UGH! WHAT is this? I feel something—something crumbly, but soft and rubbery—underneath my fingertips. I assume it’s my yoga mat falling apart, leaving behind morsels of rubber. I force myself not to look. If I open my eyes, my yoga instructor might know that I’m totally not doing what I’m supposed to be doing—and that’s absolutely nothing.
I’m on my back, feet together and arms relaxed to the side, like a corpse. It’s a pose called the Shavasana, ideally meant to be the most relaxing part of my Sunday-morning, hour-and-20-minutes-long yoga class. I’ve already spent the last hour or so flowing between rigorous, core-strengthening poses, but this is the part that gets me.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from yoga, it’s this: I lack flexibility in my hamstrings, and I’m really bad at this whole Shavasana thing. Even right now, in this quiet space, my thoughts seem to be tumble-drying on high in my brain. How much longer am I going to be in this? I really need a new yoga mat. I’ll order one online tonight—in a different color, most likely. No, I need to see and touch what I’m buying. But online is easier. No, store. Probably online. Without even consulting my brain, my eyes fling open and bore into the wooden ceiling panels.
Being still has never come easily to me. I’ve tried meditating, but I’ve found my brain to be an endlessly spastic little thing. Don’t get me wrong—that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate meditation. I look at people who perform all the required mental gymnastics the same way I’d look at someone doing, well, the regular sort of gymnastics: That looks like a lot of work, so … thanks, but no thanks.
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of mindfulness meditation (thanks in large part to Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who sparked interest in the field when he created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in the late ’70s). Even though the practice can be traced back to a few-thousand-years-old Buddhist and Hindu traditions, mindfulness-centered meditation has lately become somewhat of a modish concept in the self-improvement sphere—and for good reason. For those grappling with stress and anxiety, studies show, meditation can offer some respite.
But I’ve always wondered: What is meditation supposed to feel like? How do you know if you’re meditating? Where do you start? To demystify the practice, I decided to connect with Holly Krepps—co-founder of Yoga Circle Shala, who’s been practicing meditation for over 27 years now—and ask her: How do I get my brain to just stop?
“Not to be too simple here, but I don’t remember ever starting [my brain],” she says over the phone. “If I had started it, I’d know how to stop it.” At that moment, my whole idea of meditation is turned on its head. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that the whole point of meditation is to train your mind to stop thinking. “We were created with the mind, and the mind’s nature is to be busy,” she continues. “Instead of going against its nature, we work with its nature. We invite the mind to be grounded.”
I’m not the first to be surprised by this. It’s a common misconception about meditation, Holly is quick to assure me. People often think that to meditate properly, they have to shut out everything and stuff the mind into a straitjacket. That, Holly says, doesn’t quite fit with life itself. Life is chock-full of constant distractions and noises. “If we think we have to have everything perfectly quiet, we are already setting ourselves up, usually, for some failure.”
A few days later, I decide to give meditation the old college try. It’s a little after 2 p.m., and the sun is elbowing its way into my apartment, drenching my living room in light. I push open the sliding door to my patio, and the outside noises immediately pour in. It’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
The next part is pretty straightforward: Hunker down, get comfortable, prioritize a neutral spine. There are many ways to sit—half lotus, full lotus, you name it—during meditation, but Holly’s advice for beginners is to perch on a cushion, then try keeping your thighs and knees below your hips. The goal is to keep the pelvis balanced.
I lower myself to my knees and elevate my hips with the help of two cushions. Neutral spine? Got it, Holly. I rest my hands on top of one another, palms facing the ceiling as if I were scooping water with my hands. As for my head, I ensure that it’s not jutting forward and adding additional weight to my spine, as per Holly’s instruction. OK, what else? Right. My eyes. “When the eyes move, the mind does, too,” I remember Holly saying. So I direct my gaze in a single point—a half-chewed-up Himalayan stick that, a few seconds into my meditation session, my dog prances toward, picks up and moves elsewhere. Erm. Need. Another. Focal. Point. My eyes land on a piece of chipped bark that must’ve fallen out of my fiddle-leaf fig’s pot. Perfect.
