on. Slowly come back to stand with the legs straight. Repeat several times. Move slowly so that you can feel the muscle engage and you can create internal awareness on how to turn the quadratus femoris on.

After locating both the piriformis and quadratus femoris muscles, you can bring this awareness into your standing poses and create stability with mindful movement on the breath.

Once again, set up for triangle pose, right leg forward. Bring your right hand to your inner right knee. On your exhale slowly bend your right knee as you lower your right hand toward the floor, coming into side angle pose. The left hand can extend over your head. Inhale, slowly return to stand. Adding the breath, exhale to a count of eight as you slowly bend the knee and lower the hand into side angle pose and inhale back up to stand. Repeat until fatigue then switch sides. If one side fatigues with less repetition, repeat on the weak side a second time.

Increasing the Challenge: Half Moon Pose at the Wall

Come to a wall and stand the distance of the length of your leg away from the wall. Using a block under your left hand for stability, lift your right leg to the wall and turn the toes out to the side. Once you feel balanced, start to rotate the torso open to the side, drawing the belly in, and extending from the crown of the head to the foot on the wall. You can rest your top hand on your hip or reach it up. The work is happening in the standing leg: rotate the thigh bone away from midline while simultaneously hugging the hip in toward midline – this will activate the deep six. Hold for several breaths and switch sides.

The key to alleviating hip pain is through a combination of poses that both stretch and stabilize the muscle tissue. This often starts with body awareness and approaches that isolate the muscle groups to gain an innate understanding of the location and engagement of the muscle groups. Slowing down the practice can activate the deeper muscles responsible for external rotation at the hip and can lead to pain reduction and overall joint stability.

Prins, M.R. and van der Wurff, P. (2009). Females with patellofemoral pain syndrome have weak hip muscles: A systematic review. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 55(1). 9 – 15.

Start Meditating: A Beginner’s Guide

Diane Malaspina for Yoga InternationalYoga Medicine® teacher Diane Malaspina explains the research-backed benefits of meditation and provides simple suggestions for those looking to start meditating. If you are having a hard time adapting to stress or are lacking focus, follow through, and creativity, it may be time for you to start a meditation practice.

How Meditation Reduces Stress (Plus 6 Tips for Absolute Beginners)

Many of us are aware of the physical effects that stress has on the body, but we may be surprised to learn that stress can also affect us mentally by impairing cognitive flexibility and self-regulation. Two areas of the brain are activated during a stressful event—the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for decision making, concentration, and self-regulation) and the amygdala (the region of the brain that initiates fight-or-flight arousal)—and both are sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress.

The degree to which the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala determines how we perceive and respond to stress both cognitively and emotionally. When the prefrontal cortex is in control, top-down processing is executed, and we can make conscious responses before emotionally reacting or going into flight-or-fight mode.

In contrast, when the amygdala becomes more active than the prefrontal cortex, it often leads to maladaptive responses and bottom-up processing—responding with emotion, like fear, without evaluating circumstances. Even minimal amounts of stress can impair functioning in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.1 Interestingly, there’s some compelling evidence in favor of using meditation to fortify these very brain structures that are adversely impacted by stress.2 3

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

Stress produces a rush of neurohormones to the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is also activated; it recognizes threats and sounds the alarm. In turn, the prefrontal cortex signals the amygdala to ascertain whether the alarm is justified. This interaction helps us regulate our emotions on a moment-to-moment basis.

The neurohormones released during a stressful event impair the top-down functioning of the prefrontal cortex and strengthen the emotional responses of the amygdala. Structurally, both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex change. At the cellular level, dendrites, the branches of the nerve cells that receive electrochemical stimulation from neighboring neurons, show atrophy in the prefrontal cortex and extension in the amygdala. This leads to fewer neurons being fired in the thinking brain and more neurons fired in the emotional brain. Emotion then overrides cognition, which results in bottom-up processing and emotional dysregulation. And these poorly modulated emotional responses can lead to more stress and impaired functioning.

Self-Regulation and How Meditation Can Help

Emotional dysregulation is the foundation of many psychological challenges, including stress, anxiety, and depressive disorders. In contrast, self-regulation is the ability to monitor emotions, thoughts, and behavior as a situation demands. It includes the ability to balance highly emotional reactions, change expectations in the face of frustration, and direct behavior toward a goal despite our feelings. When our self-regulation skills are honed, we are more likely to respond to stress in adaptive ways. Furthermore, when thoughts and emotions are appropriately regulated, we are less likely to activate the flight-or-fight response in the face of stress. The stress is still there, but how we process it, make decisions, and choose a course of action are influenced by our ability to self-regulate. As a form of mental training in cognitive control and emotional regulation, meditation can foster adaptive self-regulation, thus honing the ability to respond to stress mindfully.

