[Featured in Yoga Journal, October 2016]
Whether you aspire to meditate, you’ve started (and stopped) too many times to count, or you’re in a good groove and want to stay there, read on. This five-day practice will help you discover and embrace the power of sitting every day.
All too often, students tell me they’ve started a meditation practice but can’t seem to stick to it. They don’t have time. They get uncomfortable when they’re sitting. Their monkey minds get the better of them. While these are all legitimate diversions, they’re not reason enough to give up entirely. That’s because your meditation practice can transform your life, doing everything from boosting your mood to infusing all of your interactions—whether with loved ones, strangers, or even the most difficult people in your life—with love and a sense of groundedness. When we take time to be soft with our mind, our mind will be more easeful with us.
The key, I believe, is making your meditation a simple, personal practice that feels good for you—which may not mean sitting cross-legged for 20 minutes every morning. Here, I’ve designed a five-day meditation practice to help you experiment and find greater ease and more fun. Each day, there’s a short yoga sequence focused on a different area of the body to help you move and stretch, giving direction to your energy for the meditation and allowing you to feel quieter and more comfortable as you sit. You’ll also experience different meditation postures and practices—my hope is that you find the ones that feel right for you.
May these practices inspire you to create your own true-to-you, rejuvenating daily routine, and may you discover a feeling of being utterly at home in your meditations.
Day 1: Find Your Foundation in Your Feet
Today, you’ll get acquainted with your feet, stretch and strengthen your legs, and treat your entire body to a rejuvenating rest before you sit. Consider this a reorientation to your foundation.
Massage Your Feet
Caring for our feet and legs is a good way to ground, center, and remember ourselves. Sitting on your mat, fold your right leg so that you can easily use your left thumb to massage the foot, including the arch, each toe, and the spaces between the toes. Keep your eyes soft as you observe the circulation in your foot and the quiet in your mind; massage your foot for 5 breaths, and then switch to the other side.
Downward-Facing Dog Pose
Adho Mukha Svanasana
This pose opens the entire back of the body and helps recirculate energy throughout the system. From Tabletop (on your hands and knees), press down into your index-finger knuckles and lift your knees, reaching your sitting bones high and wide and keeping your knees slightly bent to stay stable and bouncy. Relax your face and breathe as you ground through your hands and stretch your seat high. Externally rotate your arms and turn your armpits toward your heart to maintain buoyancy in your arms. Take 3 to 5 long, deep breaths.
Standing Forward Bend
Walk your feet to your hands and rest your belly on your thighs. Work toward placing your armpits on your knees and relax your head down. Holding the backs of your ankles in your palms, reach your sitting bones high and wide, balancing your weight over the balls of your feet. Take 3 to 5 long, deep breaths.
Find a clear space at the wall or against a chair or sofa. Sit down near it, shimmy your seat close, and rest your legs up the wall or on the chair or sofa. Notice how you shift into a state of deep relaxation. Set your timer for 3 to 5 minutes, and smile as you breathe normally. To come out, swivel one hip toward the wall and gently lower your legs.
Slowly roll up to sitting, and with your back against the wall or your furniture, close your eyes and invite in the silence. Feel how the back support holds you steady as you become more comfortable sitting for meditation. Set your timer for 5, 10, or 20 minutes. Let your breath rise and fall effortlessly as you settle in, allowing thoughts to arise—and the moments of silence to seep in, calming your body. Once your timer chimes, keep your eyes closed and feel free to move and stretch as you take several slow, deep breaths. Now sit quietly again, keeping your eyes closed for another minute or two. When you’re ready, open your eyes and let the world back in.
Day 2: Strengthen Core Connection
Today, we’ll work on strengthening your core with a few standing postures, which will help you feel the relationship between your core and steadiness— both physically and energetically. Warm up by holding Down Dog for a few breaths to stretch your limbs and muscles. Then, as you move through the asanas, place your attention on your belly as you breathe, taking your navel to your spine with each exhalation to help lengthen and open the front of your body.
Warrior Pose III
From Down Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, come onto fingertips, and walk your hands forward to the upper corners of your mat. Lift your front body from pelvic floor to throat, send your gaze forward, and lift your back leg off the mat, foot active, toes pointing toward the back wall. Breathing deeply, lift your left arm up alongside your body (for more of a challenge, lift it in front of you). Optional: For the full balance pose, lift your right arm, too—either alongside or in front of you. Lengthen your spine and smile for 3 breaths, then step back to Down Dog and repeat the pose on your second side when ready. Finish back in Down Dog.
