It’s been nearly 2 weeks since we began our Meditation Challenge (tomorrow is the last day!). We hope you’ve been following along and enjoying this challenge. We’ve highlighted some tips an effort to help you build a practice that feels attainable and rewarding. For me personally, using essential oils in my practice has made getting into the habit of meditating daily much easier.
Hope Gillerman, our Meditation Challenge sponsor, had some wonderful advice on incorporating essential oils into meditation earlier this week. I’d like to expand on that here and suggest that many of you may already have some common essential oils in your home that you can use for meditation. Essential oils have countless applications and last forever, so they are a great investment. I purchased my first bottles years ago to make my own cleaning supplies, and now I regularly blend perfumes, aromatherapy treatments, and bath soaks. I grew familiar with their meditative properties well before I ever considered actually meditating.
Lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary are three common essential oils that can be used for meditation. I chose them for this post because you may already have them on hand, or you can easily find them at your local natural health foods market. They aren’t traditionally thought of for meditation in the same way that frankincense or sandalwood is, but they work! Here are some reasons why…
Lavender essential oil is renowned for bringing calm and composure to stressed minds. The cooling and relaxing qualities of lavender benefit those who struggle with general unrest and irritability. It calms and stabilizes, and helps maintain overall mental-emotional equilibrium. If you feel agitated going into meditation, reach for the lavender essential oil. If you are dealing with strong emotions that threaten to pull you out of the moment during meditation, reach for lavender. If you’re looking for one big chill pill, yep — reach for lavender.
Eucalyptus essential oil works wonders for the respiratory system. With an unparalleled ability to decongest and clear the lungs, eucalyptus is both stimulating and soothing. It improves breathing and opens the chest in a way that makes your lungs feel as if they are twice as large. Want to breathe deeply or alleviate tightness of the chest? Eucalyptus oil is your new best friend. Eucalyptus oil also has an opening effect on the mind and spirit. It can help promote within oneself a wider perspective on life. Eucalyptus oil is penetrating and cleansing, and it helps to dispel any stagnant feelings that keep you bound up and limited.
Rosemary essential oil is energizing and increases the flow of the blood, especially to the brain, so you wouldn’t normally think of it for meditation. However, its ability to enhance concentration and focus plus alleviate mental fatigue go hand-in-hand with meditation. Rosemary is a strong, fortifying aromatic. It warms the spirit and helps boost the confidence of those who lack faith in their own potential. Feeling a lack of confidence in your meditation practice? Try adding rosemary essential oil to the mix. It will promote a presence of mind and a sense of identity that greatly aids meditation.
How to use essential oils for meditation…
Direct palm inhalation is the easiest way to incorporate essential oils into meditation, but diffusers are wonderful, too. At the beginning of your meditation practice, add one drop of essential oil to the palm of your hand. Rub your palms together and cup them over your nose. Breathe in and out slowly and intentionally for 10 breathes. As you breathe, count to five with each inhale and exhale or use your mantra to guide your breath. You can return your hands to your nose at any point during meditation, but if you sit with your palms facing up you will likely continue to smell the essential oils throughout your practice. Cautionary note: don’t use more than a drop or two, and avoid citrus oils or other essential oils that are irritating to the skin undiluted.
Do you use essential oils or perhaps incense during meditation? What are your favs?
We asked Hope Gillerman, founder of H. Gillerman Organics, to partner with us for the NMDL Meditation Challenge because of her powerful work with essential oils. Funny story — as we gathered around her table at A Night For Green Beauty last August, Hope let us smell a new blend she’d been working on. When Alexandra smelled it she said, “Whoa — that blend smells like meditation.” Then Hope showed her the label on the bottle… it was literally called MEDITATION. Naturally, we thought of H. Gillerman Organics when we started brainstorming this meditation challenge.
