During my month visit to a yoga ashram, morning and evening meditation was mandatory. Twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, everyone at the ashram would gather at the temple and sit on a cushion with their legs crossed, in preparation for meditation. I would close my eyes, slow my breathing, and try not to fidget for the next 20 minutes.
I had never received formal instruction on meditation. You just sit there, right? I had read somewhere to try and remove all thoughts. When a thought comes up, acknowledge it, and then let it pass. Then just sit there until the bell rings, or whatever. But no matter how hard I tried, the thoughts would come. I would think about things I had to do, what I wanted to eat, how I wanted to be anywhere--anywhere!-but sitting absolutely still on a hard tile floor with a bunch of people, waiting for kirtan and satsang to begin.
After a few weeks of this, I came up with some creative ways to pass the time. I started with a daydream that I would replay in my mind when it was time to sit in meditation. Sometimes I would add new scenarios to the day dream, just to keep it interesting. When the day dream was over, I would think about something else. But this isn’t really meditation, is it?
Later on in my pilgrimage I met with one of the elders at the ashram. He was a tantric priest, and performed all of the pujas and ceremonies at the temple. Without asking for advice on meditation, he gave me detailed instructions and encouraged me to do this every day, even after I left the ashram. It was some of the most valuable and practical advice I have ever recieved, and I still use the information he gave me in my daily practice.
1. Choose The Same Time Of Day, Preferably Morning Before The Sun Rises
This is the time of day when nature is calm and quiet. The earth-consciousness is not yet agitated, and the world has not yet entered into its daily turmoil. It also helps to wake up early when everything is quiet so you are less likely to be disturbed while meditating. Rise at the same time everyday so that you become accustomed to rising on schedule and are more likely to wake up naturally. If the morning is not an option for you, sunset is the next best option.
2. Prepare Your Body
If you choose to practice first thing in the morning, briefly wash your face and rinse your mouth. Brush your teeth with a minty or tea tree toothpaste. Wear a color that reflects energy, either white or yellow. White represents purity, and yellow means energy, or learning. Wearing a bright, happy color will make you more open to receiving the gifts of the universe. I keep a white scarf on my meditation pillow, and throw it over my shoulders when it is time to sit. That way, I’m not changing my clothes just for meditation.
3. Prepare Your Space
You should have a space that is specifically for meditation. If having a separate room under lock and key is not an option, you can use a partition, or a separate corner of your bedroom that is used for nothing else. Keep this space sacred. Set up an altar decorated with things that help you to focus on the Divine. This may be a mandala, or a picture or statue of Jesus or Buddha. Avoid personal pictures or things that attach you to this world. Face either North or East. Burn a candle that is unscented and made of natural ingredients like soy or beeswax. Do not burn incense or scented candles.
4. Get Comfortable
Come to a comfortable, seated position, preferably with your legs crossed. Forming this triangle-shape with your legs helps align the energy centers of your body, so prana can flow. You should place a pillow underneath your sitz bones, elevating your hips above the level of your knees. If you have knee issues, place a prop under your knee as well. Bring your hands to chin mudra, bringing your thumb and index finger together, palms up, hands resting on your knees. Or your hands can be folded in your lap, left over right, palms up, like you are receiving a gift. Make yourself comfortable to avoid coming out of the posture during meditation. Movement disrupts the progress you made during the session. In order for the mind to be still, the body needs to first be still.
5. Start With Pranyama
Take a few deep breaths. Three seconds inhalation, and three seconds exhalation through the nose. After a few deep breaths, begin to slow the breathing, making it shallow and undetectable. If you practice kaphilibatti (breath of fire) or anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing), you can do this now, too.
6. Recite A Mantra
If you have a japa mala practice you can do this now. I say my personal mantra 108 times using japa beads before silent meditation. This calms and focuses the mind on a single object, making it easier for all other thoughts to fall away. If you do not have a personal mantra, you can recite OM (AUM) or SO HAM (SO HUM), which are universal mantras.
7. Be Still
Bring your focus to either the space between your eyebrows, if you are more intellectual in nature, or your heart center, if you are more emotional or devotional in nature. Sit for 20 minutes, keeping your focus on the chakra of your choice. increase your time to 30 or 40 minutes per session.
8. Slowly Bring Your Awareness Back To Your Body
You can set an alarm to the sound of a soft bell or gong to tell you your time is up. Then, slowly wiggle your fingers, toes, neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. Gently stretch. Finish with a large glass of water. This purifies the body, cleansing impurities away, and stimulates the kidneys.
Finally, when it is time to practice, you practice. Just like anything else in life, meditation requires practice before it becomes a habit. And a habit takes repetition before it becomes part of our nature. It takes 21 days of doing something every day before it can be habit forming. But if it doesn’t stick at first, don’t get discouraged! It takes time.
Once established as part of your lifestyle, a meditation practice has many benefits that you will begin to experience immediately. A calm, more focused mind, ability to look at problems more clearly, a balanced mood, and emotional wellbeing. And that is saying a whole lot. So get your OM on!