5 meditation alternatives for people who can't sit still or clear their minds
Meditation is what makes me feel sane when my wife leaves, or when I'm struggling through a vacation with my dysfunctional family, or just when I have the daily stress of deadlines. I’ve been a yoga and meditation instructor and have maintained my own daily samatha vipassana (silent seated meditation) practice for over a decade. From both personal and professional experience, I know that meditation can help you become happier, healthier, more focused, and better able to withstand stress. That all sounds impressive, and it is, but quick anecdotes and research studies don’t convey how difficult it is to develop the kind of meditation habits that yield those results.
I’ve had a practice for 10 years, but if you take into account that I was taught to meditate in 2001, that means that it took me almost a decade to make it a habit. Why? Well, if you’ve ever tried to sit quietly and “clear your mind,” you know that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Meditation can be especially difficult for people with anxiety, depression, and PTSD — and these are exactly the folks who need its benefits the most. The good news is that there are a lot of stepping stones to classic meditation that can help you develop the discipline to establish your own practice. Starting with less rigid alternatives can give you some of the benefits of mindfulness and get you a lot closer to meditating.
First, I need to debunk a popular misconception of meditation that holds almost everyone who tries it back. You ready?
“Clearing your mind” isn’t a thing. Meditation does not mean not thinking. Your brain is an organ. It makes thoughts. You want it to keep making thoughts. Meditation is being able to get some distance from those thoughts and developing the skill to focus on one thought at a time. So, if you’ve ever tried meditation and thought you were doing it all wrong because your brain still made thoughts, well, congratulations: You’re a human. And not a failure. And if going to a meditation class scares you, that’s okay, too. While I recommend having an experienced instructor to guide you through more traditional forms, there are a lot of things you can do at home on your own.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s explore some meditation-adjacent practices that will help you get all that juicy happiness and focus.
Meditation for people who just can’t sit still
You don’t have to be immobile to increase your ability to focus. There are a lot of body-centered practices that will let you move and teach you how to be fully present to the experience. Yoga is the most well-known. If you want to gain the meditative benefits of yoga, go to a quiet class led by an experienced teacher.
I can’t emphasize “quiet” enough. There is no classic style of yoga that uses music as part of the physical practice. Music is great to keep you motivated during a workout, but if increased focus is your intention, it’s a needless distraction. Classic styles that are focused on the meditative aspects of yoga are Iyengar (slow, long pose holds, lots of props, emphasis on close attention to alignment) and Ashtanga (sweaty, quick, challenging, often self-guided). If yoga’s not your jam, or you are concerned about cultural appropriation, you can instead try Somatic Movement, a system of using sensory experience to develop self-awareness.
Meditation for people who need something to think about
Try a death meditation. No, I’m not joking. It may sound heavy, but meditating on your own death can actually make you happier. Not only does death meditation give you something really engaging to stay focused on, it can help you put the life you’re living in perspective. As Lisa Cohen, clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, told me in an interview for Vice, “It does help you see what’s really important and what’s not important. Things related to status, self-esteem, or markers of status become much less important and you focus on what’s really a priority.”
The Bhutanese, widely touted as the happiest people on earth, believe that meditating on your own death is the key to happiness. They believe that you should consider your own death five times a day. If you’re not ready for a full frontal confrontation with your own mortality, there’s a great app called We Croak that sends you reminders five times a day that say, “Remember, you are going to die,” and then it gives you an inspiring quote about the preciousness of life. Keep in mind though, you want to avoid this type of meditation if you are managing PTSD or severe depression.
Meditation for people who want to meditate but really need a nap
A lot of people fall asleep during meditation. Personally, I think that’s great. If you fall asleep, it means that you’re relaxed. My favorite meditation when I’m tired is called Yoga Nidra, which means “yogic sleep.” It’s not actually supposed to be a nap, but it is believed to induce theta brain activity, which is the state of mind your brain is in when you are relaxed and in a state of “flow.” My favorite guided yoga nidra practices on are Insight Timer, an app that you can use for many styles of guided meditation or to time your own practices. It uses soft bells and chimes instead of the harsh digital tones most of us have on our phones.
Meditation for people who hate quiet
I know I said that music can be a distraction from focus, but there are also ways that it can be used intentionally to create focus. I was dubious when the folks at Wave sent me their product to try. At $199 plus a monthly subscription, it’s a bit of an investment and, like I said, I’m not convinced that meditation and music are compatible.
But, if you love music and want a high tech stepping stone to traditional meditation, Wave is an awesome “music meditation experience.” It comes with a meditation bolster that you can use sitting or lying down, headphones, and uses guided practices set to ambient music. The bolster gives your body sensory cues that are in tune with breathing exercises and music. I found the experience to be easy and relaxing. The subtle vibrations of the bolster in tune with the music really helped me keep my attention on the sensations of my body and away from wandering thoughts.
There’s also an inspo quality to Wave. The meditations are all very “you can do anything you put your mind to,” which, even though I’m skeptical about affirmations, is a cheerful pick me up in the middle of a hard day.
Meditation for people who don’t want anyone to know they’re meditating
Breathing is the focal point of many classic styles of meditation. In yoga, it’s called pranayama, and it’s usually done at the beginning or end of a class. But we’re breathing all the time, so it can be a good way to get focus and calm when you’re, say, on the subway or in the middle of a political discussion at family dinner. Coherent breathing, a gentle breathing technique that focuses on evening out the lengths of each inhalation and exhalation, is a practice that has been shown to increase calm quickly. “Box breathing” uses a combination of visualization and breathing in which you imagine that you are evenly filling an internal box with your breathe, is another easy technique to chill you out and make it seem like you’re just checking your phone.
Honestly, I use all of these techniques almost every day in addition to my regular meditation practice. There’s no reason to feel like alternative meditation practices are cheating. To paraphrase Ethan Nichtern, a respected Buddhist meditation teacher in NYC, the best meditation is the one you will actually do.