Stressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? We hear ya. But have you tried… meditating?
For many people, the stillness of a seated meditation practice can actually trigger anxiety at first, which is why combining it with a physical practice like yoga can be so beneficial.
Pairing meditation and yoga can jump-start a meditation routine and deliver the physical and mental benefits of both practices. Let’s take a look at each.
The most popular form of meditation is mindfulness, which typically includes sitting, tuning in to your breath, and bringing awareness to the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of the present moment, without dwelling on the future or past.
According to a large body of research, mindfulness meditation may help:
- reduce stress (and stress-induced inflammation)
- reduce anxiety
- ease depression symptoms
- improve self-awareness
- improve memory and attention
- ease chronic pain
- improve sleep
- lower blood pressure
Yoga, which at its core is breath work related to physical postures (or asanas), has also been robustly studied for its mind-body benefits.
Yoga may help:
- improve flexibility
- improve balance
- increase strength
- decrease body fat
- reduce stress
- reduce anxiety
- ease chronic pain
- boost energy
- improve sleep
- lower blood pressure
Yoga has elements of meditation built right in: a connection between mind, body, and breath and an emphasis on being present on the mat. You may only need to make a few simple tweaks to morph it into a form of moving meditation.
“A moving meditation is being mindful and aware of movement without a goal or destination,” explains popular YouTube yoga instructor Sarah Beth (of SarahBethYoga). “You’ve probably experienced this moving meditation before without really trying if you’ve ever done Vinyasa yoga and just got lost in the flow.”
According to Sarah Beth, turning yoga into a form of moving meditation is about enjoying the sensations in every little movement and every muscle that’s firing during a particular moment. “It’s not about hitting the posture or where you’re going next — just enjoying what’s happening in each present moment as it happens,” she says.
Sounds lovely, but how do you actually do that?
There’s no hard and fast set of rules for yoga meditation, but some strategies can help you get out of your head and into your body. If you’ve been powering through your yoga classes for the sole purpose of breaking a sweat, then you’ll want to try a few techniques to tune into your body and your surroundings for a deeper connection.
1. Set an intention or choose a mantra
A mantra is a word or phrase that you repeat (often in your head) during meditation. This can not only help shift your mindset and perspective on a situation (or on yourself!) but also help ward off distractions like your to-do list or work.
Not sure what your mantra should be? Think about your goals or what you’re currently struggling with: self-love or acceptance? Impostor syndrome? Lack of focus? Relationship issues? FOMO? Anxiety about the future?
Try one of these mantras to make your yoga practice more meditative, or create your own:
- I am not defined by one experience.
- I am content in this moment.
- I am not my emotions.
- I have everything I need.
- I am capable.
- It will get done.
- Nothing lasts forever.
- My heart will guide me.
- Love the life you have.
- Inhale, exhale. (Simply repeating this in your head while breathing in and out can help ward off distracting or toxic thoughts.)
2. Slow the eff down — there’s no need to rush!
You don’t have to go at a snail’s pace (you can still flow), but you don’t want to race through every pose either. The key is to move at a pace that feels natural and comfortable and doesn’t rush your breathing. You want to flow at a pace where each breath can be full, deep, and intentional.
3. Let your breath guide you
Breath is such a huge component of yoga — and it’s what makes many forms of yoga somewhat meditative anyway.
Try to find your Ujjayi breath (also called “ocean breath” or “victorious breath”), in which you inhale and exhale through your nose while maintaining a slight contraction in the back of your throat and keeping your lips shut.
It sounds similar to the haaaah sound you make when fogging up a mirror. Start on an exhale, and then match each pose to your breath — but feel free to hold poses for multiple breaths.
With each exhale, try to release the thoughts and feelings that are no longer serving you.
4. Feel ALL the sensations
To help get out of your busy head, focus on physical sensations.
Feel your quad muscles firing as you hold Warrior II, enjoy the gentle stretch in your calves and hamstrings as you pedal your heels in Downward Dog, breathe into that glorious hip stretch during Pigeon Pose, and experiment with pushing your hands, feet, or other body parts into the floor to engage your muscles and feel more grounded.
All the while, notice where you’re holding tension, what positions you may want to stay in longer, and what subtle adjustments your body is asking for to feel more balanced.
If you’re practicing a sequence you know by heart (like Sun Salutation A), consider closing your eyes to limit distractions and enhance mindfulness.
5. Acknowledge (and release) anxious thoughts
Your mind might start to wander — and that’s perfectly OK. When you feel your focus shifting, gently redirect it back to your breath and the physical sensations in your hands, feet, and other areas of your body.
