Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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Just breathe: Experts make meditation simple

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The afternoon that Bay Area counties extended their stay-at-home orders through the end of May, my mind started racing with lockdown anxiety. Then came the pounding heart and shortness of breath.

Was I dealing with classic symptoms of a panic attack? Maybe, but I knew I might have a way to deal with it.

The week before, I had taken a beginner’s meditation class, taught via Zoom by Dr. Rammohan Rao, a Concord-based Ayurveda practitioner, yoga teacher and author of the new book, “Good Living Practices.”

The main thing Rao emphasizes in his class and his book is simple: “Breathe.”

Inhale, then exhale, then inhale again, Rao said, while “bringing attention” to the length of the inhalation — counting one, two, three, four — and then to the length of the exhalation — one, two, three, four.

Before Rao’s class, meditation intimidated me. Like a lot of people, I thought it only worked for super-disciplined people who could sit in a cross-legged lotus position and push away negative thoughts long enough to achieve some inner bliss. I figured my knees would get achy or I wouldn’t be able to stop the mental to-do lists.

But after talking to Rao and to Noliwe Alexander, a teacher at the famed Spirit Rock meditation center in Marin County, I was encouraged to realize that meditation doesn’t need to be that complicated. It also doesn’t have to involve an extended period of time to gain the benefits, which can include reduced stress, improved concentration and sleep, and the potential to fight addiction, control pain or improve memory.

Alexander, who also teaches at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, said people should stop worrying about being “a good meditator” and doing it “the right way.” Meditation, she said, actually encourages people to suspend judgment and stop feeling like they have to “strive” for something.

Above all, there are many different ways to meditate, she and Rao both advised. The practice basically helps people to become “mindful” — to focus on what’s happening right in the moment. “Simply put, when your emotional state is calm, free from drama and still, you are meditating,” Rao said.

Rao and Alexander offer these simple guidelines to starting a practice

Don’t worry about the lotus

If you’re not comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor, you can meditate in a comfortable chair that supports your weight, Alexander said. Or you can lie down. Basically, you want to be comfortable, she said. You also can keep your eyes open, she said, noting that some people don’t feel comfortable with their eyes closed.

For those who worry they can’t sit still, you don’t have to, she and Rao emphasized. You can meditate while moving. Yoga notably incorporates the meditative focus on the breath as you settle into a pose.

“Walking meditation” is another popular option, and the one I employed to alleviate my lockdown anxiety. People can also meditate while doing other sports or by drawing, writing or playing music, Rao said.

“The basic premise remains the same: letting go of the emotions, stilling the mind, relaxing the body, drawing focus inward and enjoying sustained concentration,” Rao said.

Alexander said you can even get into this state while doing something as mundane as washing the dishes. “You can be mindful of the water running over your hands,” she said.

It’s all about the breath

Meditation practices begin and always return to a focus on the rhythm of your breath, as a way to bring people “into the moment.”

In Rao’s class, he also had us “scan our bodies” after several minutes of steady and ever deepening breaths. He had us visualize going from head to toe, noticing any sensations, discomfort or tension in muscles. Several times, he also encouraged us to “let go of our emotions” or visualize going for a walk and seeing something beautiful. As always, he had us bring our attention back to our breath.

One of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s not working if you can’t empty your mind, Rao said. In fact, thoughts will come, but the key is to accept their presence and to not judge yourself, especially for any negative thoughts.

It definitely doesn’t help to resist them, because “resistance will only create more resistance,” Rao added. One approach is to be “a witness to them,” and to think, “oh, there’s a thought,” then let it go.

“Simply let the invasive thoughts be as you continue with the meditation,” Rao said. “If your mind wanders, be aware of what’s happening and simply return to your point of focus — the breath.”

Alexander said a practice could consist of three “cleansing breaths,” while Rao suggested that novices start off doing two minutes, then move to four minutes or for as long as they can enjoy a relaxed mental state.

“If too many dramas play in your mind, simply acknowledge them and try to let go of all the internal chatter,” he said. “Remember that everything is a part of meditation: the noise, thoughts, emotions and mental resistance. Understanding this will allow you to relax, return to your breath and enter an even deeper state of stillness.”

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