Extended Triangle Pose, with arm variations
From Down Dog, step your left foot forward between your hands, straighten your leg, and drop your back (right) heel to the floor with your toes angled toward the right side of your mat. Place your left hand on your left shin and your right hand flat to your belly, elbow pointing up. Breathe into your right hand and exhale your navel back to your spine to twist open; gaze toward the sky. Continue breathing here, extending your top arm skyward, palm facing forward. Option: Lengthen your bottom arm parallel to the floor, palm up, keeping your core strong and back foot steady. Hold for 3 breaths, and then step back to Down Dog and switch sides. Finish back in Down Dog.
Flying Side Angle pose, Katonah-style
From Down Dog, step your left foot forward, bend the knee to 90 degrees, place the back heel down (working toward a 45-degree angle), and then stack your left armpit on your left knee. Reach your left fingertips forward and out beside your mat. Keeping your armpit and knee in contact, extend your right arm to the sky, palm forward, exhaling your belly toward your spine to stabilize your core. Option: Lift your left fingertips off the floor and “fly.” After 5 breaths, come back to Down Dog, switch to the second side for 5 breaths, and then return to Down Dog.
Plank Pose to Down Dog
From Down Dog, inhale forward to Plank, then exhale navel to spine, seat high, back into Down Dog, with knees slightly bent. Get bouncier and more buoyant in Down Dog by widening your sitting bones and sending them high. Repeat this sequence (inhale to Plank, exhale to Dog) at least 5 times, moving primarily from your hips to come forward and back. Find your own rhythm, and use your exhalations to support each movement. Come down onto your knees when ready.
Come to a comfortable cross-legged seat. Bring your arms up to 60 degrees and fold your fingers into your palms, gently tugging on the mounds at the base of each finger; point your thumbs up and angle them slightly toward one another. Sit for 3 or 10 minutes, feeling a sense of joy and fulness. If your arms fatigue, bring them to your lap.
Day 3: Create Space and Find Clarity
Today, you’ll spend time opening your hips, hamstrings, front body, and side body. This will free up space for energy to flow, helping your organs function optimally for greater mental clarity and endurance.
Sit on your mat and set your timer for 2 to 3 minutes. Extend your left leg, bend your right knee, and open the bent leg wide. Place your right foot on your left inner groin. Turn your upper body toward your extended left foot and place your hands on either side of your leg. With your inner groins grounded, inhale to lengthen your sides and central channel from your pelvis upward, and then exhale to fold over your extended leg. Breathe deeply here until your timer chimes, then reset your timer and switch sides.
Intense Side Stretch
From Janu Sirsasana, find your way to Tabletop, and then take a few breaths in Down Dog. Step your right foot forward and place your palms or your fingertips on either side of your front foot, 3 to 12 inches in front of it; straighten your front leg. Reach both sitting bones high and wide as you lengthen your right hip back and invite your left hip forward. Take 5 deep breaths on this side, step back to Down Dog, and then change sides for another 5 breaths. To finish, return to Down Dog and stretch long on the mat.
Extended Side Angle Pose, Katonah-style
From Down Dog, step your left foot forward and bend your leg at a 90-degree angle. Turn your back (right) heel onto the floor, working toward a 45-degree angle, and place your left hand inside your left foot. Alternatively, flip your left wrist out to the left and then all the way back, fingers pointing toward your back foot. Keeping your right hip moving forward, spin your left belly upward; send your right arm up, palm facing forward; lengthen your neck to gaze skyward. Breathe here for 3 to 5 breaths, return your top hand to the floor, find your way back to Down Dog, and repeat on the second side.
From Down Dog, bring your right knee forward, just outside your right hand; bring your back leg to the floor. Point your back foot’s toes and root down through the baby toe; walk your hands forward and let the gaze follow. Invite your right seat back and your left hip forward, breathing deeply. For a more active posture, keep your elbows off the floor and gaze forward; for a more restful posture, lay your elbows and head on the floor. Take 5 big breaths, and then change sides.
Take a comfortable seat on a chair or sofa, with your back supported and your head free. Set your timer for 5, 10, or 20 minutes, close your eyes, and settle into a natural breathing rhythm. When your timer chimes, keep your eyes closed for a minute as you re-acclimate and return to your day.
Day 4: Open Your Heart
Today, we’ll practice moving your attention into your chest and heart space, where you receive and give love. By opening your wrists, collarbones, and upper lungs, you’re flushing toxins out of the joints and allowing your body to come into balance. Take your time to grow accustomed to these movements and stay with them, as this practice is a series of strong, safe releases for your emotional body. Before you begin, roll a blanket tightly into a little burrito and set it within easy reach of your practice space. Before you begin, roll a blanket tightly into a little burrito and set it within easy reach of your practice space.
