By Nedahl Stelio
There’s a running joke among meditation teachers, “If someone says they can’t find 20 minutes a day to meditate, they need to meditate for an hour!”
We hear this often: the busiest of us need it the most. “What you’re actually saying is you don’t have the mental headspace to plan your time effectively,” says Tim Brown, a meditation teacher in Sydney. He’s not even the slightest bit joking.
But for those who feel that sitting still for 20 minutes is akin to sitting with ants crawling all over them, is there anything else that can achieve a similar benefit? A 20-minute meditation has been said to equal three to four hours’ sleep, so for those who simply feel like they can’t, what is the alternative?
A technique that draws on various practices such as yoga, meditation, hypnosis, Tibetan Buddhism, neurology and Japanese Zen, it involves sitting – or standing – and doing body movements while focusing on them. So, like a slow-motion focus exercise, which might appeal more to those who don’t like sitting still.
Here’s one to try now: Hold your arm straight out in front of you with hand in a soft fist, thumb in the air. Focus on a point on your thumb then inhale and bring the thumb slowly to touch in between your brows, never looking away from your focal point (It’s OK if you go cross-eyed). Exhale and let the hand go.
“This is a great start to the practice as it releases rapid eye movements, associated with high levels of mind activity,” says Sarah Reeves, a sophrology practitioner and midwife from Bronte, in Sydney’s east. She discovered sophrology in France, where it’s commonly used by midwives on pregnant women. It’s also used in the corporate world and to help students focus on exams – just like meditation.
“Sophrology aims to create a mind and body link, ultimately creating a greater self awareness, self confidence and the dissolving of fears,” Reeves says. “It reinforces positive connections and reinforces a person’s own capacity – we have the capacity inside, but this brings it out.”
The individualised practice is tailored to each person. Start with instruction from a teacher and then do the 15-minute practice daily at home.
Oh yes. You read correctly. Ray Good, a mindfulness and meditation teacher from The Good Place in Fitzroy, Melbourne, is on a mission to get people who “don’t do meditation” to meditate, and suggests that perhaps they just haven’t found the right way to do it.
“A lot of people use the breath which can be unappealing for some, but there are many other ways – sound, the body – anything to get you into the senses and into the present moment,” Good says. “Walking is an amazing practice for meditation. Especially for people who struggle with overthinking, those type A personalities. Walking is a really good way of not only exercising but developing a meditation practice and being mindful.”
The trick is to be conscious of your surroundings while you walk, not thinking about the past or the future.
“Take note of your feet making contact with the ground and your surrounds,” says Good. “When your mind wanders off, take note of that and bring it back, it’s a very simple technique and strengthens a part of your brain called the pre-frontal cortex.”
Good says there’s a misconception that meditation is about stopping your thoughts and getting zen. “When most people sit with their thoughts they realise it’s a zoo in there and want to jump straight back up. So meditation or attention training is about stepping back and giving you space from your thoughts, to focus on what’s going on.”
Progressive muscle relaxation
The practice of yoga nidra, or progressive muscle relaxation, can be done lying down (bonus, unlike meditation). It’s basically the art of focusing your thoughts on body parts and slowly moving up the body as you relax each part.
“So you start with your toes, then move onto the balls of your feet, then the arches, and then the heels and the ankles and so forth, until you have moved all the way up the body and along the face to the top of the head,” says Tim Brown, a meditation teacher in Paddington, Sydney. “It helps people who think they can’t meditate and is a good basic technique. When stress builds up it naturally throws the mind into the future and the past.
“The mind is looking for happiness and peace. The whole point of meditation and other techniques is so the mind can operate in the present … That’s why progressive muscle relaxation can be beneficial. It will bring us to our senses, essentially.”
This can be done with eyes open or eyes closed any time. “You can do it in a boardroom meeting, I have stay-at-home mums who get to school pick up 20 minutes early and sit in their car and meditate with sunnies on.”
Still can’t get started? Brown’s advice, aside from “just start”, is to try an app. Insight Timer, Headspace and Smiling Mind are a good way to step a toe into the world of mindfulness.