Essentially, meditation requires you to do only one thing: focus on your breath. And you can do it in small doses.
I know what you’re thinking: this is some impractical hippie, new-age nonsense about centering yourself and finding inner peace. I assure you, it is not.
While I am a huge hippie wannabe, I’m also a very practical person. So when someone tells me that meditating every day can make you happier and less anxious, I am quick to retort: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
Then, I met Holiday Phillips, co-founder and meditation teacher at Gyal Flex. The ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body Ambassador says: “A lot of people believe that in order to start meditating, they need to totally change their daily routine, but actually you don’t really need to at all.”
But first, what exactly is meditation?
Meditation is the process of quieting your mind, or what Holiday calls “practising mindfulness, which essentially means being present in whatever it is you are doing.” The goal? Well, there isn’t one, per se. You really just have to be in the moment in order to reap the benefits. These include reduced anxiety, increased empathy and compassion, and greater creativity.
If you’re imagining having to sit on a yoga mat cross-legged, uttering “ommmm” repeatedly under your breath, you’re not alone. But Holiday says there’s really only one thing you need to do: focus on your breath.
How hard could that be? With Holiday’s help, I set out to transform myself into a zen goddess for a day. Along the way, I got a bloody knee, fell asleep and managed to offend a few strangers. Here are my top takeaways:
1. You can meditate on the move
According to Holiday, you don’t need to be immobile while meditating. In fact, she suggested I use my morning run as a “moving meditation” to ease me into it.
“As you run, concentrate on your breathing, really focussing on each step that you take to bring yourself into the present moment,” she advises. The idea was to occupy my mind with the physical movement.
Okay… that sounded boring, but I was happy that I didn’t have to set aside any extra time to do it. It also seemed highly doable. Or so I thought.
2. Meditation shows you just how ridiculous your brain is
Essentially, meditating anywhere requires you to tell yourself over and over: Breathe in, breathe out. This prevents your mind from wandering to thoughts about the past and future.
“There is no pain in the present,” explains the sagely Holiday. Because you only experience sadness, anxiety or stress when you anticipate events to come or ruminate over things that have happened.
I managed to focus on the present for about 10 seconds, before the serene inner voice telling me to breathe was abruptly interrupted by, What should I have for breakfast?, followed by an onslaught of work-related concerns in rapid succession: Will I have anything to write about this meditation later? What if I don’t benefit at all from it, or worse, what if I am unable to meditate at all? Agh, I’m already failing by thinking about this. Stop thinking about the story! Oh wait, this is perfect, I can write about how difficult it is to stop thinking about the story.
The minute I stopped thinking about the story, other thoughts crept in. I mentally crafted email responses I had to send out, re-considered my breakfast options, briefly contemplated Selena Gomez’s rekindled love for the Biebs, and circled back to my anxiety about work. Why did I have so many vapid, random thoughts and how had I not noticed them before? On the outside, I was just your regular jogger pounding the pavement. On the inside, I was screaming like a mad person: shut up, shut up, shut up!
I focused on the physical sensation of running, of my leg muscles working and of my heart pumping. Embrace the discomfort! My brain shrieked at me. It took a while but once breathing became my sole focus, I descended into a state of calm, my mind clear and at peace.
3. And it’s potentially hazardous if you’re a hopeless klutz
A word of advice to anyone who has zero motor coordination: do not attempt to move quickly while meditating.
The enlightened bliss I achieved on my run was cut short by the sharp ring of a bicycle bell which completely threw me off, quite literally, because the next thing I knew, I felt my body falling forward. I crashed spectacularly on to the ground as the bicycle whizzed by.
What just happened? I sat in shock for several seconds, trying to recollect thoughts where there had been none. In focussing on my breath, I’d forgotten about the rest of my limbs. Probably not the best idea for someone as clumsy as me.
Injury aside, I was energised yet relaxed, and ready to face the day.