Cat-Cow Pose, with flipped wrists
Come to Tabletop and turn your palms laterally, so your fingertips point to the sides of your mat. Now, keeping your palms rooted in place, spin your fingers so they face your knees, opening your wrist joints, collarbones, and upper lungs. Though this position can feel uncomfortable at first, it’s important to practice if you spend a lot of time typing or using your hands; it will also come to feel more natural with time. Inhale to round your spine; exhale to arch, expand, and extend. Do at least 11 Cat-Cows, or more if you wish.
Opening the shoulders can be challenging at first, but eventually becomes magical. This sequence has helped me open my shoulders and my breathing to prepare for meditation.
a. Hand behind: inhale your left arm high next to you, tracking your hand with your eyes. Follow it as you round your hand back behind you, tucking it between your shoulder blades, palm facing out and as flat as possible. Breathe deeply here for 3 to 5 breaths.
b. Elbow hold: inhaling your right arm up, follow it with your eyes to circle it back behind you and grab your left elbow. You can use your right hand to help lift the left hand between your shoulder blades. Breathe deeply for 3 to 5 breaths.
c. Hand clasp: Now, inhale your right arm up and out behind you, and bring that hand high to bend the elbow behind your head for the clasp with your left hand. Breathe for 3 to 5 breaths.
d. Rest: Following each hand with your eyes, inhale your right arm up and exhale it down onto your left thigh; inhale your left arm out then up, and then exhale it down onto your right thigh. Take 3 breaths there. (Pose not pictured.)
Repeat this shoulder-stretch sequence on the other side.
This is an efficient way to broaden your collarbones, flush your wrist joints, and release your upper lungs for deeper breathing during meditation. After moving through the shoulder-stretch sequence 1, 2, or 3 times on each side, find a comfortable seat and then internally rotate your upper arm bones to press your fists or palms together at the back of your heart. Breathe deeply here for 3 to 5 breaths.
Moving Bridge Pose
Dwi Pada Pitham
Come to lying on your back, knees bent, arms at your sides, palms facing up. Inhale your arms straight up toward the ceiling and then to the floor behind you as you lift your hips; exhale and lower arms and hips back down to their starting position. Take your time to find a rhythm, repeating at least 11 times. End in a fetal position, knees to chest.
Set your timer for your desired duration and place your rolled-up blanket across the top third of your mat; lie face-up on the roll so that it supports the bottom edge of your shoulder blades. Let your heart expand open and your arms come up and out to the sides, resting on the floor. This might be the perfect meditation for you if you’ve not slept well, or if it’s later in the day and a rest is called for.
Day 5: Practice for Insight
Today, we’ll build on the foundational practices we’ve done thus far to enjoy robust breathing, a free mind, and a bird’s-eye view with a light heart. By turning upside down to open the throat and neck, we’re prepping for a full integration of the meditation practice.
Supported Headstand, prep
From Down Dog, lower your elbows to the floor and interlace your hands. Tuck in your bottom pinky and place the crown of your head on the floor, forearms hugging your head. Lift your knees, root your forearms, and relax your shoulders as you walk your feet closer to your elbows. Magnetize your shoulder blades toward one another and lengthen the line from your pelvis to your crown. Breathe deeply for 3 to 5 breaths. Come into full Headstand if you like. Lower into Child’s Pose and rest for a few breaths.
Find a comfortable seat and place your right hand on the left side of your head, extending your left fingertips onto the floor next to you. Take 3 breaths here, and then switch sides.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Move your left hand to your left thigh, with thumb and index fingers touching. Bring your right hand up near your face, palm facing you. You’ll use the thumb of your right hand to gently close your right nostril, and the index or ring finger of your right hand to close your left nostril. To start, close your right nostril and gently and fully inhale through the left nostril; then close your left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through your right nostril, and then close your right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Repeat for 3 to 5 minutes. This practice balances the right and left hemispheres of your brain, with the potential to even out mood swings and ease addictive tendencies, headaches, and anxiety. It also helps you stay receptive to your highest self and sit in your simplest form of awareness.
Find a comfortable seat. (If you had a favorite meditation position from the previous 4 days, opt for that.) Now, before you meditate, whisper the Adi Mantra: Ong Namo Gurudev Namo. This sacred Kundalini mantra calls upon the highest source of all teachings—it’s our time to invoke and honour the teachers who’ve brought us wisdom, as well as the wisdom that’s come to us through our family, soulmates, friends, and work. Stay here for 5, 10, or 20 minutes.