One yogi never had enough hours in the day to tend to it all, much less herself. Here’s how this regular Tantric practice inspired a change.
As a yogi, I’ve grasped the concept of abundance—intellectually. But as someone easily whacked out of balance by overbearing personalities or overwhelming workloads, I’ve never been entirely convinced that the universe could accommodate both my needs and virtually anything else at hand. Things get crowded quickly. My chest tightens and hip flexors grip; I ditch plans to practice yoga, stop making nourishing meals, and skip dates to connect with dear friends—or, most importantly, myself.
It may all go back to growing up in a Greek household, which involved what I’ll generously call a spirited communication style. Somehow, stillness and peace were elusive in a two-story home with big bedrooms and a finished basement. And this perceived lack of space spilled into an underlying, unchecked zero-sum mentality that has shaped my perspective ever since.
In early college, roommates and I lamented the supposed dearth of eligible partners in the dating scene. When peers sustained relationships, I’d shake my head and say, “they’re stealing from the sex pot,” as though, like a soup special on a cold day, our campus could just run out of love.
Last year, a yoga teacher and I showed up for a filming project and both felt under the weather. By mid-afternoon, I’d recovered; “I used up all the good vibes when you needed it most!” I joked. She (kindly) reminded me that there is an infinite source of healing for all.
This isn’t exactly what I thought I’d confront as I embarked on YJ’s month-long challenge to practice a chakra meditation every day. Finding calm? Sure. Less stress? Looked forward to that. Spiritual ecstasy? If I’m lucky, great—but not a must. Instead, it was time to take a look at my internal space-time continuum.
See also YJ’s March Meditation Challenge Will Help You Stick to a Steady Practice
Balancing the Chakras
The 31-day challenge began without ceremony on New Year’s Day in Brussels, where my partner and I were visiting family. I sat in the unmade guest bed, welcomed a purring Chartreux voluntarily curled up in my lap, and fired up a 20-minute guided chakra meditation from legendary Tantra teacher Sally Kempton.
New to chakras? Here’s a quick primer: Chakras are whirling forces of subtle energy associated with different aspects of the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. There are 7 (of many more) chakras primarily taught in yoga, and this is what they stand for:
- Muladhara (Root): Earth, security, home, finances
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water, creativity, sexuality
- Manipura (Solar Plexus): Fire, sense of self
- Anahata (Heart): Air, love
- Visuddha (Throat): Space, communication from the heart’s truth
- Ajna (Third Eye): Light, intuition
- Sahasrara (Crown): Bliss, divine connection
(You can get sucked into learning more about the chakras here.)
They are strung along the sushumna nadi, a central channel of life force that runs from the base of the spine through the crown of the head. The idea is that balancing the chakras—by focusing breath, mantras (sounds), yantras (shapes), imagery, and colors in their respective locations along this totem—allows you to access this sacred streak of energy.
When I asked Sally about what happens when (and if) you open the central channel, she dangled a taste of nonduality. In Tantra, reality is a universe in which everyone is one with the divine. “You can become aware that your body is a formless, vast undulating center full of light and bliss,” she said. “It’s a fairly dramatic experience.”
It all sounds esoteric, so I wouldn’t expect everyone to embrace it. But I’d microdosed on chakra practices for over 15 years, so I was ready to dive in. When I was 20, I found a random chakra book in my East Village sublet and journaled a root chakra affirmation that resonated: “I am safe, I trust in the natural flow of life, I take my natural place in the world content in the knowledge that all I need will come to me in the right time and place.” Years later, within the context of a vigorous flow, Seane Corn presented the chakras as a psychological roadmap for growth.
Then I met Tantra and Kriya masters Alan and Sarah Finger, who truly brought the chakras to light and offered concrete techniques to harmonize them. They also answered a good question: How do you actually locate a chakra? For me, bija (seed) mantras were the entry point; if I focused enough, repeating the staccato sounds (such as lam for the root chakra) help me trace a pulse in a specific location (pelvic floor).
Even so, beaming awareness and imagery to ambiguous areas in my body required concentration and good faith. As a result, the neurotic part of my brain didn’t focus on the usual storylines: deadlines, challenges, or omg how much time is left in this meditation?! I was lulled by the mantras’ vibrations, and all the visualizations inspired my imagination—a boon for anyone who spends too much time in Type-A territory.
There was a misstep when I first imagined elements—earth, water, fire, space, light, bliss—associated with each chakra. Before Brussels, I’d traveled to Rome, so my mind conjured scenes from the Colosseum: snarled roots in its underbelly; water rising in the amphitheater… I quickly decided not to instill scenes from such an infamous space.
