When many people think of meditation, it's common to imagine rigid body postures, impossible stillness and near-excruciating self-discipline — which is why you might think it's impossible to meditate if you can't sit still.
"Traditional meditation is marred with misconceptions [that] you must be quiet, you must overcome physical discomfort and transcend pain, you must have unwavering concentration and you must clear your mind for it to work," says Melissa Miller, LMHC, a psychotherapist with FOLX Health.
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Many people with chronic pain, injuries, mental health factors or even just a busy life may feel meditation is inaccessible to them. But there are plenty of ways to meditate without crossing your legs and sitting quietly.
Enter active meditation, which blends movement and mindfulness to relax the body and ease stress.
Active meditation is just as beneficial as static (or still) meditation. In fact, a September-December 2020 study in the International Journal of Yoga found that women who engaged in active meditation showed a significant improvement in their parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and mood when compared to women who did only silent meditation.
"One form of meditation is not better than another," says Michelle di Paolo, founder and psychotherapist for Stress and Relaxation Services of America. "Don't think you are missing out or a failure if you struggle to sit still for meditation or can only meditate while moving. Either way, you are gaining incredible physical and mental health value in the practice."
Below, we discuss four different types of active meditation — none of which require you to sit still or cross your legs.
1. Add Box Breathing to Everyday Activities
Box breathing is a mindfulness technique you can combine with any type of movement or incorporate into your daily routine — including a morning commute, a walk with your dog or during a task, like folding laundry or vacuuming.
To get started, Miller says there are four basic steps:
- Breathe in for a steady count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Breathe out for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four, then repeat.
The point of this exercise is to form a "box" with your breath that is even on all sides.
You can repeat this process, observing your body and thoughts without judgment, until you feel a sense of calm.
Box breathing can also be a "starter" technique to initiate and end your meditation practice.
Saying the numbers "out loud" in your head as you count may help keep intrusive thoughts at bay, while visualizing the numbers or drawing a box with an imaginary hand while counting may help with intrusive images.
2. Try a Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is exactly what it sounds like — simply tap into your mindfulness while taking a walk.
"Start by picking a walking route you are comfortable and familiar with, perhaps in your neighborhood or on the way to work," says Miller.
As you walk, take a deep breath and focus your attention on your body. Miller recommends focusing on your right foot and exhaling as that foot hits the ground.
You might also focus on the environment around you as you tap into your senses.
"[Notice] the environment around you, be it the buildings in the area, cars going by or maybe squirrels playing in the grass," says Di Paolo. "Take in, slowly, and one at a time, the information provided to you by your senses."
It's normal to feel distracted if you are particularly stressed, but this is a normal part of the process. If this happens, Di Paolo recommends "[reminding] yourself it is safe to slow down. Then, try slowing down the pace of your walk."
Once you feel yourself able to "sink in" to the meditation, you may choose to move your attention inward and notice your internal emotions and sensations. If it helps you stay present, you can repeat an affirming statement or chant like "I deserve love" or "I am grateful for who I am."
"The idea here is slowly easing oneself, if possible, from a faster active state, to a more soothing, slower, relaxed active state, which allows the benefits of meditation, or flow, to kick in," says di Paolo.
3. Meditate While You Wait
There are plenty of times throughout the day where we are waiting for something to happen — for a meeting to start, for traffic to clear up or for a friend to arrive. Miller says these are all opportunities to bring attention back to the present moment via "waiting meditations."
Start by noticing the time you have and decide to reconnect with your body. Then, you may choose to focus on internal sensations (a body scan) or external sensations (a room scan).
For a body scan, take a few moments to check in with your body. Start from the feet and slowly move your attention all the way up your body, to the top of your head. Notice, without judgment, how your body feels. Are your feet uncomfortable in shoes? How does your stomach feel? Are your hands relaxed or tense? Observe how you hold your shoulders and your neck.
You can do a body scan throughout the day, and feel free to add movement as well — you might tap or stretch different parts of the body as you move through the scan.
For a room scan, bring your attention to your surroundings. Then, Miller says, "use your five senses to identify and connect with what you can see, hear, feel, smell or taste — when you notice your mind wandering, gently and kindly come back to the senses of the moment."
Feel free to look around, touch and get connected with your environment as you complete the room scan. Then, turn your attention back to whatever task is waiting for you.
4. Take Up a Mindful Hobby
Hobbies are also an opportunity for meditation, be they gardening, hiking, cooking or drawing. Yoga is a good option, too, as it incorporates movement, breath work and guided mindfulness — but any hobby works as long as it's something you enjoy.
Whatever your hobby, Miller recommends bringing an awareness to the activity. Think about how your body feels and the smells, colors and noises around you.
"If you do have thoughts wandering in, without judgment, shift your focus to observing your surroundings and taking in the joy of your [hobby]," says Miller. "Be sure to pause and perhaps refocus using your box breathing."
Remember, there's no one "right" way to meditate. With active mediation, anyone can experience the benefits of meditation and incorporate a realistic mindfulness routine into their everyday lives.
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