Reaching a state of mindfulness can be as easy as taking a few deep breaths
By Edmund O. Lawler | February 27, 2017
If you’re harried and distracted, meditation can help calm your mind and body.
But that’s the rub. Some say they’re so harried and distracted that they can’t possibly meditate to quiet the mind, regain focus and ease anxiety. Within moments, they’re ruminating on the noise of extraneous thoughts or uncompleted daily to-do lists.
“Too many people have tried meditation and have given up. They’ve concluded, ‘I’m just not that kind of person,’” says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of the new book Breathe. “But they don’t have to be thinking about Gandhi or world peace or absolutely nothing to reach a meditative state. It’s not that complicated. In fact, it’s bizarrely simple.”
All you need do is breathe.
In her book, Vranich recommends a type of controlled breathing she calls “Recovery Breath.” The two-part breathing exercise, she says, is a form of active meditation that can reset the body after a stressful day at work, a disagreement with your spouse or partner, a test or a competition — any demanding situation. It can be done for as little as five minutes in a day.
Controlling Your Breath
The subtitle of her chapter on Recovery Breath is “Meditation for People Who Can’t Meditate.” Controlled breathing or breathwork is among a variety of practices to achieve a meditative state of mindfulness — focusing your awareness on the present moment, free of the distraction of the past and what might lie ahead.
Other popular meditation practices include guided meditation — either in-person or digital versions — yoga, stretching, visualization, chanting and walking meditation.
The good news for people over 50 who’ve been frustrated in their attempts to meditate is that it gets easier with age, Vranich contends. “In your 50s and beyond, you understand the importance of being able to quiet your mind. That’s not a priority when you’re in your teens. Our values change with age,” she notes.
Breathing the right way becomes more important with age, says Vranich, who advocates breathing from the belly rather than taking short, quick breaths from the chest. She says belly or horizontal breathing maximizes oxygen intake and slows the heart rate, helping reduce stress. Horizontal breathing also helps maintain the muscles in a person’s pelvic region, which are important for maintaining balance as people age.
Meditation on the Go
While some say they’re often too agitated to meditate, others say their attempts to tame their stress put them to sleep. One solution is to keep moving while meditating through walking meditation, says Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher, scholar and guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, Calif.
“Some people say they would like to meditate, but they’re too tired,” Fronsdal says. “Walking meditation keeps them alert enough so that they can meditate. The kinesthetic movement from point A to point B engages their body and their mind.”
Walking meditation can take many forms and a variety of paces. When he was studying Buddhism in Burma in the 1980s, Fronsdal says one of the monks power-walked his way through his paces. But most meditative walking has a slower, more deliberate pace.
“To settle into the moment, most people find it’s best to walk slowly back and forth on a straight line that’s about 20 to 30 paces long. Soon, you know the route and your mind is not thinking about where to walk and what to avoid along the way. You can be fully there in the experience of walking,” says Fronsdal.
Walkers should focus on saying a single word like “stepping” each time they plant their foot on the ground. “That gives the mind something to do because an idle mind will wander off,” Fronsdal says.
The setting can be indoors or outdoors and pastoral or urban. Although he doesn’t recommend walking meditation in a busy city for beginners, Fronsdal enjoys doing it occasionally in downtown San Francisco. “It’s good to learn how to incorporate walking meditation into your daily life. I recognize that I am better off walking in a mindful, meditative way. It makes the whole experience so much nicer,” he says.
Slipping into Meditation
For some, a yoga class is the first time they unwittingly slip into a meditative state. A class typically ends with students assuming a corpse-like pose (lying flat on their back) on the floor called savasana. A student’s mind, body and breath come to a deep state of relaxation after the exertion of a series of physical poses known as asana.
Yoga asana practice combined with pranayama (yogic breathing) prepares the body for the state of meditation — the purpose of yoga. For many, practicing yoga helps them to progress toward meditation when they may initially think, “‘I’m too busy to meditate. My mind is active all the time,’ or ‘I can’t just sit here and think about nothing,’” says Caroline Ramsay, a registered yoga teacher and certified yoga therapist in New Buffalo, Mich. It’s an amazing feeling when students find themselves in a subconscious state, she says.
Breathwork can also help lead to a meditative state because it triggers a response in the parasympathetic nervous system, which can slow the heart and create a sense of stillness, Ramsay says. But yoga, thanks to its physical element, deepens the sense of relaxation for both body and mind.
Ramsay took up yoga to help undo the physical damage caused by the stress of 25 years in a managerial role for a multinational corporation. Discovering that yoga helped calm her mind was an unexpected fringe benefit. “You certainly don’t have to practice yoga to meditate, but it certainly helps many to reach that state,” she adds.