Trying Alternative Practices
Whether you’re new to mindfulness meditation and having trouble staying focused, or you’re just plain tired of doing it after years of sitting, there are many other practices to bring you to the present moment.
I’ve been cutting back quite a bit on my daily meditations lately. They’re either super short or some days I’ve even skipped sitting altogether. I could say that it’s because I’m so busy right now, but the truth is, we make time for what’s important, so I knew I had to spend a little time checking in to see what’s going on.
The truth is my mind is scattered to the winds because I’m under quite a bit of pressure and I’m behind on pretty much everything. So instead of enjoying my quiet, reflective time, it feels like a battle to control my mind and that feels pretty self-defeating.
This is very common for new meditators and if you can stick with it through the initial discomfort, you’ll find it not only gets easier, but you actually look forward to it. But I’m not new at this, so that means I might be getting a little burned out between writing about mindfulness, writing meditations, writing mindfulness retreats, reading about the topic every day, creating weekly podcasts and then focusing on my own daily practice.
Or I could just be getting bored with doing the same practice every day. I frequently describe mindfulness as a workout for the brain, just as lifting weights is a workout for the body. I’m sure many of you have gotten tired of your gym routine and probably switched things up to keep you motivated. Instead of forcing myself to sit in meditation for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to switch it up a little with some alternative mindfulness practices to get me back on track.
Since I’m clearly experiencing a stressful period and the breath is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety, relaxing the mind and body, and promoting overall well-being, I’ll explore a breathing regulation technique. There are many variations of breathing regulation techniques or pranayama in Sanskrit, which are yogic breath control practices. There are two slight variations of one technique, alternate nostril breathing, called anulom vilom and nadi shodhana. Both involve breathing in through one nostril and exhaling through the opposite, but with nadi shodhana, we hold the breath for 2 to 3 seconds before exhales and gradually increase the length of time in small increments to hold the breath longer. You can practice whichever variation is most comfortable for you, as both styles provide similar benefits.
The benefits of alternate nostril breathing include lowering stress, improved cardiovascular function, improved lung function, increased respiratory endurance, and enhanced overall health and well-being. And studies show that focusing on the breath increases our awareness in other areas of our life, so it strengthens mindfulness skills as well.
Before trying this breathing technique, it is important to note that while it is safe for most people, anyone with asthma, COPD or any other lung or heart condition should speak to their healthcare provider before practicing. And if while practicing you feel any adverse effects, like shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness or nausea, stop immediately. There are a multitude of mindful and contemplative practices available and no one type may be right for everyone.
To practice alternate nostril breathing, we focus on keeping the breath slow, smooth, and continuous. Focusing on the breath will help us keep track of where we are in the cycle. It’s also advisable to practice alternate nostril breathing on an empty stomach and don’t practice when you’re feeling unwell or if you’re congested.
You can try it by sitting in a cross-legged position if you can. If not, sit on the edge of a chair.
Make sure your spine is straight so that air can move freely as you breathe.
Place the left hand on the left knee.
Lift the right hand up toward the nose.
Now exhale completely and then use the right thumb to close the right nostril.
Inhale through the left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
This is one cycle.
Continue for up to 5 minutes.
Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
It’s a pretty simple practice that can help us get focused or relaxed any time. Just as with mindfulness meditation, to gain the health benefits from alternate nostril breathing, you need to practice regularly.
Another alternative to a sitting meditation is a walking meditation. This appeals to me because it serves multiple purposes. I can get my meditation in while getting exercise while getting some sun. If the weather isn’t conducive to outdoor walking, you can practice indoors instead, but walking outdoors has the added bonus of lifting the spirit.
Kinhin zen or mindful walking is a moving meditation from the Buddhist tradition. Instead of focusing solely on the breath as we do in a sitting meditation, we focus on our breath and body to keep us in the present moment.
The benefits of mindful walking include improved blood sugar levels and circulation, improved digestion, reduced anxiety, improved sleep quality, improved concentration and improved well-being. Mindful walking involves intentionally attending to the experience of walking itself. We focus on the sensations in our feet or legs, or alternatively, feeling our whole body moving.
I invite you to try this now, for just a couple of minutes. To get started, simply stand up to get a feel for how this works. Relax hands at your sides. Take in a few deep breaths. Notice the sensation of your feet rooted to the floor or ground. Breathe normally.
Notice when you become aware of the impulse to begin walking. Notice that in preparation for lifting one foot, the other foot stabilizes itself as the weight of the body begins to shift onto it. Focus your eyes ahead of you and begin to walk slowly. Observe the sensations in the body as the other foot lifts, moves ahead, and then comes down and makes contact with the floor or ground.
Then become aware of the weight slowly shifting onto that foot as the other foot lifts and swings out in front of us to take a step. With each step, notice the heel-to-toe rhythm as each foot reaches the floor or ground, maintaining good posture and a relaxed body. Be aware of all of the sensations in your feet and body. Notice how each breath feels going in and out of your lungs. As you continue to slowly walk, notice the gait cycle – the lifting, the moving, the placing and the shifting of your weight.
This is an internal observation that is being cultivated, just the felt sensations associated with walking and nothing more but you don’t need to be somber or serious. The approach is as with all meditation practices, with a light touch and a sense of ease.
As with all mindfulness practices, if the mind wanders away from the feet, legs or breath, just notice the thoughts and then gently bring the attention back to where you are in the walking when you become aware of it. If you need to, you can stop and re-center with a few breaths before resuming your walk.
A mindful walking meditation can last as long as you feel comfortable walking. As you end your walking meditation, gently stop walking, take in a few deep breaths and notice the sensations that arise in standing still.
Again, quite easy to do and good for us, too. To gain the full health benefits of a walking meditation, a minimum 20-minute walk is recommended, but one of the advantages of this practice is that we can make any walk a mindful walking meditation, even if it’s just for the two minutes it takes to walk from the car into the grocery store. That two minutes can get you re-centered and focused and you’re walking anyway, so why not make it more worthwhile?
There are more formal walking meditations that are longer and structured, such as walking in a specific pattern or that combine walking with standing or sitting meditations, and many that incorporate religious or spiritual practices, so you can easily find a walking meditation that is right for you. Other moving meditations can be practiced through yoga, tai chi and qigong, but do require learning specific poses. I love these practices, but when I’m under time constraints, it’s nice to know I can still practice meditation by simply taking a walk.
Another alternative to sitting in silence and focusing on the breath is to follow a guided meditation. These are available for both sitting and walking meditations and can sometimes be quite helpful if you’re having trouble staying focused. Apps like Headspace or Calm are obvious choices, but there are a multitude of options out there, from Deepak Chopra, Tara Brach, Oprah, Gaby Bernstein and thousands more, with many focusing on specific issues, like anxiety or sleeplessness. Other options incorporate movement, visualizations, chanting or music. I have used David Ison’s Chakra Sound System for years. It is a music-based meditation system that resonates with specific energy centers in the body. The point is, there’s truly something for everyone.
The more we can stay in the present moment, the greater sense of contentment we experience, so if you’re struggling with sitting in meditation, don’t give up and don’t judge yourself. Simply switch your routine to alternative practices that accomplish the same outcome, being aware of the present.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version, Un Momento En Atencion Plena, is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. For advertising inquiries, please email email@example.com. Bookings firstname.lastname@example.org.
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