Once you’ve learned the basics of mindfulness meditation and feel comfortable with the basics of watching the breath and observing the mind, you might be looking for some things to change up your meditation sessions. Try these 5 techniques to expand and deepen your practice:
1. Body Scan / Muscle Relaxation
Many of us hold tension in our bodies without realizing it, especially during times of stress. Whether we hold it in our shoulders, neck, or back, tense muscles cause us physical pain and, since the body is connected to the mind, bring down our emotional state as well. Being acutely aware of our bodies is the best way to relieve this unnecessary tension. Try this body scan meditation to relax your muscles:
1. Focus on your feet and how they feel on the floor. Breathe in, and then as you exhale, try to relax your feet.
2. Next, move your focus from your feet to your legs. Notice how they feel as well. Is there tension or tightness? Is there heat or cold? Breathe in, and then as you exhale, try to relax your legs.
3. Continue to repeat this process as you move up the body, focusing on your core, chest, shoulders, and arms, then finishing at the top of your head. Then, start at your head and work your way back down.
Benefits: Research shows that body scan meditation is excellent for lowering stress levels, as well as reducing inflammation, fatigue, and insomnia.
2. Visualization Exercises
While other forms of meditation focus on slowing the flow of thoughts, visual meditation requires a slightly more active mind. Visualization exercises can be used for everything from relaxation and stress relief to inspiring creativity and achieving your goals.
1. Close your eyes and picture a scene in your mind. If you’re trying to relax, picture a calming scene, something you might call your “happy place”. If you’re focusing on goals and motivation, picture yourself going through the process step-by-step and achieving the end result.
2. Use your senses to add as much detail as possible. What do you see, feel, hear, or smell? Are there other people in this scene? Pay close attention to how each detail makes you feel. If something appears that makes you feel anxious, don’t run away from it. Instead, examine the sensation with a gentle curiosity.
3. Continue breathing paying close attention to the breath as you look around the scene you’ve created. Remember how this visualization makes you feel, and return to it throughout the day whenever you need a dose of calm or motivation.
Benefits: Visualization meditation works particularly well for people with active minds who struggle with more restful types of meditation. The more you use this technique, the easier it will be to return to that place, and you’ll be able to mentally transport yourself there even outside of a meditative setting.
Try a visualization exercise by following along with this free guided meditation!
3. Breathing Exercises
Have you ever noticed how you breathe slower and deeper when you are relaxed? If not, then perhaps you’ve noticed how your breath becomes shallow and rapid when you’re upset or in a state of panic. However, the breath isn’t simply a mirror of your emotional state. The relationship is a two-way street, and by learning to gently control the breath, we can calm our emotions as well.
Most people are familiar with watching the breath as it’s the most common way people are told to start meditating, but there are more specific exercises you can do beyond being aware of your inhales and exhales.
Belly Breathing: Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not expand at all as you breathe.
4-7-8 Breathing: Slowly take a deep breath from your belly, and silently count to 4 as you inhale. Hold your breath, counting from 1 to 7 at the same pace. Gently breathe out completely as you silently count from 1 to 8. (Your lungs should be completely empty by the time you reach 8.)
Box (Four-Square) Breathing: Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat at least 3 times. Box breathing is great for reducing stress levels while still maintaining focus and energy, which is why it is a type of breathing often taught to first-responders.
Benefits: The way you breathe affects both the body and the mind, and breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress. Belly breathing can help increase the supply of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body while relaxing muscular tension. 4-7-8 breathing calms the mind and can be a great way to find deep relaxation or fall asleep, and box breathing is great for achieving a calm, focused mental state.
4. Compassion Practice
Meditation doesn’t always have to be about reducing stress and calming the mind. Incorporating a compassion practice, also called loving-kindness meditation, can help you foster positive feelings toward yourself and others.
1. Picture the person you want to extend compassion to — yourself, a loved one, or even someone you don’t get along with very well. Picture them clearly.
2. Observe how you feel about this person. Is there a deep love, animosity, or not much at all?
3. Imagine the challenges or pain they might be facing in their life. If you have negative feelings towards this person, understand that their behavior might be the result of deep emotional and psychological wounds they’re struggling with.
4. Think about the positive feelings you’d like to send to that person, things like peace, calm, joy, healing, or happiness. Use your Higher Self to send those positive energies to that person — their Higher Self knows what energies they can handle and can act as a filter. Imagine that person receiving those feelings and observe how it makes both you and them feel.
5. Bathe in the glow of that person’s happiness, and feel their positive feelings warm your heart as well.
Benefits: Compassion meditation is a great way to feel gratitude for the people in your life. It’s also helpful if you’re dealing with feelings of intense animosity toward someone and are looking for ways to let go. Plus, learning to forgive and have compassion for others will in turn make it easier to forgive yourself for your own faults.
Mindfulness is about knowing where we are in the moment, but almost paradoxically, this requires maintaining an awareness of where we’ve been. A reflective meditation journal can help us with all of those areas of awareness, giving us a more unified understanding of ourselves.
What should you put in a meditation journal? That’s really up to you, but typical things would include the date and time of the session, the location, the environment, and the kind of practice, followed by specific details like feelings, perceptions, insights, and observations.
It’s most common to journal as a way of reflecting on your meditation, but you can also experiment with journaling before AND after meditation, to have a record of how you felt before the session and compare it with how you feel after.
Sample: Don’t feel like you have to write too much! Here’s a short example of a meditation journal entry.
“December 14, 2021. 5PM, living room. Felt a bit anxious about the work I had to finish before the holidays. Focused on body scan meditation, noticed I was holding tension in my lower back. Switched from a chair to sitting on the floor with a pillow and pain was relieved. Finished with 4-7-8 breathing exercise and felt much more relaxed.”
Benefits: Meditation journals are extremely useful for finding out what works (and what doesn’t). Looking back at previous entries, you might notice that you feel much better meditating in the morning instead of at night, or that meditating in a certain room of the house makes you feel more at ease. Keeping a record of our progress also gives us a feeling of accomplishment by reminding us how far we’ve come on our journey.