Meditation centers, workshops and classes help bring focus to your life
by Sarah Landicho
Even though meditation is part of yoga’s eight-limbed path, how many yogis actually meditate? During a crowded yoga class last fall, the instructor asked students how many meditate. A few hands went up. But when she asked how many were curious about meditation or would like to start a practice, about half the room raised their hands.
The barrier seems to be rooted in preconceived notions about what meditation is—or what it should be. After class, students named a number of reasons for not meditating: they didn’t know how, they didn’t think they could sit still and empty their minds for a prescribed amount of time, and they didn’t have the time to start a regular practice. Yet these same students still wanted to try.
The good news is there are more resources than ever to help interested students build a meditation practice. Tami Robinson, a Chicago yoga teacher, coach and meditation instructor, says the best way to develop a practice is to drop any expectations. “It’s all about finding something to focus on,” she explains. “When the mind strays and you notice, it’s about bringing it back to that focus.”
Tom Adducci, executive director of Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago, agrees. The focus at the Shambhala Center is feeling and identifying the breath, he explains. Although group meditation at Shambhala is often seated, the center also incorporates walking meditation to give meditators options for exploring their practice. Adducci says, “Here, [meditation] is very gentle. The idea is making friends with yourself.” He adds, “You feel what you feel, you know what you think, and learn about being in the present moment.”
If letting go and focusing on the breath sounds similar to a physical yoga practice, it is—and it often sparks yogis toward a seated meditation practice. “Yoga was the path to meditation for me. It started with that moving meditation,” says Piper-Lori Parker, co-owner of Zen Yoga Garage in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. “After years of practice I learned seated meditation needed to be part of my life and an integral part of my teaching.” Parker now includes seated silence as a part of every class she leads.
One way to get started is to visit a meditation center such as Shambhala (with locations in and around Chicago), or stop into a yoga studio for a meditation workshop or sitting.
Yoga Six, a nationwide chain of studios with Chicago locations in South Loop, Lincoln Park and Gold Coast, added 30-minute guided meditation classes to all of its studios last fall. “I think it’s one of the most important thingswe do here,” explains Jenny Kaufman, Midwest Regional Program Manager. “You can get yoga in a lot of places, but you can’t access a drop-in meditation class in many places.”
Kaufman describes Yoga Six’s group meditation as very “user-friendly.” Students can come during work or on their way home with no need to change clothes. Practice starts with some light movement to warm the spine, continues with preparing the body to sit and then centers the mind on a focal point. Students are encouraged to adjust their position or recline for comfort.
“The point is to focus on one thing, whether it’s the mechanics of breath or the image of a heart, instead of focusing on nothing,” Kaufman says. Shambhala encourages meditators to explore a noontime drop-in session at its West Loop location, one of its regularly scheduled sittings or a free open house. Students who want to travel deeper into the practice or down the Shambhala path can sign up for workshops or schedule a private session. The center also offers instruction in a variety of contemplative arts and also does corporate trainings.
If sitting seems daunting, Yoga Nidra is another meditative option. While the body is comfortably reclined, the teacher shifts the students’ awareness around the body and to different images and emotions, leaving them relaxed and energized. The guided yogic sleep (during which the student is taken into a state of deep relaxation but awareness) can last between 10 and 45 minutes. Zen Yoga Garage offers Yoga Nidra the first Sunday of every month.
Robinson suggests starting small. “Even a few minutes have a positive effect,” she advises. “And detach from any expectation about what meditation is, what you ‘should’ feel or what you are supposed to experience.” Robinson also recommends practicing often and during any available time. “Make it a part of your routine, like brushing your teeth,” she adds.
Adducci notes that meditating frequently can lead to mental stability. “You are able to place your mind where you want it to be,” he explains. “As a result, you become able to see things a little more clearly, the colors are a little brighter—food might even taste better.”
Remember that meditation isn’t a one-style-fits-all practice, Robinson adds. “Try different techniques until you find one that works for you,” she advises. Different teachers use different focal points. A Japa-style (mantra-based) meditation, in which a practitioner touches each bead on a mala strand and recites a meaningful word or phrase, creates a tactile method of keeping the mind focused. Watching a candle flame can offer a visual meditation for thosewho prefer to practice with their eyes open.
Meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm and Omvana can also create an instant place to meditate with the tap of your smartphone. Additional tips for meditation: Start each practice as a beginner, set the body up properly (sitting up on a cushion can help, and allowing oneself permission to adjust is key), and don’t try too hard. “Allow your practice to be what it is, each day, each moment,” Robinson says.
Kelli O’Connell, one of Robinson’s students, says meditation workshops have been transformational for her. “I’ve been able to focus and meditate at my desk, and it’s improved my meditation in savasana at the end of yoga class. To be in the present—to be here now, it’s helped me to do that,” she says. “I learned you don’t have to have a perfect place or time to meditate,” she says. “It’s really very basic. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.”