I took some deep breaths. "I'm relaxing," I told myself, hoping that thinking it will make it true. But soon, my mind wandered to my to-do list. Then, I began to ponder the likelihood of North Korea nuking LA. Before I knew it, I was tabulating my monthly expenses, until my yoga teacher called the class back to attention. By this time my shoulders were knotted with tension, and I had so many thoughts rattling in my head, I could hardly hear the instructor's final send-off.
This had become my reality lately. Between balancing day-to-day stresses, living in an age where each New York Times news alert is more distressing than the last and tackling some big life changes (namely pregnancy and a move), I found myself so sidetracked by my whirring mind, that I'd often arrive at work with little memory of my commute, and my default physical state involved a racing heart and a clenched jaw.
Clearly, I needed help. So like any good millennial raised on a steady media diet of 30-day challenges, I decided that I would take up meditating for a month to see if I could calm my brain.
Setting an Intention
"As with starting any new habit, it takes some effort. I recommend starting with a guided audio meditation," says Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of "Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness." "It's helpful having someone talking you through until you get the hang of it."
UCLA offers a weekly podcast, as well as free guided meditations covering a variety of topics. There are also meditation apps, such as Headspace and Breethe -- the latter of which I leaned on for my foray into meditation.
Once I knew how I was going to meditate, I needed to make the commitment, according to Lynne Goldberg, meditation expert and founder of the Breethe app. "Decide what motivates you. Determine your intention, and then commit to honoring it," she advised me over the phone in the preternaturally soothing voice I'd come to know very well through my ear buds over the next thirty days. For me, my intention was about alleviating stress, but other reasons to begin a practice could be finding "me-time" or learning to control your temper.
Carving Out Time and Space
In reality, on the first night of the challenge I remembered to meditate only as I laid down to sleep. With my head still on the pillow, I reached for my phone, popped in my headphones and started my first meditation from the fetal position, totally ignoring my audio guide's gentle instructions to assume a comfortable seated position.
The rest of my first week I kept up this bad habit of squeezing in my meditations when I felt like it, most often when I was on the verge of dozing off. (And yes, if I'm being honest, I did drift off a few times). On the plus side, I sure was sleeping well. But I realized I as long as I half-assed my mediations, I wouldn't get everything I wanted out of them.
Both Goldberg and Winston emphasize the importance of picking a specific time to meditate each day and tying it to something you do every day. "Really make sure you do your practice at the same time," Goldberg says. "We say rise, pee and mediate." In other words, make meditation your first priority after hopping out of bed (and, you know, taking care of business).
"It's also helpful to have a designated space because your mind knows that when you're in this spot, it's your meditation spot," Winston adds. Fortunately, you don't need a plant- and pillow-bedecked meditation room; you just need a spot that affords you some privacy. "For the longest time I meditated in the bathroom. It had a lock, and I didn't want the kids coming in," Goldberg says.
Oh, and meditating while reclining in bed? Not such a great idea, it turns out. After talking with the experts, I moved my meditation practice to mornings in my living room -- thereby removing the temptation to nod off.
Building My Practice
The first few times I meditated, I felt like I had an itch emanating from the center of my brain. Thoughts swarmed my brain like flies. One time, I obsessively thought about how parched I was, to the point where I convinced myself I might literally die of thirst in the time it took to get through my meditation. Another time, I found myself speculating about "Game of Thrones" plot points. I was constantly redirecting my mind back to my breath. When my time was up, I like I'd just finished running a 10K.
My frustration with how terrible I was at meditating was enough to make me want to throw in the towel, but Goldberg encouraged me to stick with it and try to refrain from judging myself. "There's nothing you can do wrong if you're sticking with it," she reassured me. "Everyone has a learning curve," It'd be like sitting at a piano for the first time and expecting yourself to play a concerto."
She was right. Over time, I found meditating easier the more I practiced. Every several days, my meditation duration would increase by a minute or two, and surprisingly the 14- to 16- minute meditations I did toward the end of my streak didn't feel as difficult as the first 10-minute meditations I tackled.
Holding Myself Accountable
I told my husband what I was up to in part because I didn't want him to fear my body had been possessed by some paranormal entity if he found me stoically perched on the couch, eyes closed, in front of a darkened television. And of course, by telling him about my goal, I implicitly gave him permission to nag me if I started to fall behind on my practice.
However, I found using an app like Breethe even more helpful. It keeps track of how many days you meditate in a row, which stoked my competitive side. I wanted to extend my streak as long as possible. Another app feature is an alarm that you can set to remind you to meditate each day (if you're not using this app, you could always just set an alarm on your phone, which seems like it would do the trick).