After studying yoga and meditation for longer than some of you have been alive, I can say with all honesty and zero shame calories that sometimes, I can’t meditate. My thoughts demand attention, they’re double-dutch skip-roping in my head, and sitting still is out of the question.
If that’s been your experience with meditation, it doesn’t mean you can’t meditate. You might just need a different form of meditation. Think of meditation as a vehicle to get to another place; sometimes you need a scooter, other times you need all-wheel drive.
I thought meditation could only be done while sitting and trying to be still in body and mind, but in early trips to ashrams, I was exposed to more active forms of meditation. There was walking meditation, and writing meditation—very different from what I was used to, yet they helped me feel calm, and my jumpy thoughts receded softly into a quieter background.
Focus is what makes active meditation actually meditative. Bringing your attention to what you’re doing allows the magic to happen: Soon, you’re fully absorbed in your activity. This absorption allows your mind to rest and your brain to become sharper.
Because active meditations can be things you do in normal life, the temptation to do something else, especially pick up your phone, may be high. Resist. Studies on the effects of smartphones in our culture show that we get distracted when a phone is anywhere near us, even just in the room, even if it’s turned off. If you need to time your active meditation, have a clock nearby, check your watch, or pick a certain distance you’ll go or goal to accomplish.
Here are some activities that can be turned into meditation practices:
Walking or running: Not to be confused with the sprint you make to get to work on time, walking meditation means taking slow, mindful steps while focusing on the feel of each step. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful little book on how to do walking meditation. For those with more kinetic constitutions, there’s running meditation. A group of monks in Japan attempt long-distance running for 1,000 days straight as a devotional practice. Focusing on every step you take while running would be a bit much, so switch your awareness to your surroundings and the physical sensations you’re experiencing.
Knitting or crochet: Studies done at an eating disorder clinic showed that when the patients knitted, obsessive thoughts about food and restriction were significantly reduced. Repetitive motion helps to release serotonin, your body’s mood stabilizer, and working with yarn is all about repetitive movement. For knitting or crochet to be meditative, you’ll need a straightforward project of the most basic stitches, with no need to refer to a pattern (think scarves, blankets, etc.). Work slowly, focusing on each stitch and the feel and colors of the yarn. Forget trying to complete the project; think process instead.
Drawing: This one’s a bit trickier, because the mind will judge and criticize almost from the start. That will fade when you bring your focus to the feel of what you’re working with, whether pens, paintbrushes, or any other type of media, and watch the flow of the marks you’re making, rather than their cumulative effect. Don’t worry about creating a masterpiece. Label your project a doodle and you’ll be more relaxed.
Writing: This can take two forms. One is writing a Mantra (or affirmation) over and over for a few pages; if you want something positive to sink into your brain, this is a great way to do it. The other is free-form writing, also known as the brain dump. You write fast, without thinking about what you’re writing or what it means or what people would think of you if they saw it (they won’t, and who cares anyway). Similar to the morning pages popularized by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, writing meditation works better when done by hand, rather than on the computer.
Yoga and Tai Chi: At the ashram where I trained to be a Yoga teacher, the instructors would say, “Think of your yoga practice as a moving meditation.” I’d never heard that before, and it changed my practice. This isn’t always possible in your average yoga class, because teachers play music (distracting) and sometimes talk too much (super distracting). If you want to turn yoga into a moving meditation, do a simple practice at home, without music. This might be easier with Tai Chi, which is usually done in silence. Also, if the movements are unfamiliar to you, you’ll be able to lose yourself in them faster.
The reason meditation has been practiced seated in stillness for thousands of years is because that’s most likely to help calm an active mind. But if that form of meditation makes you want to jump out of your skin, or you’re in an anxious state that seems only to be made worse by trying to sit quietly, doing something active could be what you need to help your mind become still.