“Really, what you do, is take your senses in your mind out of their ordinary activity that’s outside of our awareness—when they’re doing what they’re designed to do—and you bring them into self-awareness,” Holly told me. “So I’m seeing with the awareness of seeing. I hear with the awareness of hearing, anchored by the breath, of it going in and out.”
My mind wanders often. At one point, after hearing my neighbor complain about the “orange stuff inside of the drywall” to someone on the phone, I scrunch up my nose and think: Ugh, that sounds bad. But every time my attention saunters off, I reel it back in to the here and now. I listen to the sound of my neighbor’s wind chime, to the music of aluminum against aluminum. I can hear my dog still chomping away, and it almost reminds me of firecrackers. I notice the birds contesting outside my third-floor apartment. Then there’s a pause, a little emptiness that’s followed by a breeze that rattles my window blinds. There’s so much emanating from every angle, and there’s a certain geometry to noise that I’ve never quite noticed before.
During our conversation, when I asked Holly what meditation is supposed to feel like, she refused to tell me. “Meditation is not a tangible object,” she said. “It’s an experience of coming to ourselves and taking time to inhabit ourselves, to be fully embodied in that moment. It could feel a lot of different ways.”
And it does. A few days later, as my Sunday-morning yoga class segues into a meditation period, my instructor tells us to shift into the lotus position and close our eyes. I fold my legs, bringing my ankles to the crease of my hips. I listen with alert interest. It doesn’t come to me as easily as it did last time. My jaw keeps clenching, and I have to consciously make the decision to relax it. My thoughts splinter into a dozen more, but I’ve learned that that’s OK. I try to be where I am. “Listen to your breath as it goes in and then out; then feel your presence in this moment,” my instructor says in a gentle but insistent cadence. For the first time, a part of me—a small part that’s a little exhausted and breathing rapidly from all the headstand prep work I just did—is really, really enjoying this moment.
Can’t get the hang of meditation? Don’t fret. Here are a few tips to help you get your Om on.
As told to Mariam Makatsaria
Mind your hands and arms.
“I think for beginners, I always tell people, What’s most important is that you’re comfortable. If that’s, you know, your hands together, palms up, resting on top of each other at the base of the spine in the front, resting in your lap, that’s fine. If you want to place your hands on your thighs or your knees, that’s fine. The most important thing, in the beginning, is that you set your body in a way that it’s going to be comfortable, so that your body is not a distraction for the mind.”
Make sure you’re in a comfortable environment.
“For beginners, or for anybody, really, we want to come to a place where we feel really comfortable and relaxed and safe. I think people can sit in whatever environment works for them, whether they’re in their bedroom, or they have a study or just [want to be] outside.”
Know it’s OK to get distracted.
“People say, Oh my gosh, I keep getting distracted a thousand times. We may get lost for a second, and we may get lost for a minute. It’s really not as important as being aware that, Oh, my mind just got distracted. [Instead], let me pull my intention back. I’m here now. I can relax deeply into my posture. I’m sitting well, I’m comfortable, and I’m back and present with my breath and with the awareness that I’m here.”
If you want to move, move.
“I think people place all these unnecessary binds on themselves. Like, I’m going to come to sitting, and then I can’t move. That creates an enormous amount of tension. It’s also putting the mind in a stressful place. You start to think, Oh I’ve got this itch, and my leg’s asleep. If you must itch, well, then itch. What I tell people is to bring that movement into the meditation. There’s nothing worse than just sitting there with your legs completely asleep, aching with the sensation of pins and needles.”
Focus your eyes in one place.
“Even when your eyes are closed, they are moving behind the eyelids. Look directly on the back of your eyelids with the awareness of seeing. Do you feel the difference? The mind becomes still. The eyes are key to this. The more the eyes move, the more the mind moves.”
Don’t worry about time.
“I tell people to start with what’s manageable and doable for them. If two minutes is what you’ve got, then it’ll slowly begin to extend. Let’s not impose something on ourselves that can already make meditation a daunting thing. What’s perfect is that we sat. How many times should you sit? However many you want. If you can commit to two times, 10 minutes a week, that’s amazing. It’ll change. I just tell people, Do something that sets a discipline and is also something you can look forward to.’”