I Tried to Meditate Every Day for a Month, and Here’s What I Learned
As a yoga teacher, most people assume I’m “good” at meditation — which always makes me laugh, because the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’ve always struggled with meditating; even though it seems easy to just sit still and breathe, doing so often made me feel stressed, bored and anxious.
But during a particularly busy period of life, I decided to give it another try, and after weeks of trial and error, I realized I had been approaching it all wrong. Here’s what I learned.
The Hardest Part Is Getting Started
“I don’t have time for this,” I sighed anxiously before settling into a sitting position for my first meditation of a self-imposed monthly challenge. I basically psyched myself out before I even began, like lacing up my shoes before a long run but then telling myself how terrible every moment would be before I even moved my feet.
And if I’m being honest, the first week of attempting to meditate every day felt much like that — hard, annoying, forced and dull.
However, this is completely normal, according to the experts. The first few times are usually the most difficult, because you’re technically exercising a new muscle: your brain’s capacity for quiet and a single focus. It’s new, so start slow, and give yourself plenty of grace.
Start with a Minute a Day
Kim Colegrove, a meditation and mindfulness speaker, tells beginners to start with only one minute of meditation a day in order to first train your brain and body to sit, allow stillness and practice “being.”
“Start by sitting up straight, without being rigid,” instructed Joy Rains, author of "Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind."
“Keep your spine aligned with your head and neck. Gently close your eyes," she advised. "Try to release any physical tension, keeping your body relaxed but your mind alert. Choose an anchor — a neutral object to focus on that doesn’t stimulate your mind: your breath, your body, a word repeated silently, or an object to hold, such as a smooth stone. Rest your attention on your anchor. Every time your mind wanders, gently refocus on your anchor. For beginners, this may be as often as every second or two.”
Educate Yourself on the Benefits
The benefits of meditation seem to be endless — it can help regulate your emotions, protect your brain from aging, improve sleep habits and reduce anxiety or depression — which makes it well worth doing, even if you’re a bit skeptical at the beginning.
Another benefit: you don’t need special clothes or a fancy pillow to do it, just your physical body, ability to close your eyes and a willingness to pay attention in a relatively quiet spot. What meditation isn’t? A journey for a select few that’s done once, and then you live happily ever after.
“Meditation can feel like a mountain too big to climb, with too much pressure to reach the top,” said Erin Motz, a registered yoga teacher with more than a decade of yoga and meditation experience. “The ‘top’ is reaching some kind of ethereal state where we can live permanently stress-free. But that entire image is wrong, so start by changing your image of what meditation means.”
You’re Not Supposed to Be Perfect — Just Present
One of the most common things people say about meditation (including myself) is that they’re “bad” at it, so they just never do it. Think about this for a second. With anything that’s good for you, literally the only way to make an improvement is to start from where you are and try to make a change little by little.
There are lots of health-related things I’m not perfect at, but that doesn’t mean I decide to eat cupcakes and lay on the couch all day. I approached meditation the same way — I didn’t have to be perfect, I just needed to regularly show up and see how it went each time.
“Be fidgety during meditation — nobody is going to judge and it won’t greatly impact your practice,” said Melissa McClain, a photographer who has been meditating for years. “You might find, however, that over time you get less fidgety. This is a sign that meditation is building your ability to access a calm body and mind and improved focus and concentration."
"Let your fear of lack of stillness be a gauge for your progress over time instead of making it a limiting factor that hold you back," she said. "Have an active mind? Congrats, you’re human! Meditation isn’t about clearing the mind completely. Mindfulness meditation is about become aware of your mind wandering, what it regularly wanders to (past, future) and developing the skill to notice, let go and come back to a focused mind. Rinse and repeat. Over time, you’ll notice more and longer periods of calm focus another measure of your progress.”
It’s OK to Really Dislike Meditation at First
On a similar note, in a month’s time, there was not one single meditation practice that felt easy or enjoyable. Seriously. I don’t say that to disappoint you or scare you off.
For me, it was kind of like eating my vegetables or working out — I never really wanted to do, but I also knew I would feel better in the long run if I just did it. And the more I did it, the better I felt, both physically and emotionally.
“The number one reason people don’t begin meditation practices is lack of time, with ‘It’s too hard, I can’t clear my mind’ as a close second,” said Michael Bridge-Dickson, author of "Yoga: Point and Process."
“Regarding the first roadblock, many people think they need to invest 20-30 minutes per day in a seated meditation practice," he said. "This is simply not so, and those who are busy and stressed out, this perceived requirement just adds more stress and becomes an even greater roadblock. Meditation is meant to reduce stress, not create it.”
Let Your Mind Do What It Needs to Do
“People think meditation means to shut off their mind and not think,” said Jenay Rose, a yoga teacher based in Los Angeles. “This is a huge misconception and can be totally discouraging for anyone who tries meditation. They think, ‘I can't stop thinking, so I must be doing it wrong, well it's just not for me, I quit!’ When in fact, the opposite is happening. You are gaining awareness and mindfulness around your mind, which is huge cause for celebration because it's the first step to starting a meditation practice.”
The whole point of meditation, added Rose, is to observe your thoughts — not turn them off entirely, which is impossible.
Once I realized this, meditating became a little bit easier.