Instead I coaxed meaningful imagery: Strong roots holding up the mermaid-like mahogany trees I’d seen on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; emerald lakes tucked into rarely trekked valleys of the Sierra Nevada that I’d swam in; the pulse of my apartment stove’s burner enacting a flame in my belly; a tiny flame on a stick of palo santo in my heart center. A Magritte sky in my throat, leading to a golden hour light spilling in from my third eye and crown.
Watch also: What, Exactly, Are the Chakras? Alan Finger Explains
How the Chakras Created Space in My Body, Mind… and Life
Right away things shifted. I was still on holiday when my coworkers began trickling back into the office. Although I still checked my email—it may take a year of meditation to bust that habit—I didn’t feel my heart pound as they came in. I felt freedom as I visited museums, enjoyed the art nouveau architecture, and connected with family.
Instead of seeking the usual alone time when I returned to New York, I invited good friends over for dinner and king cake. Once I resumed the grind, that vacation halo lasted longer than usual. Each meditation felt like it was literally emptying me of clutter and fog, leaving me with clarity.
The real test came later in the month, when my schedule packed up. I prepared for an upcoming filming in another state. I assisted a week-long yoga training that lasted from early morning until evening, and then came home to complete the day’s work. Oh, and a friend from California came to stay with me.
Even for someone who doesn’t easily get overwhelmed, a lot was going on. And it would have been my default to shut out my friend, worry my way through the training, or just operate from the adrenaline.
There’s a pop culture adage that we all have the same amount of time in a day as Beyoncé. Maybe her secret is chakra meditations, because as I found space in my practice, my life opened up. I didn’t have to turn anything down, yet I didn’t feel resentful saying yes. All that inward focus cultivated a strong sense of embodiment. I could be present without losing my wits (or myself) in the process.
When the subway literally broke one morning before training, I didn’t agonize that I’d be late. I calmly walked 20 minutes to the nearest bus route, emailed my teacher, and meditated. (I showed up on time anyway.)
See also This is the Reason I Take the Subway 45 Minutes Uptown to Work Out – Even Though There’s a Gym On My Block
During the training, I knocked over a tripod and it came crashing down during a calming restorative practice. I froze with horror; attempting to melt into my mat was futile. Shit happens, and I was grateful for a makeshift chakra meditation in that moment to move past embarrassment.
I felt peace in this chaotic schedule and could summon an abundance of presence, making deep connections with students at the training, laughing with my good friend at midnight, being kinder to my partner, and, most importantly, tending to myself.
It may sound odd that I “allowed” myself these basic needs and simple pleasures, but it’s true: In the past, the weight of a to-do list or a lot of social obligations meant I didn’t have room for myself. I may not have experienced the splendor of the infinite universe (yet!), but this meditation expanded time and space so I could register the divine moments every day.
I started my days with a cup of coffee on the sofa and read instead of clacking away at emails. I prepared an egg and avocado breakfast. I stole moments to enjoy the way the low winter sun lit the pastel buildings in Soho.
See also This is Your Brain on Meditation
6 Breath Practices for a Stressful Day at Work
Try these pranayama techniques at your desk to feel centered and calm when your job gets hectic.
Work is often a huge source of stress in our lives. Whether you’re trying to meet unrealistic deadlines, manage a high workload, or handle a conflict with a boss or co-worker, it can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
When things start to feel out of control at work, one of the simplest things you can do to calm your nervous system and improve your state of mind is to take a few moments to shift your focus to your breath. Better yet, take five for pranayama, or breathwork, right at your desk. Pranayama, which means controlling your breath and its energies, can be a powerful reset for your body and mind.
See also 30 Yoga Sequences to Reduce Stress
Research suggests that a regular pranayama practice can improve brain health and attention, which means you’ll be better able to tackle the tasks and challenges ahead.
Typically, your breath will become more shallow and rapid when you’re feeling stressed. So, it’s best to use the pranayama techniques that slow down your breath in order to quiet your mind, improve concentration, and ease anxiety, stress, or agitation.
See also Yoga for Stress and Burnout
To help you manage the daily grind, here are six breathing practices to try at the office when you’re having a rough day.
These pranayama exercises are not just limited to work-related stress, but also are applicable to other areas where stress might come up in your life. So, practice as little or as often as you like. The time you take to focus on your breath also gives you the space to gain clarity and return to a more neutral state of well-being.