4. Meditation in public is awkward at first
“Allow your mind to switch off from the constant mode of doing,” were Holiday’s instructions. So, no multitasking while on the go – no texting, videos, social media, book or newspaper.
Do you have any idea how naked it feels to be without anything to read or entertain yourself with during the peak hour commute? The imponderable horror awaited me as I boarded a crowded train with nothing to swipe or read. I stood stiffly in the middle of the carriage, struggling to mimic the posture of a pre-smartphone homosapien. Appearing normal proved much more challenging than I’d anticipated.
Where do I put my hands?!
I wrapped and unwrapped my fingers around my handbag strap and adjusted my hair at least seven times before a mysterious itch developed on my left boob. It demanded so much willpower not to scratch that I worried I wouldn’t have sufficient mental resources to meditate. All around me, people stared intently at their phone screens.
Good, at least no one will notice how weirdly I’m behaving… Oh goodness, that man just made eye contact. Does he think I’m checking him out?
The man furrowed his brows at me disapprovingly before looking away. My ears burned. Could he tell that I was low-key panicking? I forced myself to focus on the expansion of my lungs. The surrounding passengers, including Mr. Judgemental, faded away and in the time that it took to get to the next train station, my anxiety dissipated.
As the doors slid open and people streamed out, several of them elbowed and pushed their way past me. While I would ordinarily glare or tsk, I remained composed. Nothing can faze me now.
“‘SCUSE ME.” An impatient woman scowled at me as she brushed past, swiftly knocking my handbag off my shoulder. Not even angry aunties can get to me, I thought smugly. It was empowering.
5. Meditation stops you from overeating
Holiday also suggested eating without distraction. “Just enjoy your food.”
No duh, right? But try concentrating on your food when your colleagues are delightedly making jabs at Blake Shelton, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (meditate on that, ladies and gents). It isn’t too easy. Each time I took a bite of my food, I had to extricate myself from conversation to devote all my attention to the spoonful I placed in my mouth. I only returned when I had swallowed my food.
A series of strange things happen when you think really hard about eating. The aromas flood your nostrils. The textures and different dimensions of taste become so much more pronounced. (So does the annoying sound of your chewing of course.)
What’s incredible is that each bite is so much more satisfying.
At the end of the meal, my colleagues bemoaned their bloated bellies and the impending food coma that was soon to hit. On the other hand, I was satiated but not stuffed.
When you eat mindfully, take smaller bites and chew more slowly, you actually end up eating less. I wondered why a Meditation Diet fad hasn’t cottoned on yet.
6. The secret to meditation is a sick beat
Holiday listens to music while she meditates. Photo: Instagram/holidayphillips
The world around you can get too distracting. Holiday encourages plugging in to get in the zone. A great meditation playlist can include many genres from jazz to R&B music, as long as it’s got a steady rhythm and no vocals. This will help you block out ambient noise, which is a source of sensory input that can be very distracting.
I tried this out while in the back of a taxi. Adele was urging me to roll in the deep over the radio – not particularly conducive for meditating, so I stuck my earbuds in and put on some tropical house. I shut my eyes and synchronised my breathing with the beat. In, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4.
Music makes it tons easier to focus on your breath, so much easier that I’d recommend it above all the other methods I attempted. Just make sure you’ve curated songs that are roughly the same tempo so your breathing rate can be held consistent. Don’t pick songs that are too slow either because they might put you to sleep. (Spotify shuffled to an atmospheric track by Hammock and dozed off almost instantly.)
At the end of the day, I would say meditating in the little pockets of time you have throughout the work day is highly achievable and effective. I didn’t feel stressed out even though the day was particularly hectic (let’s just say it involved rushing from a great tasting at a Lebanese restaurant to a cow farm, among other things). And I slept really soundly that night too, having passed out the minute my head hit the pillow. Meditation is not intimidating at all if you do it in small doses and I think it would benefit anyone who’s stressed out at work.
A version of this article first appeared on www.herworld.com.