We hear all of the time that meditation works wonders for stress relief, and we all have a picture in our heads of what meditation looks like. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, with your hands resting on top of the knees—index fingers and thumbs in Gyan mudra, with the mind perfectly still. But then when you actually sit down to meditate and your mind is the opposite of still, you find yourself frustrated and asking: now what? Whether you find meditation a little intimidating or gave up because your mind just won’t seem to go along with it, here’s exactly what can help and what to do.
What meditation really is and why you should do it for stress relief and more
Meditation goes back to ancient India, where the practice of yoga began. Many of us think of yoga asanas (the poses you do in class) as a true representation of what yoga is. But asana is only one limb, or principle, of yoga. Historically, the sole purpose of moving the body through a series of yoga poses was to prepare the body for meditation—achieving a calm mental state.
Why channel your mental energy? Meditation as a technique for stress relief has been extensively studied. It calms the nervous system, which allows you to feel calmer and less stressed. With less stress, blood pressure lowers and hormones like epinephrine and cortisol return to healthier levels—which helps with insulin response, thyroid hormones, and sex hormone balance.
Where most people get hung up when trying to meditate
Meditation is amazing for stress relief. But when you sit down with the purpose of meditating, it may seem like your stress levels dial way up. In our culture, we’re always going from one thing to the next. Our minds have become accustomed to running a mile a minute, thinking about a million things at once. That’s why it can feel so overwhelming to sit still and try to ignore your to-do list. Instead, you get the opposite effect: all that pressure makes you become hyper-aware of your inner mind chatter. When quieting your inner voice starts to feel impossible, it’s common to think maybe you’re just not cut out for meditating.
Simple steps to take the stress out of meditation
As a studio owner and advanced yoga practitioner and instructor, I promise: everyone can meditate. It’s important that you let go of the expectation that you must completely quiet the mind and clear all thoughts the first (or even second and third) time you sit down to practice meditation.
1. Release the expectation that you can erase or block your thoughts.
For the life we live in, that’s just not realistic or attainable. Meditation doesn’t have to equal a perfectly quiet, still mind. Turn your focus to detaching from your thoughts—observing them, accepting them, and then letting them float away like a cloud in the sky.
2. Create a focal point.
Many of us need something to focus on during meditation, and that’s okay. I recommend using your breath. Let your attention follow the pattern and quality of your inhales and exhales. Notice how it flows and ebbs.
If you don’t feel like you’re settling in with the breath, there are short, guided meditations that can help you reconnect with your body and can be helpful quieting your inner conversation.
3. Take the pressure off. Don’t try to go from 0 to 60.
Just like there’s no time limit on meditation, there’s also no time requirement. Set a timer if it’s useful. Start with one minute, and slowly increase to two or three (or more!) as you’re ready.
4. Use movement. You don’t have to sit still.
One of the things I love most about using meditation to relieve stress is that it can really be done anywhere, (almost) any time. You could be at your desk, sitting on the floor, or relaxing on the couch. Or, you can access it through a yoga flow, walking, or exercising.
4 yoga poses to release tightness and help your body relax for meditation
Taking five minutes to go through a few yoga poses can help you get in the right space for meditation. We all hold stress in our muscles, and stretching can offer relief and be grounding in and of itself. Releasing tension in the shoulders, chest, and hips are key, and these asanas are my favorite for getting the job done.
First, come down to the floor on all fours, or in tabletop position. (If this hurts your wrists, you can modify onto fists, or place the hands farther forward.) Start with a neutral spine and your nose pointing down toward the floor.
Inhale, and on the exhale pull the bellybutton in, tuck the tailbone, and start to round, or arch, the spine like a Halloween cat. Allow the neck to follow that movement, with the chin tucking in toward the chest.
As you inhale, lift the tailbone and sit bones as you draw the belly toward the floor, creating the shape of a hammock with the spine. Reach the chest forward through the arms, broadening through the collarbones. Keeping your chin level with the floor, allow your gaze to slightly lift.
Stand up straight and gently rock backward and forward until your weight is evenly distributed through the feet. Inhale the arms up overhead, and hinge forward from the hips, keeping a soft bend in the knees. Allow the hands to rest wherever is comfortable. (Except right on the knee joint.) Relax into the pose by letting the torso drape over the thighs, reaching the crown of your head toward the floor.
Return to tabletop position, on all fours with the toes tucked under. Spread the fingers wide. Engage the abdominals and begin to press down evenly through the hands while lifting the hips up and back. Start with the knees deeply bent, and being to straighten the knees until you meet your “edge” with your stretch. It’s okay to keep the knees bent in order to create more length through the low back. Release the heels toward the floor.
Low lunge with variations
Come into downward-facing dog (instructions above). Inhale, and extend the right leg up behind you. Bend at the knee and draw the knee in toward the chest until you can step your foot between the hands. Release the back knee to the floor. Making sure the front knee stays stacked over the ankle, sink into the posture until you feel a stretch in your hip flexor (the muscle along the front of your hip). From here, you can inhale the arms up, interlace the fingers behind the back, or place the hands on the thighs and gently press to open the chest.
Yes, there are so many physiological rewards, like less stress and lower blood pressure. But one of the most beautiful things about meditating is how centered you feel afterward. Turning your gaze inward lets you face the world feeling grounded, capable, and ready to handle anything.