If anxiety starts to bubble up, let it. Acknowledge each anxious thought, and then release it as you exhale.
6. Ditch those expectations
As with any form of meditation, there’s no right way to meditate during yoga. As long as you’re making a point to exist in the present moment and honor what your body needs, you’ll experience benefits over time. Don’t stress about it.
Incorporating the techniques outlined above into any type of yoga can transform it into a meditative experience. But depending on your goals, there are a few things to consider.
If you’re looking for more subtle movements and significantly longer holds between movements (or simply a more relaxing yoga meditation experience), a restorative yoga or Yin yoga routine is a great place to start. If you want steady, flowing movement, try Vinyasa or Ashtanga. (Learn more about each type of yoga here.)
If you want to limit distractions, consider picking a specific yoga sequence that’s easy to memorize and repeating it — whether it’s 20 back-to-back Sun Salutations or simply a mash-up of your favorite poses. The repetitive nature will take away the mental effort sometimes required to follow along during a class or YouTube video, allowing you to look inward and be more mindful.
Turn Sun Salutations into a moving yoga meditation
If you’ve done yoga before, you’re probably familiar with Sun Salutations, which is why many yoga instructors believe these simple flow sequences make the perfect moving meditation.
Here are the basic steps of Sun Salutation A.
Here’s a breakdown of the steps:
Repeat this sequence as many times as you want, holding poses as long as your body desires. Over time, this will become second nature and you might even be able to close your eyes.
- Mountain Pose: Stand tall with feet rooted firmly into the floor, hip-width apart, toes facing forward. Distribute your weight evenly through all four corners of feet. Relax shoulders, lengthen neck, and let arms relax by your sides while you soften your gaze. *Pro tip: Take a beat here to scan your body for tension and relax your muscles. Set your intention or mantra, begin your Ujjayi breathing, and commit to being present.
- Upward Salute: On an inhale, raise your arms overhead with palms facing inward. Lengthen through your side body and stretch long and tall through arms and fingers. Draw shoulder blades down and keep your neck soft, releasing all tension.
- Standing Forward Fold: On an exhale, fold forward from your hips as you draw arms, hands, and heart toward the floor. Keep weight in your heels. Allow a small bend in knees to lengthen through lower back and hamstrings. Release all effort and encourage your body to relax and soften.
- Standing Half Forward Fold: On an inhale, walk your fingertips forward to lift slightly and lengthen spine, chest, and gaze forward. Allow any tension in upper back to melt as your heart draws forward.
- High Plank: With your hands placed firmly on the floor, walk both feet straight back, toes curled under, shoulders stacked over wrists. Keep core and shoulders engaged (imagine you’re pushing the floor away from you with hands and toes).
- Modified Four-Limb Staff Pose: With core engaged, start to bend elbows to 90 degrees as you simultaneously lower your knees, chest, and chin toward the floor. Keep elbows hugged in at your sides. Hips and shoulders should be in line, and the tops of your toes should be pressed into the mat. Stay for a breath, and then lower onto your belly.
- Cobra or Upward-Facing Dog: On an inhale, press into your palms to lift head and chest, peeling ribs and belly up off the mat. Keep elbows slightly bent and close to your body. Roll shoulders back and down and pull your heart forward as you gaze up.
- Downward-Facing Dog: On an exhale, flip your feet so soles are on the mat, and then send hips straight up and back. Keep a slight bend in knees if necessary and draw chest toward thighs. Spread fingers wide to distribute weight evenly through your hands. Keep arms straight, rotating triceps in toward ears. Continue to push hips up and back as you gradually guide and pedal your heels toward the floor.
- Standing Half Forward Fold: On an inhale, step feet toward hands. Lift your hands and chest forward to return to Standing Half Forward Fold (#4).
- Standing Forward Fold: Exhale and fold forward from your hips, sending them up to the sky with weight in heels to return to Standing Forward Fold (#3).
- Upward Salute: Inhale and raise arms overhead, lengthening through your side body, arms, and fingertips to return to Upward Salute (#2).
- Mountain Pose: Exhale, lowering arms to rest at your sides and grounding down through your feet to return to Mountain Pose (#1).
- Repeat! Keep in mind that you can always take a Child’s Pose or Savasana and simply practice your Ujjayi breath or any form of rhythmic, mindful breathing.
If you’re interested in meditation but you just can’t sit still without experiencing anxious thoughts, pain, or plain old restlessness, a moving meditation practice including yoga can be a fantastic place to start — and deliver the perks of both practices at once.
Just remember: As with any form of meditation, there’s no right way to meditate during yoga. As long as you’re making a point to exist in the present moment and honor what your body needs, you should experience benefits that only build over time.