September 13, 2022

3 Ways to Overcome Physical Discomfort in your Meditation Practice.


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A few weeks ago, I joined Elephant Journal’s Elephant Academy, and one of the prompts in our first week was to engage in mindfulness in one of four ways:

>> Take off your shoes inside.
>> Take breaks from your smartphone, especially in the bedroom.
>> Swap out plastic shower curtains for something else.
>> Meditate two times a day.

I have a consistent meditation practice, but only once per day. So I’ve opted to try to meditate two times a day (and created a group on Insight Timer for whoever wants to join me there). It might not sound like much, but thinking back to when I began my meditation practice, it’s a world of difference.

Before taking yoga teacher training (YTT) in 2017, I had only meditated in yoga classes. In those settings, it was only for a few minutes at a time, usually guided, and in a group setting. As part of my YTT, meditation was a big focus—probably 30 percent of the 200 hours—and it was an intense experience.

It was like diving into the deep end after swimming in a bathtub for years.

Mentally, I would liken the experience to intense weekly therapy sessions. Learning how to still your mind, try on various types of meditation, journal about the experience, and synthesize it into a learning experience to share with others? Intense doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Physically, it presented different challenges. I remember the first time my instructor, Maria Toso, helped us set up for a five-minute meditation. Five minutes?! I thought. I’ll just sit on my mat. 

I can’t say how far into the five minutes it was, but at some point, I developed the most intense itch on my elbow. Then my knee felt tight, like I had to move or it would suffer irreversible damage. My toes were crampy. My neck, my low back, my shoulders, all of these different parts of my body, which felt fine previously, were now shouting for my attention.

Throughout my YTT, I became more aware of the ways the ego tries to stop us from diving inward—and developed an enhanced ability to ignore itches and minor discomforts. But I never again ignored the importance of setting oneself up to meditate comfortably. It’s a lesson I bring to every yoga class I teach.

Here are three ways to overcome physical discomfort and make meditation easier:

1. Use props to aid alignment and allow you to stay in position longer.

You might imagine your meditation practice to look like this: Lotus pose, serenely holding mudras in both hands, chin lifted, shoulders over hips in perfect posture, knees lightly resting on the floor.

The reality? Blocks under your knees or rolled-up blankets for support. Sitting on a bolster, or meditation cushion, to allow your hips to rest in a more natural position. Using a strap to support your low back. A sandbag around the neck to keep your shoulders relaxed and out of the ears. And so, so many more modifications that any practitioner should have in their arsenal.

Please don’t forget that it’s not “cheating” to sit against a wall for your practice, or even lay down with a bolster under the knees. Your meditation practice—and setup—should be as unique as you are.

2. Invest in a cushioned mat or meditation cushion.

Sitting on a concrete or hard floor will not do your practice (or your hips) any favors. Our Sitz Bones—where our weight is supported at the bottom of our pelvis—become strained when we’re sitting uncomfortably. The subtle work of simply sitting doesn’t always vibe with some practitioners, but trust me: the phrase “no pain, no gain” has zero meaning in the physical side of meditating. Rather than grin and bear it, try some of these tips from Virginia Hill Yoga:

Try to connect the protruding Sitz Bones to your mat, and allow them to support your weight evenly on each side. They feel like two little bony knuckles.

Sit up straighter and pull the flesh of your buttocks away from the underside center of your bottom.

Make sure your shoulders are directly above your hips and elongate your spine and lift through the crown of your head, chin parallel to the floor.

3. Contract and release muscles with your breath.

Some pain might be assuaged with props. Sometimes it’s the ego trying to influence your practice. And sometimes, it’s a cramp.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a mode of meditation in and of itself. But the basic tenets can be used in any less formal practice as well to stave off a cramp in your calf, toes, or anywhere that you might feel one forming.

Simply tense up one muscle group at a time (you can do large muscle groups at once, like both legs from the knee down, or do this in more of a Nidra, body-scanning approach), hold, and release. Timing with your breath is a good way to lower tension and stress at the same time.

What are some methods or tips you use to make meditation more comfortable in your body?


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