Here’s What Happened When I Tried Mantra Meditation During The Hardest Month of My Life
Hint: It helped. A lot.
If someone would’ve told me back in December that the first month of 2019 would be the hardest of my life, I probably would’ve thought twice before signing up for Yoga Journal’s 30-day meditation challenge. Because let’s be honest: Meditation is the exact opposite of running away from your problems. Instead, it inspires you to sit your butt down right in the middle of those problems and face your resulting emotions head on.
In January, all I wanted to do was run away from my ongoing relationship problems, self smack-talk, and most significantly, the immense sadness from the death of my beloved aunt.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
Yet even though there were many days that stared at my cushion with pure, unadulterated resentment, or put off my practice until the end of the day, I can honestly say that the practice completely transformed how I handled some of the most challenging times I’ve ever faced. It not only gave me the space to confront my feelings, but it also helped me learn how to take care of myself along the way.
Introducing Myself to Mantra Meditation
I’ve been consistently meditating for a little over a year now, practicing everything from guided 10-minute meditations on the Calm app to classes at MNDFL meditation studio in New York City. However, I would say my relationship with meditation didn’t become a real commitment until I got a meditation cushion for my apartment about five months ago. It’s dramatically changed my practice, which used to happen in my bed. (You can imagine how that went on the days I was tired.)
Even though I had heard positive things about mantra meditation—a practice where you silently repeat a mantra, which you either choose for yourself or is given to you during an initiation—I was pretty intimidated by it. However, when I spoke with Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace, he told me that mantra, just like asana or pranayama, is simply a tool used to alter the consciousness. “When practicing with a mantra, it’s important to say the mantra aloud first, so that you can feel the sound vibrations in the body,” he told me.
See also Tempted to Skip Savasana? 10 Top Yoga Teachers Explain Why It’s the Most Important Pose
As a somewhat experienced meditator, mantra meditation was still very new to me. I didn’t really have a plan to choose a mantra, but after practicing alongside Hilary Jackendoff in a guided meditation video, she helped me discover “So Hum,” which means “I am that.” Finger mentioned that different mantras can be used for different feelings, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more, but this mantra felt pretty versatile, so I stuck with it.
Jackendoff taught us to meditate with the mantra, using the breath. On every inhalation, I would silently say the word “So.” On every exhalation, I would silently say the word “Hum.” I’m used to meditating with my breath, so this seemed doable.
Week 1: When Sh!t Hits the Fan, It’s Time to Sit
Disclaimer: I didn’t meditate at all the first two days of January. I also didn’t work out or eat healthy (some of the habits I stick with regularly). I was feeling really down on myself, because January is supposed to be a time to start new habits, eat clean, and get fit—and I felt like I blew it already. It sounds ridiculous, but that is my thought process sometimes. When my good habits don’t happen, I tend to beat myself up.
Then, as I was working at my laptop on the third day of January, I had a thought and told myself: You can sit here, work, and feel miserable—or you can take a 20-minute break, step away from your laptop, and meditate.
See also Get Your Sit Together: 7 Best Meditation Cushions to Support Your Practice
It took everything in me to walk upstairs and grab my cushion, but I was desperate to feel better, so that’s exactly what I did.
Week 2: When “I am that” becomes “I am love”
After my first week of mantra meditation, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Suddenly, my goals for the new year weren’t tied to perfecting myself through diet and exercise, but instead, doing something every day that made me feel loved—and meditation became that thing. I switched my mantra. Instead of silently repeating So Hum, I started repeating “I am” on every inhalation and “love” on every exhalation. I found myself looking forward to making a cup of tea, plopping down on my cushion, and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Having a week of solid practice under my belt really helped me for what was to come. Because my theme for 2019 is self-love, I became hyper aware of my relationships—with myself and with others. My boyfriend and I got into an argument in the beginning of the month and I wasn’t able to let it go. Every time we tried to talk about it, we couldn’t come to a fair conclusion.
See also 5 Poses to Help You Reconnect With Your Partner After a Miscommunication
During the second week of my meditation, the lingering argument kept coming up in my meditation. I would sit on the cushion, silently repeat my mantra, and cry. How could I practice “I am love” if I didn’t feel loved? How could I love him if I kept beating myself up?
So, what did I do? I continued to sit, to cry, and to come back to my breath. Giving myself that space during meditation allowed me to tap into what I was really feeling. It also gave me the space to go to my boyfriend later that week with a calm heart. Instead of arguing, we were able to have a productive conversation. I truly believe that if I didn’t give myself that space, we would still be arguing today about the same thing.
