Judging by one of my colleague’s reactions to my announcement I was off to a meditation class – a loud guffaw – coming out of the closet can be risky business.
At the launch of a new version of meditation app Headspace, Olympian Etienne Stott (who swears by it) said that he still gets a bit cagey about telling people he meditates because of how people react to it.
The worst case scenario, he said, can be someone laughing or not taking it seriously.
So why do people laugh? Maybe because they don’t think it works and I’d say almost 100% because they don’t really understand what it is.
Although I have an idea of what meditation is, and have been doing guided meditation via Headspace for about a year, I think it’s time to remove the training wheels and learn how to do it for myself.
I know that it does work, which is why, like Etienne I can be a bit cagey when people are quick to rubbish it, in that when I don’t do it I am edgier, more irritable and more quick to react negatively to things.
Carving out that time that’s just for myself each day also makes me feel less put upon by work or other things going on in my personal life.
And – ironically – it is most useful for busy people, the kind of people who will say that they don’t have time to do it.
When I head down to Inner Space, the little oasis of calm in Covent Garden (and also the City), I’m not sure what to expect. But this company have been de-stressing Londoners for years, providing classes and a drop-in ‘quiet room’, which is genius if you’re having a hectic day and need a calm moment to yourself.
They also run classes and talks around the city, such as a 'Mood Gym', relaxation strategy courses and even ones around time management.
My teacher is Amisha, and she explains to me that this is a particular type called Raj yoga meditation. I ask hesitantly how long I need to devote to it, knowing that if it’s 20 minutes in the morning and evening, it’s never going to happen for me.
“Five minutes,” she answers. “You’ll need to do it in the morning and evening, and not in bed, but it can be between five to 10 minutes.”
This instantly opens a wide range of options to me, and to other people. If you think that queuing for a coffee takes around five minutes, then it’s definitely manageable in terms of tagging it onto your morning.
With Raj meditation you keep your eyes open, says Amisha, and it helps so that you don’t fall asleep. This happened to me about 50% of the time when I used to do just before bedtime.
And there’s no stress on what you want to focus on – so a good way to start might be consciously breathing, whether that is big breaths in and out, holding the breath for two seconds and then breathing out or any other variation you prefer.
You then scan down your body – registering each part – and if you want, you can add a word to each part as you are doing it. This may sound nuts, and I did feel silly doing it the first time, but it really works. So you say, ‘Brain, relax”, “Left arm, relax” and so on. By the end of it, there is a perceptible difference and when you don’t do it, you will notice.
Even if you don’t believe this, there is something in talking to your body on a daily basis – most of the time, we are so busy we barely register what’s going on and assume our body is just ticking along. This is a good way to reinstate that connection between your body and mind.
After that, you move into visualisation. In the past, when I’ve been told to visualise a person, I’ve had a real problem with that.
But Amisha says: “What you need to do is keep a landscape or a picture in your mind. Don’t think about it too hard or the details of it – it’s just surface. So it can be a beautiful beach you once visited and you can feel the water on your feet. Or the top of a mountain.”
Armed with her teachings, I head home to try it out.
What I find is that it is easy to fit the meditation in, but I don’t do it every day because my work schedule is particularly busy. I do notice when I don’t do it, however, and these are the days I am most stressed.
I also find the visualisation hard to do without my eyes shut, but at certain points I cheat and shut my eyes anyway.
When I next see Amisha, I tell her guiltily that I didn’t get to do my meditation daily each day. She says: “Look, it happens to us all, you can’t beat yourself up about it. Even I don’t always get a chance to do it but I really notice the difference when I don’t.”
One of the other suggestions Amisha gives me is around short pauses or 'purposeful pauses'.
So these could be between 30 seconds to a minute-long, and you can do them anywhere from waiting for your computer to start up or being stuck in a queue.
A few days later, I found myself on a very packed, commuter train. Someone's sweaty armpit was in my face - not quite the ideal moment to breathe in and take a purposeful pause.
So I angled myself around away from the armpit, closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. Despite the sweat trickling down my forehead, I took a deep breath and instantly, I wasn't on a squashed commuter train. In my mind, it was dark, it was calm and I said to myself that the journey is going to end (eventually) so there was no point getting irate or flustered.
I'm not saying the next 10 minutes were comparable to have a foot massage in a Tuscan villa, but they were certainly more manageable than had I huffed and puffed through the rest of the journey.
And to think - I'd managed that not with some pills or a drink, but just by adjusting how I thought. That's pretty trippy, and also pretty amazing.
To find out more about Inner Space, visit the website.
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