Don't Aspire to an Empty Mind
Rather than spending the entire time fretting about the fact that my mind seemed to race from thought to thought, I tried to think of my mental state differently.
For example, when my dog wanted to settle down for a nap on the couch, he moved around, sniffed all the blankets, and pawed his feet until he found the perfect spot to lay down with a sigh. My mind was the same way — it had to move around for a while until it was able to quiet down.
“With around 60,000 thoughts a day, it is tough for anyone to turn off their mind, let alone someone who is new to it,” said meditation and mindfulness teacher Jaime Pfeffer. “So, if you've struggled to maintain a mind void of thought, know this: you are meditating, even when this occurs. Although one goal of meditation is to quiet the mind, meditation does not always mean the absence of thought. In fact, if you're someone who uses mindfulness or guided meditations, it never does.”
Experiment With Different Types of Meditation
Did you know there are actually several different styles of meditation? I had no idea. I mostly assumed it was one-size-fits-all, and once I learned of more options, I felt more interested in finding one that resonated with me specifically.
The most common types are breath-focused, often called mindfulness meditation, but another popular type is known as transcendental meditation, which is mantra-oriented. You can explore meditation through apps on your phone, or check out specific restorative or meditative yoga classes at local studios. For many, selecting a guided meditation is key to sticking with it.
“A big meditation roadblock is having unrealistic expectations and giving up too soon,” said Kim McIntyre, a meditation teacher and stress relief specialist. “People have heard that meditation quiets the mind or makes you feel blissed out. When that doesn’t happen on the first or second try, they give up. They decide that they don’t like it, or that they aren’t good at it — but, they haven’t really given it a chance."
She said, "The easiest way around this roadblock is to start with guided meditations and/or a meditation app. A guided experience makes it easier to feel some positive effects early in the process. The better it feels, the more likely people are to want to stick with it — also, with the instruction built in, people are less likely to worry about whether or not they are doing it right.”
Focus on Your Breath
Like most people, I’m used to doing things all the time, so I had to shift my mentality regarding meditation ... because there’s nothing to “do.” For many, this can feel counterproductive: why just sit there and breathe when you could be going somewhere or achieving some goal?
We often tie valuable time spent to accomplishments or checking the box, not breathing and being. But the whole purpose behind meditation is to bring your attention inward to discover a calm, relaxed state of consciousness, and intentional breathing can help.
I usually tried to breathe in 1:1 ratios — inhale for one breath, exhale for one breath — because it allowed me to stay focused, but experts also recommend counting your breath.
“Take 60 seconds every day to inhale for eight counts, hold for eight counts, and exhale for 12 counts,” Motz said. “You can adjust those counts according to how comfortable that feels, too. But just taking one minute a day will make a difference.”
Figure Out When and Where You Prefer to Meditate
“For many of us, daily meditation is seriously 5-10 minutes,” said Sandy Weaver, with Center for Workplace Happiness. “Set aside time early in your day — before you've watched the news or checked your email. Get up, do what you need to do for your personal comfort (i.e.: bathroom, comfy clothes, water, breakfast, etc.) and meditate.”
I found that I really liked to try to meditate in the morning, like Weaver described, midday or right before bed. Meditating in the morning before I did anything else helped me ease out of sleep into the day. It offered a quick reset in the middle of the day, particularly if I was feeling overwhelmed or stress with work obligations. And at night, I enjoyed guided sleep meditations versus looking at my phone.
You certainly don’t have to pick three times a day to meditate, but experiment with when and where to figure out what makes sense for your lifestyle and preferences.
Make It Part of Your Daily Routine
I was most successful at meditation every time I just made it part of my usual routine, i.e., “When I wake up, I meditate for 10 minutes.” The end. No mental debate about it, I just did it in the same way that I showered or brushed my teeth.
Days when I let myself listen to excuses, like “I don’t have time this morning!” or “I’m too tired, I’ll just check my email first,” were the ones where it simply didn’t happen.
“No matter what comes up in your life, book your meditation times into your calendar and show up,” said meditation expert Veronica Parker. “Don't sabotage your practice before you start. Showing up everyday at the same time begins to build your mind muscle to remember this is your meditation time. Some days will feel great, while other days you might have your entire to-do list running through your head. It doesn't matter. Show up and stick with it.”
Trying Again, Understanding Your Patterns
Above all, I had to learn that meditation wasn’t something to achieve. It was something to practice over and over again.
I would experience a great stretch of meditating once a day for three days in a row, and then miss two days and have to start over feeling frustrated. But with time, I saw the value in repetitive new beginnings.
During meditation, if my mind kept jumping around, instead of quitting, I could step back and observe: “Oh, wow, you’re so distracted right now! Let’s try that again.” Or if I noticed that the same critical or negative thought kept popping up again, I then started to wonder why I was dwelling on that topic, and asked myself if I could let it go.
Slowly but surely, I saw my emotions for what they were — noisy thoughts or feelings that may or may not be true, that I couldn’t always control — and could step back and regroup, which proved to be a useful skill in literally all areas of my life.
But it took patience.
“Be gentle with yourself, and remember you are creating a practice with meditation,” Parker cautioned. “It's not a sprint. Every day gets you a little bit closer to experiencing more presence and stillness.”