Hope’s experience as a bodyworker has focused on setting up new habits and bringing mindfulness and awareness to the body. We asked her to translate her technique into tips that will help build a seated meditation practice that is comfortable and enhances the experience. Here’s what she has to offer:
I have always had a mindfulness practice as an Alexander Technique teacher, which includes a technique for a 15 minute healing back rest exercise that is done with an awareness meditation. Practicing Ashtanga Yoga taught me yoga is a meditation on the breathe. Now that I have a slower practice I still focus on breathe, but I have never created the habit of a seated meditation practice. I will be exploring this along with NMDL readers.
As a holistic healer, I draw upon my unending passion for aromatic healing and my 30 years experience of working with people in pain. I use a timeless mind/body method called The Alexander Technique—the best, proven, long-term relief for back pain. The AT is also known in the music/dance/theater community as a way to enhance performance by setting up better breathing, muscular, and postural habits. Since setting up a meditation practice is about creating new habits and sitting with a strong back, I thought I would share some insights.
3 Steps to Better Sitting Habits for Better Breathing and Better Meditation
- To begin – Sit tall on a meditation cushion and find your sit-bones – the two bones you sit on when you are sitting on a hard surface. Clasp your hands behind your back so your shoulders roll open and chest lifts. Keep hands behind your back so you roll back off your sit bones and then back up to perching right on the top of the them. Repeating this 6-10 times gets your core muscle going and opens my chest so I can sit longer.
- To sit comfortably — first, you must relax and stretch the back of the neck so the head doesn’t sit heavily on your spine. Here’s how: Put your cushion or seat against a wall or sit fully back in your chair. Lean forward and scoot your sitting bones all the way back in the chair seat. Lean your back onto the chair back or wall and imagine you can lift the wall up by lifting your back up. Then drop your chin, your nose and your forehead, letting go the back of your neck. Stretch the neck by pulling your chin back to your collarbone and dropping your shoulders. Keeping your collarbone where it is, lift your forehead until you are looking forward and down about three feet in front of you on the floor.
- Your back is where your support is. Your back is where your lungs are. Your back is a wall of support for you when you are sitting in meditation. Imagine, as you sit that the whole back of your torso is lengthening and widening.
On Changing Habits of the Mind…
Modern neuroscience has shown that to set up a new health habits you need to have…
- A true desire or need to create new habits and a cue that gets you going – like sitting daily for 5 minutes after your cup of coffee.
- A true enjoyment of the feeling of doing the new activity. Getting comfortable helps make this happen.
- A reward when you are done – like breakfast!
Anything that increases awareness gives you the opportunity to change. Meditation is a way to observe the mind, thus paving the way for more ways to change habits or set up new ones. If meditation is about focusing the mind and creating new neuropathways in the thinking, essential oils are a great way of aiding that. They help redirect the brain in ways it isn’t used to. Essential oils help get your brain on a different track. It’s a great sensory companion to meditation.
Inhale or anoint or diffuse an essential oil blend that you only use for meditation — something you love so much that you look forward to smelling it. Something that is completely unique and exactly what you love. I suggest making your own blend or buying your favorite oil. Some traditional mediation oils include: Sandalwood, Frankincense, Myrrh, Palo Santo and Rosewood. Use whatever helps you feel transported to a more peaceful, uplifted place. Try inhaling from palms: put a drop on center of palm, rub palms together, cup hands over your face and do 5-10 slow inhalations. While slowly inhaling, try and relax your belly to give room for your breathing muscles to move freely.
Don’t you love getting such concrete advice? We are super excited about our H. Gillerman Organics Meditation Challenge giveaway, and we also have a sweet offer for everyone this Friday. Stay tuned for more meditation discussion!
There are dozens of things we could be doing every single day to increase our health and wellness. It’s easy to get bogged down and feel like you’re drowning in wellness advice. When you total up all of the add-ons — like oil pulling, dry brushing, green smoothie making, or meditation, for example — healthful efforts can become just another thing to stress over or feel badly about. If anything, we are busy these days, aren’t we? Time constraints are normally my biggest challenge to adopting new healthy habits. There is so much I want and need to do in a day. But just as you don’t want to overextend yourself socially or professionally, you don’t want to overextend your personal maintenance time, either. Burn out — it’s real.
