When the workday gets you down and you wish you could retreat to a peaceful island, do the next best thing. Recharge your body and mind with a quick meditation break. You don’t need to be a yogi or have a clear, uncluttered mind. Anyone can benefit from meditation, even if you’ve never tried it before.
Debunking Meditation Myths
Before diving in, let’s clear up a few misconceptions.
At its heart, meditation isn’t about techniques, procedures, or timers. “I like the idea of living a meditative life,” says Megan B. Bartley, MAMFT, a Louisville-based therapist and owner of The Mindfulness Center. “It’s about shifting your attention and being aware of the present moment. The intentionality matters more than anything.”
You don’t have to twist into the lotus position. Any posture that lets you breathe freely works. Bartley recommends sitting or standing straight to keep the spine aligned, but if you need to lean back in a chair for comfort, that’s fine, too. “It’s about finding what works for you and setting yourself up for success,” she says.
Meditation doesn’t mean putting all your thoughts on pause. “It is totally OK for your mind to wander,” says licensed psychologist and certified personal trainer Dr. Renee A Exelbert, owner of The Metamorphosis Center. “Meditation is not about ridding your mind of everything. It is about meeting your mind wherever it is at –with awareness, acceptance and non-judgment.”
You can meditate even when you don’t have much time. Brief meditations of 20 minutes or less can reduce anxiety and improve mood, even for beginners. One study showed that just five minutes of meditation a day for a week reduced stress levels for mental health professionals.
There are many different ways to meditate. We’ll focus on four simple, beginner-friendly techniques.
Being Present in the Moment
The simplest, most effective way to practice meditation is to focus your attention on where you are right now. But we all know that’s not as easy as it sounds!
Bartley recommends using input from your senses to bring you back to the present moment. Take a mindful walk through your workplace, opening the door for a breath of fresh, outside air. Inhale the scent of your favorite essential oil. Brew a cup of tea or coffee, savoring the taste, smell, and warmth.
Sometimes the problem is too much sensory stimulation. “We take in eighty percent of our information through sight,” says Bartley. Simply closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath can help you center.
Also called metta meditation, this elegant, simple practice from the Buddhist tradition helps you be at peace with both yourself and others. To begin, relax and center yourself. Then repeat silently or aloud:
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I live with ease.
Adapt the wording if you wish. Next, repeat the same phrases, but instead of using “I,” substitute a specific person or group and address them directly: “May you be safe, May you be healthy…”
If you have more time, expand the meditation to include different people. One popular sequence is to begin with yourself, then repeat the phrases for a loved one, a friend, a neutral person, someone you feel negatively toward, and finally the world as a whole (“May all beings be safe…”)
4:8 Paced Breathing (Longer Exhale)
Sit or stand tall, if possible. Inhale deeply from your belly, counting slowly to four. Then breathe out, counting slowly to eight, making the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
Take several 4:8 breaths. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Once you’re familiar with the technique, you can use it to quickly center yourself even in the middle of a busy day. One study shows that just two minutes of longer-exhale breathing can relax the Vagus nerve, moving your nervous system from the “flight-or-fight” state into a peaceful “rest-and-digest” response.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Slowly tense and release the different muscle groups, starting with the feet, working up to the face and head. Don’t clench too hard, and make the release gentle and slow.
This exercise brings you back to your body and can help you feel more grounded. Again, you can do it even in the middle of a hectic day.
When you don’t have time to do the full sequence of tensing and releasing every muscle group, focus on whatever areas hold the most tension, such as the shoulders, neck, or belly.
If your schedule allows, set aside 20-30 minutes to try a longer version of progressive muscle relaxation.
Making Meditation Work for You
Other ways to take a quick, mindful break include prayer, repeating a mantra (a short phrase that helps you focus), and visualization. Explore different techniques until you find the ones fit you best, then use them–especially on high-stress days.
Dr. Exelbert encourages her clients to use a number scale to evaluate stress levels. “I check in with myself throughout the day, with a zero indicating no stress or anxiety, and a 10 indicating high stress or anxiety,” she says. “If I am anywhere below a 3, I am good. However, once I get to a 4, I need to actively do things to bring down my stress level.”
Meditation and mindfulness are like compound interest. The benefits multiply exponentially with time and repetition. “Some of the positive effects of meditation, such as a calmer, more stable mind, can become apparent after only a few weeks,” says Dr. Exelbert. “Consistent meditation rewires the brain by increasing the density of those regions responsible for concentration, memory, self -awareness and compassion.”
But if you can’t fit regular meditation into your schedule right now, that’s okay. “It’s more important to just be in the moment,” says Bartley. Start where you are and cultivate mindfulness however you can. Even a few breaths or a quick mini-meditation break will go a long way toward resetting your workday.
Maria Veres is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma City, focusing on health and wellness topics. A former couch potato, she’s learned to love workouts, walks, and healthy food. She is still working on conquering her chocolate addiction.