By all accounts I should be a "meditation person." I've been practicing yoga for nearly 15 years, have regular visits with Eastern medicine practitioners for herbs and acupuncture, and have even partaken in a reiki session or two. In addition to that, as someone who frequently reports on wellness, I've long heard about the value in meditation for reducing stress (among a host of other benefits). But, for whatever reason, it's always evaded me. Until, that is, I tried meditating every day for a week in an effort to see if there was something I was missing, and to lean into something that felt decidedly like a challenge.
Like many other non-meditators, I have a general concept of what the practice looks like — the images we see in the Instagram feeds of wellness influencers being an unfortunately prime example. They sit in a perfectly curated space surrounded only by objects that promise additional peacefulness. Meanwhile, when I pull out my yoga mat or cushion and try to sit quietly — eyes closed, legs crossed — for five minutes I can't seem to stop being distracted by a kitten darting across my lap or the thought of dirty dishes in my sink.
The first couple days of my experiment, I turned to the usual meditation tips and tools: Guided courses and apps as well as the tricks I'd often heard about like body scans, breathing techniques, and visualizations. The result was the same as it always had been — pretty unremarkable. I know that distracting thoughts and a sense of discomfort in stillness are totally normal — in fact, in my yoga practice, I'm able to move through these feelings with patience and grace. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that something else was holding be back from fully focusing on my meditation practice: Perfectionism.
As it turns out, this aim for perfection is what stops a lot of people from getting into the habit of meditation. "Often I find that when we are rigid with ourselves in creating the perfect practice, it creates resistance and judgement if it doesn't look exactly like we read in the books or see on Instagram," says Ava Johanna, meditation and breath work coach and podcast host. And on the third day of my week-long experiment, this felt especially clear.
I'd settled on a 4 p.m. daily practice — about the time I finish with one of my part-time writing jobs and just before I'd normally launch into errands, household tasks, and a few more hours of freelance projects. Often at this time I'd either push through the day without stopping, or take a nap, only to wake up feeling guilty at the loss of productive hours. Because this time seemed an especially difficult one in which to pause, I knew it was probably the most beneficial. But when I pulled out my meditation cushion, propped my folded legs up on a rolled blanket, and shut my eyes, instead of struggling through the 15 minutes of discomfort, I decided to make myself comfortable. I laid down on the floor, one pillow beneath my head and another supporting knees.
It doesn't sound like much, but this was a game-changer. "[There] is no bad or good [posture], your body may have so much fatigue that it needs to be horizontal versus sitting in a cross-legged pose," says Johanna. "While laying down can trigger sleep easier than sitting up, if you do fall asleep, that just means the body needed that time to recover so you're still triggering that relaxation response by doing so." For me, laying down allowed my brain to stop obsessing about posture and noticing pain or stiffness from being in a seated position all day. It was one less distracting thought.
The next factor to work on: My meditation soundtrack. I'd opted out of vocal guidance midway through my week, and the standard music/sounds I found online always seemed cheesy and distracting. As day five rolled around I reverted to an old faithful: ocean sounds. Let's just say some things are classic for a reason. Laying down, with one hand on my heart and one on my belly (as I'd learned to do in the yoga Savasana pose), I was offered an immediate visualization from the familiarity of the sounds. I paired this with even in-and-out breaths, allowing for an open-mouthed sigh as needed.
As I neared the end of my week, another factor proved totally transformative: Creating a little ritual. Just as I do before an at-home yoga session, I dimmed the lights and burned a bit of palo santo before settling in, just as a way to signal the next phase of the day. "Any ritual we can create that starts to trigger the mind into 'this is relaxation time' will support you in moving past the resistance of a meditation practice," says Johanna. Even just this simple act gave some structure to the practice and helped to momentarily transport me — even with the occasional cat whizzing by.
By day seven I wouldn't quite say that meditating had become a natural part of my day, but it certainly felt a lot more accessible. Getting past the notion of what I thought a practice should look or sound like allowed for me to finally receive the benefits I was looking for. And according to Johanna, this realization could be a breakthrough for others who have tried and failed to make meditation a habit. "Each practice looks different and that is usually because the stress you are releasing can be released in a multitude of ways," she explains. "Rather than labeling your practice as bad or good, my meditation teacher says it's either an un-gratifying experience or a gratifying experience."
With Johanna's advice in mind, as well as what I learned through my own experimentation, I'd recommend that anyone similarly struggling to find a meditative practice that actually sticks (and, most importantly, makes you feel good) consider challenging the idealizations you've formed — even subconsciously. Forget the optics and favor the things that will ultimately make you feel more relaxed, supported, and albeit briefly transported — in spite of all your usual distractions. And if that means an accidental nap, so be it.