In meditation practice, we hone the ability to keep the mind focused on one point, such as the breath, a word or phrase, or a state (such as compassion), while maintaining a relaxed physical posture. Research in neuroscience suggests that meditation can initiate neuroplastic changes in both the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, positively influencing how we regulate emotions. Meditation has been associated with increased grey matter and cortical thickness in the prefrontal cortex and decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala.45

Consistency of Practice

These structural changes might allow the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex to become stronger, even while allowing reactivity to emotions and stress as produced by the amygdala to become weaker. With practice, meditation may enhance self-regulation by boosting cognitive flexibility and decreasing emotional reactivity, changes which in turn promote healthy responses to stress.

When it comes to establishing a regular meditation practice, accessibility is key. If meditation becomes one more thing on our to-do list, we are more likely to experience stress before or during our practice, which in turn may mean that we have a harder time sticking with it. Remember, meditation has a cumulative effect, meaning the benefits are reaped through consistent practice over time, so it’s important to approach meditation in a way that makes it more likely to become a part of our lifestyle. Below are a few tips that can help you incorporate meditation into your life.

Tips to Start Meditating

1. Start simple: Sit for three minutes.

Start with sitting quietly for three minutes and see where it takes you. Use a meditation app on your phone (silence the ringer) or set a timer. Don’t ask any more of yourself than sitting quietly for these three minutes with your eyes closed, mentally following your breath. What happens from there doesn’t matter. Step one is to just get into the habit of showing up for meditation and committing to being quiet. If you do this each day, you may experience noticeable benefits, like less reactivity and more tranquility. Eventually, you’ll probably sense that you need more than three minutes and will start increasing your time.

2. Select a time and meditate at that time every day.

It helps to have a regular time and space for your meditation practice. You might try different times of day to see what works for you. The mind may be calmer in the morning than later in the day. Choose a time that you can commit to. If it helps to have a dedicated space with a meditation cushion and an altar with candles, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary. If you find the floor uncomfortable, try sitting against the wall or in a chair.

3. Choose something on which to anchor your attention.

If we don’t choose a point of focus, the mind ends up pulling us in multiple directions. You can follow your breath or choose either the inhale or the exhale to focus on. Another option is to count the length of the inhale and/or exhale to maintain concentration. If focusing on the breath isn’t working for you, try a phrase related to why you are sitting in the first place. For example, you can mentally say “Be” on your inhale and “still” on your exhale.

4. Release expectations of what meditation should or should not be. Let go of the end result.

There’s no hard-and-fast “right” versus “wrong” way to meditate, and there’s not a magic number of minutes that leads to the best results. Refrain from bringing a controlling mindset into your meditation practice. Let go of worrying about doing it right, of pushing yourself to increase your sitting time, and of thoughts of not being “good” at it. Instead, take a calm and open approach. Acknowledge that just showing up and sitting is a success.

5. Label thoughts as thoughts and let them go.

To be human is to have a stream of consciousness running through our minds at all times. What’s neat about meditation is that it is a mental break from the chatter of the mind. All meditators experience lapses in focus during which their minds wander—the key is not to go down the rabbit hole by pursuing those inevitable thoughts. When you notice yourself indulging in thought, label it as thought, and then go back to your anchor (your breath or other focal point).

6. Be willing to try different techniques.

If sitting and following your breath is not working so well for you, try a different approach. Use a guided meditation app that allows you to select how long you want to meditate and then be led through a practice (Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm are popular choices). Or (as noted above) work with repetition of a phrase (mantra) to keep the mind focused. If my mind is particularly busy, I mentally repeat “I am peace” as I practice. If closing your eyes is difficult, try a one-pointed visual focus technique like candle meditation. Light an unscented candle and place it three feet away from you at eye level. Bring a soft gaze to the glow surrounding the candle and maintain your focus there.

When we can skillfully manage stress and emotions, we function at our best. Enhanced self-regulation aids us in identifying opportunities in difficult situations, maintaining motivation, and being able to keep going when times are tough. Research on meditation seems to be heading toward revealing how the practice initiates structural and functional changes in the brain that impact our ability to think and respond to stress. Through meditation, we can learn to clear the mind and strengthen our ability to stay present. With this presence may come better decision-making and a clearer sense of how to accomplish our goals. Once you balance the mind, other behaviors follow.

Read on Yoga International here.

Footnotes

1. Arnsten, A.F.T., Raskind, M.A., Taylor, F.B., & Connor, D.F. The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumaticstress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 89-99, 2015.

2. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897, 2005.

3. Taren, A.A., Gianaros, P.J., Greco, C.M., Lindsay, E., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K.W., . . . Creswell, J.D. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting statefunctional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(12), 1758-68, 2015.

4. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897, 2005.

5. Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, K.C., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L., . . . Lazar, S.W. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17, 2010.

Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43, 2011.

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