As a psychology major in college I had read all about the benefits of mindfulness. And as an anxious and overwhelmed first year, I was eager to dive into a meditation practice so I could reap those benefits. But when I first started, it went a little like this….
I bought a special cushion filled with buckwheat, splurged on a new yoga mat (so I could also devote more time to my physical practice before sitting down to meditate), and bought several books on the benefits of meditation. I cleared space in a corner of my small dorm room, and when the time finally came for me to start, I plopped down on my new cushion, settled into my seat and waited…and waited…and I waited some more… and then it began.
No, not transcendence. Distraction. It started with an inch behind my knee, then the tickle of a stray strand of hair across my brow. I was supposed to be counting my breath but eventually my mind was wandering back to the homework I still hadn’t finished and that familiar voice was saying “What are you doing? You don’t have time for this. You don’t even know what you’re doing. Who are you trying to fool?”
I thought I’d failed. I thought I was bad at meditation, and I felt ashamed. I was quite consistent with my physical practice of yoga at the time so I thought meditation would be easy for me. But it wasn’t. It was the hardest thing I’d tried, so I stopped. And you know what happened to that meditation cushion I spent $40 on? My cat peed on it 🙈 Needless to say it was several years before I tried seated meditation again.
The reality is, meditation and mindfulness practices are deceptively challenging. But that doesn’t mean they are impossible. No matter how much you read about the benefits of the practice, or how many stories you hear from friends or self-proclaimed gurus, it does you no good if you don’t know how to begin. I know my beginnings with meditation sound familiar to many other students, so I wanted to share with all of you some pointers and tips for exactly how you can start your own meditation practice. I’m happy to share that ten years later, my mindfulness practice is much easier than when I first tried to meditate, but it also looks a lot different. Today, my mindfulness practice consists of shorter meditations, mindful movement like walks, and taking the time to slow down and savor one moment at a time. I wish I had had these tips to guide me when I first started but hopefully they are of help to you on your mindfulness journey.
I limited my tips to just 10 steps and tried to outline how to begin in a way that sets you up for success and eases the expectation that you’ll clear your mind. The information in this guide is gathered from my own personal experience and informed by notes I took during a recent meditation and mindfulness teacher training led by Melanie Yetter. I want to credit much of this guide to Melanie’s wisdom and her suggestions for how I renewed my own practice.
Step by Step Guide to Beginning A Mindfulness Practice:
- Set your intention. Your intention is your reason for practicing, your answer to the big question “WHY Mindfulness?” Setting an intention early on will help guide your practice and can motivate you to return to your practice when you spend some time away from it. Your initial intention(s) may be based on the benefits you have read about (i.e., lessen anxiety, process negative emotions, improve your relationship with yourself and others) but I challenge you to keep reflecting back on your “Why” over time and see how it develops.
- Let go of expectations. This is the tough one. Try to let go of any expectations or preconceived notions you may have about meditation before you begin your mindfulness practice. Yes, definitely let go of the expectation that you’ll be levitating after your first session, but also let go of the expectation that change is immediate. All of the stories you tell yourself, all of your patterns of negative self talk, all of your memories that color your emotions and interactions with others, they all took time to develop. Similarly, your meditation practice will take time to develop. Self-awareness, learning to recognize how your thoughts and emotions might be serving you, all takes time. Letting go of expectations takes the pressure off of your practice and allows you to keep a curious mindset, simply observing how you respond to different mindfulness techniques each day.
- Make a commitment to yourself. Schedule time in your planner or pick a general time of day when you can try to sit for at least 5 minutes. If sitting for 5 minutes every day seems like too much at the moment, then aim for every other day, or maybe just once a week to start. The main thing to remind yourself, is you are easing into a new routine and becoming more familiar with adding mindfulness to your day. Much like starting a new movement program, you can try to do too much all at once and end up fatigued, burnt out, or discouraged if you don’t hit your goal. As time goes on and you become more comfortable with your practice, you can extend the time spent in meditation. I highly recommend using a timer on your phone or watch (not a clock), or listening to a guided meditation when first you begin, so you don’t feel pressured to keep checking the time.
- You don’t have to sit. Yes, the movement teacher in me is coming out here: you do not have to remain seated during your mindfulness practice. If sitting in stillness just isn’t feeling right for you today, try going for a walking meditation, or practicing mindfulness while brushing your teeth or washing dishes. Thinking of ways you can fit mindfulness into your daily activities will not only make it more accessible but you can train yourself how to be more mindful off of your mat or cushion. That is ultimately our overarching goal, to be more mindful in our daily actions and interactions. If you are crafty like me, cross stitch, embroidery, or even coloring in a coloring book are also more active ways to start practicing mindfulness. Gardening, petting your dog, and painting your nails are also excellent opportunities to practice mindfulness.
