Meditation is hard — Molly Birkholm, stress management consultant and yoga and meditation teacher, knows this first hand. She was introduced to meditation after experiencing a near-fatal car crash. While she learned to use this practice to heal her own PTSD, it was not easy to get into. "Initially, I found it very difficult to do silent meditation," Birkholm told POPSUGAR. "It just seemed like my mind went straight to the to-do list, or as I call it, the 'Top 10 Favorite Playlist of Thoughts That You Can't Stop Yourself From Thinking.'"
Birkholm quit her job four years after the crash to study around Asia, where she eventually completed her teacher training in Sivananda Yoga. She teaches private retreats for corporate clients and has worked with veterans and military personnel through the organization Warriors at Ease, which offers trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation programs. For Integrative Restoration (iRest) Institute, she leads practices of yoga nidra, a form of guided relaxation that brings you into a state of meditation. Birkholm classifies it as a mindfulness form of meditation as opposed to a "concentration" style focused on silence.
Mindfulness meditation, which yoga nidra is a part of "is more of a tool to cultivate a sense of self-awareness, where you're aware of your body, aware of your breath, aware of your emotions, your feelings, your beliefs, your thoughts, but you're staying connected to a state of peace," Birkholm explained. "So you can think of mindfulness meditation as more like someone taking you by the hand and saying, 'Now we're going to go on a little tour of what's present for you in this moment.'"
Birkholm further explained, "A lot of times, people who just start meditating are people who are in a state of heightened stress or hyper-vigilance. If they try the concentration forms of meditation, they could end up feeling like they're failing or doing it wrong because the mind doesn't silence right away." That being said, if you have trouble sleeping or you feel anxious or depressed, meditation could be highly effective for helping alleviate that, she said, explaining that you don't necessarily need to feel as though you're going through trauma, like she did, to start.
"You're really more able to meet life on life's terms and find that sense of effortless power instead of powerful effort that really tends to drain us."
Ways to Meditate For Stress Relief
Birkholm said that beginners should aim to meditate at least 20 minutes a day, whenever is convenient for them. They should also be consistent with it — try to meditate for two weeks or set a goal for a whole month. She said that even if you feel like you won't have time for this practice, you may come to realize that you're more efficient in the tasks you do each day because of it, and you'll want to make time. "You're really more able to meet life on life's terms and find that sense of effortless power instead of powerful effort that really tends to drain us."
This is the concentration style of meditation that Birkholm was talking about before. She would recommend starting with some deep breathing and taking time to observe the physical sensation of the body, the breath, and the mind. Anytime something arises in the mind, notice where you feel tension in your body. If you're not able to get into this form meditation, she suggests using guided meditation, specifically yoga nidra sessions, to help you reach a level of relaxation.
Birkholm's 24-session iRest: Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra For Deep Relaxation course is available for purchase on The Great Courses website. She also has downloadable audio files that will lead you through iRest yoga nidra practices on her own website (all for $9 right now). Plus, here's a roundup of guided meditation videos you can try that aren't labeled as yoga nidra but are meant to help you de-stress.
Don't Know Where to Start? Try Focusing on Your Breath
One breathing technique that Birkholm highlighted is a simple task of making your exhalation longer than your inhalation. Take deep breaths into the belly and up into the chest, then have a drawn-out exhale and pull your belly in. Everyone's breathing tempo is different, so she suggests first counting how long your inhale is and how long your exhale is. Then, add two, three, or four seconds to the exhale. "You can eventually work up to doubling the exhale over the inhale, but at first that might be overwhelming for people, so I would start just by adding a few seconds and really mellowing that breath out," she said.
Another breath Birkholm talked about was something called the "Ferris wheel breath," where you picture a long narrow Ferris wheel that runs up and down your spine. "On the inhale, you breathe up the front side of your spine. You notice that moment of transition at the top, where the inhale becomes an exhale, and then you exhale down your spine. You notice that moment of transition at the bottom, and then you inhale up the front side of your spine again," she explained.
Giving people that visualization helps them focus on their breathing, especially if they're having a difficult time getting into silent meditation, Birkholm said. "We use these techniques because the mind is like a bird that doesn't have a place to land. And if you give it a mantra or you give it a breath or you give it a visual, it'll land."