Weeks 3 and 4: Sitting with Sadness
For the past eight months, my beloved aunt had been living with metastatic breast cancer—the terminal kind. On January 21, she passed away.
A few days before her death, I my mom called me to let me know it was time to come home. I took a bus from New York City to Maryland on the morning of January 21 and repeated my mantra for about 25 minutes. An hour into my journey, my brother texted me to tell me that my aunt had passed away.
See also Spiritual Leader Ram Dass on Zen and the Art of Dying
In the days following my aunt’s death, I felt so much hurt I didn’t even realize was possible. Every time I came to my meditation cushion, I would cry, breathe, and simply sit in a feeling of numbness. The cushion gave me space—to feel sad, to mourn, to feel angry, and sometimes, to do nothing. Every time I came back to my mantra—“I am love”—I remembered that my aunt wouldn’t want me to live in grief and sadness. It was inevitable to feel these emotions, sure. But I realized the only way these feelings would pass is if I really felt them.
The difference I noticed thanks to my new mantra meditation practice happened when I wasn’t on my cushion. Every single day after my aunt passed, I would ask myself how I could bring a little more love into my day. Some days that meant resting and watching movies with my mom. Other days that meant working out, going for a long walk, or spending time with friends.
Moving Forward with Mantra
Now that it’s February, I still hold my mantra in my heart. I still ask myself every day, “How can you bring more love into your day?” or “What will make you feel more loved?” I think I will continue to keep my mantra in my practice until something else seems like a better fit. Just as Finger told me, there’s a mantra for everything—and I look forward to discovering more mantras as my life’s journey, and all its ups and downs, unfolds.
See also Why Does Meditation Make You Feel So Rested?
How 31 Days of Moving Meditation Helped One Yogi Slow Down
For one always-on-the-go writer, learning to be more mindful while she was on the move helped her find more peace when she was still, too.
I was lingering over a pasta dinner in Rome over the holidays this year, sitting back in my chair with one hand on my full belly and the other holding my glass of red wine when it hit me: I have to do this more often. Not the trips to Rome or even the pasta—although more of both would be nice. What I found myself craving in that moment was more of that kind of slowing down—giving myself space in everyday, non-vacation life to really experience and even savor what I’m doing.
Slowing down is a serious challenge for me. I’m a self-proclaimed productivity fiend: The more I can get done in a day, the better. My job, writing and editing for YogaJournal.com, stokes this natural instinct in me. In digital media, praise comes flying at you when you work quickly. I’m also a born-and-raised New Yorker, which means my go-to pace is almost always a little (OK, a lot) faster than those outside the big Apple.
See also Meditation Has Proven Benefits: So Why Is It Hard to Commit?
So, when I returned home from Italy to Boulder, Colo., and was asked to practice moving meditation every day for 31 days, it seemed like a logical fit. I’d been sporadic with my usual, mantra-based meditation practice, solidly in a new habit of making a beeline for my computer—not my meditation cushion—after brushing my teeth each morning. Would moving meditation help me slow my roll, and infuse my life with more mindfulness? I wanted to find out.
What is Moving Meditation?
Last year, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long retreat in beautiful Red Feather Lakes here in Colorado with yoga and Tibetan Buddhism teacher, Cyndi Lee. The retreat was held at the Shambhala Mountain Center, high in the Colorado Rockies and home to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. My first experience practicing moving meditation was there, with Lee guiding me and the rest of the 20-some-odd group, on a walk to the Stupa.
See also Yoga Journal’s Meditation Challenge Will Help You Stick to a Steady Practice
Lee explained that just as in a sitting meditation, where your attention might be on your breath or repeating a mantra, in a moving meditation, you place your attention on the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step. How does your foot feel in your shoe, or on the earth? What does it feel like as your heel strikes the ground before rolling onto the ball mound of your foot and then your toes? You get the drift. When you first start out, it’s recommended that you walk a little slower than usual, so you can really feel your feet with every step.
As we practiced this walking meditation on retreat that day, I felt awkward at first. With every step, a thought popped into my head: There’s my heel; What would an outsider looking in think of us walking in a line so freakin’ slowly?! Oooh, so that’s what my foot’s arch feels like when my weight rolls from the back of my heel toward the front; Ugh, how long is this going to take us?!
See also Try This Durga-Inspired Guided Meditation for Strength
Luckily, Lee normalized this common monkey-mind activity. “The idea is not that you’re going to have absolutely no thoughts,” she says. “What you’re doing is cultivating your ability to recognize that you don’t have to buy into everything that comes up. Part of the experience is recognizing that your mind will stray, so when it does, you bring it very gently with precision back to the feeling of your foot on earth. Step, step, step.”