- Pick a time to practice, and stick with it. You can practice during the morning when you first wake up, maybe around lunch time, or in the evening after work. Any time of day is fine. The choice is yours but try to stay consistent with the time you pick. Keeping consistent with the time of day you practice (just the general time, no need to go by the hour) helps you integrate your mindfulness practice into your daily routine. If you’re worried about trying to find time to practice in your busy schedule, start by adding a mindfulness activity to a routine you already have established (i.e., brushing your teeth before bed, making coffee in the morning).
- Find a quiet space in your home where you are able to sit consistently. Reserve a space just for practicing your meditations and mindfulness techniques. You might pick a specific side of the couch, a pillow in the corner of your room, or maybe a yoga mat or blanket rolled out on the back porch. In order to minimize distractions, this should be a place where you do not consistently engage in any other activities (i.e., watching TV, working on your computer, reading, talking on the phone, sleeping). Your mind will associate certain activities with specific locations and times of day. You want to train your mind to associate this particular space with your practice. If space allows, leave your meditation cushion or chair out in a spot you can regularly see it and be reminded of your practice that awaits you. This is not to say that you can’t practice mindfulness off of your mat or cushion (in fact I encourage it!) but setting aside a space just for you allows you to dive deeper into your practice. Soon sitting in your special place will instill a sense of ease and calm, like you’re coming home to yourself. If you feel inclined to strengthen your spiritual practice along with your mindfulness practice, you could also set up an altar in your special place.
- Sit comfortably, but purposefully. Find a comfortable position where you can stretch your spine and maybe add a cushion beneath the hips for support. Wearing comfortable clothing that allows you to breathe fully into your diaphragm and easily move your belly is also important. Before sitting down, check in with yourself and if needed take a “bio break.” Ask yourself, what would serve your body and mind most at this moment? If the answer is a nap, it’s okay to take a nap first. Gotta use the restroom? No need to hold it. Once you have taken care of basic needs it’s a lot easier to settle into a mindfulness routine. Use the restroom, grab a bite to eat, or even take a nap before you practice, so that you can be the most comfortable you can be in this moment. Listening to your body’s needs is one of the first steps in a mindfulness practice. While it’s important to be comfortable, especially in a seated practice, you don’t want to signal to your body that it’s time for bed and end up falling asleep each time you try to meditate. Like I mentioned in the previous step, I recommend practicing meditation in a place other than your bed so your mind doesn’t get confused whether it’s time for mindfulness or time for sleep. This also goes for refraining from other activities in bed too (let’s keep the bed for the two S’s 😊). Avoid reading, scrolling social media, or doing any other work in bed, to help you sleep better at night.
- Pick your technique before you start your practice. There are probably a million and one different mindfulness techniques, so if you don’t like one particular technique it’s okay to keep looking. Keep that curious mindset and search until you find a technique that feels right for you. I have several guided meditations and breath work videos here if you’re looking for inspiration. I also recommend apps, like Calm and Headspace, if you’re looking for other guided meditations. Once you find a technique you like, try to stick with the same technique for at least a week. This way you can fully grasp the ins and outs of the technique and more easily practice it the next time you need to. Practicing a technique several times also allows you to observe changes day to day. Does this technique work well when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed or is it one you save for days when you’re feeling calmer?
- Start with the breath. I love the Joseph Pilates quote that life begins with the breath, and so should a mindfulness practice. Focusing on the breath allow us to check in with how we’re feeling and anchors us to the present moment. More importantly, focusing on the breath deepens the mind-body connection. By actively slowing down the breath, your body tells your nervous system that it is okay to relax. To prepare yourself for meditation, pick a Pranayama (breath work) technique to practice for a few minutes before moving on to another mindfulness technique (i.e, counting, body scans, mantra). You can try belly breathing or alternate nostril breathing or simply pause and note the speed, depth, and quality, of the breath while slowly extending your exhales so they become longer than your inhales.
- Keep trying. Remember, consistency is what will help your practice become routine, but it’s perfectly normal to skip a day (or even a week). Missing a day doesn’t mean you’re failing. Rather, think of it as an opportunity to check in and practice self-compassion, asking yourself if there is something else you need to help you feel more at ease. Along the same line, it’s also important to note that you don’t have to wait for the perfect conditions to begin practicing a mindfulness technique or meditation. Often times, I feel frazzled and anxious before beginning a meditation. I find I am often drawn to, and get the most out of my practice, at the times when I’m feeling like I don’t have it all together as opposed to waiting for when I do (which, let’s be honest, it’s a very rare occasion when I feel like I have it all together 😂).
Hopefully following these steps can help you begin your mindfulness journey. Please comment below if you found these tips helpful and let me know if you have any questions! Remember I’m always just an email or direct message away, and I’d love to help you troubleshoot if you run into any roadblocks in your practice.