Rather than stretching myself to the limit by cramming in everything I could do for my health in a day, I do a little bit here and a little bit there, rotating things in and out. I liken it to eating a variety of fresh foods from day to day, which results in a well balanced diet overall. I changed my mindset from one that says, “I’m not as healthy as I could be because I don’t do X every day,” to, “I’m getting this a couple of times a week, and that’s awesome.” Here’s what I’ve learned from this approach — the habits that are the most rewarding stick and become something I choose to work into my routine daily.
Knowing that I operate better on a more fluid routine, I was a little worried about this two-week commitment to meditate everyday for our Meditation Challenge. Meditation hasn’t been in my repertoire of healthful habits, but I’ve approached this challenge as an opportunity to test the waters. I decided that if the hype is real, and meditation adds value to my life, then it’s going into the rotation. A week into the challenge, I love meditation. Have I meditated every day during this challenge? Honestly, no. I skipped Friday. I know! Should I even admit that? But here’s the thing — even though I skipped it on Friday when I had free time, I wished I hadn’t as the day wore on. I appreciated firsthand what meditation can bring to my day, and I missed it. So whether time constraints, fear of doing it wrong, or just plain old disinterest are keeping you from trying meditation, here’s a tip to get you going…
Find your own personal reason to meditate. Don’t settle for, “The Internet told me it’s good for me.”
Really take a moment to evaluate what you want out of meditation, and you may feel more compelled to go for it. Your reasons for meditating will likely evolve, but if you establish a purpose upfront, you may be more motivated to do it. It can be as simple as “I’m curious and just want to explore this modality.” What initially excited me about meditation was the opportunity to observe my own mind in an intentional way. What I’m learning is that meditation is multifaceted. At a basic level, it really takes the edge off the day, and that is just as valuable to me. My reasons for meditating are growing as I learn to practice, and that increases the likelihood that I will continue to meditate beyond this challenge.
What keeps you from meditating? How do you find ways to integrate it into your life?
A few years ago, still deep in the middle of my mysterious health journey, my first naturopathic doctor recommended I try Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in an attempt to see if some traumatic childhood events were causing my body to react with psychosomatic symptoms. The therapy helps reform the pathways of your brain so that past events that have become stress triggers can be recognized as what they really are: normal, everyday occurrences that don’t require your body to respond with fight-or-flight (hello high cortisol levels, hormonal imbalances and migraines)*.
As part of my EMDR treatment, my therapist recommended I start up a mindfulness meditation practice. She created a 10-minute mindfulness practice for me to walk through daily, focusing on reprocessing a specific event from my past that caused me stress or anxiety. The practice ended with a five minute meditation that was focused on self-acceptance and forgiveness.
That 15-minute mindfulness meditation changed my life. Migraines I hadn’t been able to control disappeared. Stress I didn’t realize I was clinging to dissipated. Everyday events that used to trigger shame could be diffused. My body stopped feeling so under duress.
There were lots of factors that contributed to the change I saw in my self confidence, my decreased symptoms and my overall happier feeling, but I attribute a lot of my success to my focused, daily mindfulness meditation. And part of that was choosing a mantra.
I’m no mantra or meditation expert, so I won’t pretend to be, but like Alexandra said yesterday, a mantra is something you choose to help your mind focus on one thing (even though it WILL drift). It’s a positive phrase that helps balance the energy in your body, which can have great physical benefits (like my decreased migraines).
So how do you choose a mantra? There are lots of ways to adopt one, but let’s start with these five simple steps.
- Chant a traditional meditation phrase or noise. “Om,” if it doesn’t make you feel silly or interrupt your ability to focus your mind, is actually a great way to start. Other sounds could be “Ah” or “Mmm.”