The Challenge: 5 Minutes of Moving Meditation Every Day
While I can’t say my first experience of moving meditation was profound, I was intrigued enough by its potential to help me slow down and be more mindful in all areas of my life that I committed to at least 5 minutes of moving meditation every day for the month of January. Before I got started, I asked Lee if I should continue my already-established (if sporadic) mantra-based practice.
“Will repeating my mantra while practicing moving meditation help me focus?” I asked Lee.
See also This 5-Minute Meditation for Parents Will Save Your Sanity
“No,” she replied. “When trying a new meditation practice, it’s best to stick to just one rather than dabble in many,” she told me.
I started out simple: From the Yoga Journal office, I took solo walks to the coffee shop around the corner and didn’t ask a co-worker to join, like usual. The typically 5-minute stroll took about 8 minutes at moving-meditation speed, and while my mind did wander—mostly to my long list of to-dos—I didn’t beat myself up about that fact. Instead, I kept coming back to the feeling of each step. I found myself noticing things I hadn’t before: the subtle feeling of my foot on a crack in the sidewalk; the sound of the wooden heel of my favorite pair of booties on a day-old snow-ice mix; the feeling of one part of my foot on pavement and another on grass.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
After each of my walking meditations during my first and second weeks of this challenge, I had to try hard not to brush off the seemingly insignificant sensations I was having. How would it serve me to know exactly what it feels like to simultaneously have my heel on pavement and the ball of my foot on grass? I stuck to the practice on my walks to the coffee shop and abandoned them en route back to my desk.
The Ah-Ha Moment: When I Knew Moving Meditation Was Working
The third week in to my moving meditation experiment, I had a game-changing therapy appointment which, it turns out, would alter the way I thought about my new, mindful walks.
I was talking to Leah, my therapist, about my near-frenetic pace and its impacts on my life. It was making me more gruff and less compassionate. It was inspiring me to race through my writing and editing, which meant I was more careless with my words. It was making me less present with my boyfriend, friends, and worst of all, myself.
See also Pranayama 101: This Moving Breath Practice Will Teach You to Let Go
“So, what’s the antidote?” I pleaded, practically begging her for an assignment I could add to my to-dos. “If I can’t move to Tuscany, how can I finally slow the heck down?”
Leah shot me a knowing smile.
“You don’t need another to-do,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you to meditate for 20 minutes every morning in order to get more present. You can show up more fully, and in better alignment with who you are and how you want to be in the world, by doing what I call ‘one eye in, one eye out.’”
Think of this concept as the epitome of taking your practices off your meditation cushion and yoga mat and into the world, Leah continued. When the practices are working, the world is your mat. One eye in helps you stay in alignment with your central channel—the place from which you move with your heart, not a head full of fear. One eye out helps you interact with others and field all of the things that will inevitably come flying at you, many of which will be completely out of your control.
See also This Napa Valley Vintner’s Ritual for Inner Calm is a Meditation
“The secret to experience this kind of embodied presence is noticing your physical sensations,” Leah told me. “Try it now. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your thighs on the couch. Feel your back supported by the cushion behind you. Now, can you do all of that and simultaneously talk to me?”
Of course, I thought to myself, smiling at how messages often show up a few times for them to finally sink in. This is what moving meditation is also about. One eye in to feel the sensation of my feet on the ground; one eye out to help me get where I’m going, only more mindfully.
During my final week of this moving meditation challenge, I started looking forward to my daily walks—which became longer than 8 minutes—and found myself tuning in to how I take up space in my body and in the world. Sometimes, this meant that even my 15-second walk to the office printer became an opportunity to clue in to the physical sensation of my feet on the carpet and my hip flexors and thigh bones initiating the movement of each leg. Other times, it meant simply taking a few seconds to feel my finger pads on my keyboard before I started typing.
See also Yoga Journal’s March Meditation Challenge
Best of all, little hits of my newfound sense of embodiment started happening even when work and this moving meditation challenge were the last things on my mind. One night, I sat down to dinner with my boyfriend, Brian, at home. Before I dug in to the grilled salmon and roasted broccoli I’d raced to Whole Foods to buy and then cook for us after a busy day, I consciously felt my feet on the ground, my thighs and back supported by the dining room chair, and I and connected to my heart space—all of which happened in what felt like milliseconds.
And it felt even more satisfying than that belly full of ravioli and glass of Chianti in Tuscany over the holidays.
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