- Choose a positive affirmation that combats a lie you unknowingly tell yourself. In our daily lives, we put detrimental phrases on repeat in our heads without even knowing it. Like a lot of women, I’ve spent too many years struggling with perfectionism, and trying to appear completely put together all the time. One of my favorite mantras has been “I commit to just being myself.” Seems a little cheesy when I type it out like that, but it’s been really healing to have that on repeat every morning as a buffer for other, insidious phrases that can creep in. (I highly, HIGHLY recommend Judith Lasater’s book Living Your Yoga if you’re more interested in this, or in incorporating yoga and meditation into daily life).
- Pick a virtue you wish to develop. Struggling with being patient? Need to be a little kinder (to yourself or others)? Chant the virtue you wish to cultivate in yourself. “Patience” or “kindness” or “hope” all make great mantras.
- Craft your mantra in the positive and keep it short. If you’re choosing a phrase that is specific to you and your current situation, keep it short (one short sentence) and keep it positive. If you’re trying to let go of control, use something like, “My hands are open,” instead of, “I don’t need control.”
- Use technology to help. Rebecca mentioned on Monday that she uses an iTunes version of her favorite mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya” (also one of my favorites—it’s super calming). There are mantra apps that help you pick a phrase in Sanskrit, there are iTunes songs that play a mantra on repeat. If you’re drawn to something in Sanskrit, this is a great way to learn a rhythm of a phrase.
Now, I know you’ve got other tips and tricks that we all need to hear. Share how you picked your mantra in the comments. We can’t wait to hear your story!
*EMDR is much more complicated that that and it has some strong proponents and some strong adversaries. I’m not claiming to be an expert, nor do we need to get into nitty gritties here—I’m just saying it worked for me.
And it begins!
Three years ago, we hosted our first meditation challenge and, for a number of reasons, we’ve decided to bring it back—and make it a little harder. Instead of a week, we’re going for two, and we want you to give it a shot. I’m not going to try to convince you meditation is good for you (it is) because science says so (it does)—because if listing the benefits of meditation were enough to get you started and keep you started, you’d already have a daily practice. But you probably don’t, and neither do we, so let’s all get in on this together.
Tomorrow, Alexandra will give some concrete tips. But for today, I want to gently suggest a new way of thinking about meditation that I think might help a little. It helped me, anyway.
Meditation, for most of us who have ever had a practice, is something we commit to for a while and then drop, usually when we need it most. We get really busy at work. We’re going through some stuff. We have the flu. We’re not being very nice to ourselves. Those are the times when a little quiet time could help pump the brakes on panic and, go figure, that’s when the good habits go out the window.
People often say meditation is hard, and I suppose that might be true if that’s what you expect it to be.
But I think it helps to consider the possibility that it’s not hard at all. It might be boring and your legs might fall asleep and your mind might wander, but that’s not actually very difficult to endure for a few minutes.
I had been in an off-again phase with a daily practice, but a few things have come up recently to remind me to recommit to meditating and relaunch this challenge. First, one of my teachers sent me an email with instructions on how to build a daily practice. It was full of very practical tips—drink coffee first if you’re a coffee drinker; go to the bathroom; pick a spot in your apartment and decide that’s going to be where you sit every day. Coffee first?! That’s probably the best single piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about meditation. The idea is, create a ritual you can stick to, and that instead of feeling like punishment it feels like a little gift. Ten quiet minutes after coffee and before I dry my hair sounds like heaven to me now that I think of it that way. It’s not to say it’s all pleasure and no discipline, but it helps to set yourself up to succeed.
I was recently introduced to a new word, svadhyaya, which means self-study. It’s the theme of the month at my yoga school, Prema, and for some reason the word really stuck with me. I’ve gone through periods of my life where I was actively learning more about myself, either in therapy or by writing in my diary or through the various out-there holistic things I’ve dabbled in. But it had never really occurred to me that a regular meditation practice is the ultimate form of self-study—a way to check in, to observe the thoughts that come up when you’re still, to breathe, to get to know yourself a little better.
The trick is to bring a little curiosity to it.
Imagine you’re on a promising first date with yourself. You don’t already know everything there is to know about you, but you’re into you, so you want to know more. You don’t know what you’re going to say next. You’re a little charmed. You’re taking what’s happening as it happens, moment to moment all with a healthy, sincere I-don’t-have-all-the-answers curiosity. Then see what happens.
When you’re sitting, some stuff might come up. Do your best not to be mean to yourself if those thoughts or feelings are negative. Pretend, as one teacher told me, you’re zooming out on Google Earth away from the thought. You can still see it, but you’re not as close to it. (Seriously, try the Google Earth trick—it works.) Most of all, don’t worry about doing it right. There’s no bad way to meditate. Your mind won’t go blank. You won’t instantly feel a deep sense of inner peace. You’ll feel whatever is true about you in that moment, and then that moment will pass.
So give it a try, would you? There’s strength in numbers!
Please let us know in the comments if you plan to participate and share any tips or thoughts you have with the rest of us.
The rules: Don’t lie.
The instructions: For 14 consecutive days, sit quietly for a minimum of 5 minutes—set a timer on your phone—with the intention to meditate. You can still participate in the challenge if you skip a day, but to enter to win the prize, you have to do it for 14 days straight. Honor system, people.
The prize: H. Gillerman Organics is going to reward two NMDL readers who participate in the challenge with a bespoke meditation blend. To enter to win, write us an email at nomoredirtylooks (at) gmail (dot) com with SITSTILL in the subject line, and include your first name and location, written thusly “Siobhan, Brooklyn, NY” and a brief description of how you felt at the end of your 14 days. Send this to us by the end of the day Friday, November 28. (That’s to give people who start late time to catch up.)
And just to that you understand that we’re all in the same leaky boat here, I asked the rest of the NMDL crew to share their honest experience with meditation. Here’s what they had to say:
Alexandra: “My experience with meditation has totally run the gamut. While I’ve had periods where I stick to a daily practice—and during my yoga teacher training it was twice daily—it tends to be the first thing I let slide when I start feeling strapped for time. When I do sit, I have a wide range of experiences from the most common state of listening to the eternal hum-drum of my brain, to having fleeting small victories in quieting that monkey mind, to a handful of times where I have actually gone to a place of total silence and even lost some sensation of my physical body. The last happened in the company of more experienced meditators, and I suspect that I was riding their wave in some way. While it was exciting on one level, it was also quite scary, and it’s clear to me that I need much more practice—probably a lifetime’s worth—before being ready for that kind of state.”
Susannah: “Does daydreaming count as meditation? Probably not. Last week was the first time I ever intentionally meditated. I have never felt that motivated to experiment with meditation until the last year or so, after reading a lot in the media about the benefits of meditation as it relates to mindfulness and health. Still, I put it off, but last week the Lotus Wei newsletter had some great tips on meditation, plus an audio file with a short 5 minute guided practice. Knowing that this challenge was coming up, I gave it a shot. The verdict? More please! One 5 minute sitting resulted in a day where I felt more present in each moment, and less harried overall. This looks promising.”
Rebecca: “I like the idea of meditation, but in practice find it a challenge. I sit for up to 7 minutes max, and I need something to help my focus, like a mantra and/or my favorite stones to hold. My brain is too noisy to quietly sit still. I do my best when listening to iTunes versions of my favorite mantra, Om Namah Shivaya, which has many translations, one of which is: “I honor that which I am capable of becoming.” I have a couple tunes I use for walking meditations, and apps I like. Now, if I can just establish a daily routine, I might get somewhere.”
Nicolle: “My most consistent meditation experience came as part of a holistic therapy treatment. For about two years, I had a mindfulness practice that included daily, 15-minute meditations centered on decreasing stress levels and training my body to listen to itself. It was hard to do at first, but also really helped treat some of my long-term anxieties and migraines. My practice sort of fell off in the past year, and I’m now in a place where I’d love to start up a daily meditation again—I just haven’t yet gotten over that initial hump of making it a habit.”
P.S. It’s really hard to find a photo about meditation that isn’t terribly corny. And while I like this one (via), I can’t say for sure what’s happening here. Please forgive my poetic license.