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Going Natural: Easing Into Meditation

Body+Soul, July/August 2006

When the Body+Soul team and I discussed my whole-living makeover, I was excited about the diet and fitness parts of the plan. Practicing yoga, learning about superfoods and healthy supplements -- these things were right up my alley. But the thought of starting a meditation practice -- an important part of the program, the team insisted -- terrified me.

How on earth would I find time to meditate? I'd been working 12-hour days since starting my job here; just maintaining my exercise routine has been a struggle. And as a classic type A personality, I've always had a hard time slowing down. I voiced these concerns to the makeover team, who smiled knowingly. Believe it or not, they said, taking time to meditate can actually make you more efficient -- not to mention mindful, centered, and less stressed. It's people like me, apparently, who need meditation the most.

To kick off my practice, I met with Tracy Gaudet, M.D., director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. She was warm and encouraging and made me feel instantly comfortable. I left Duke with an arsenal of meditation CDs and breathing techniques to use as "minimeditations" during stressful situations.

I found excuses to avoid listening to the CDs for a few days and then finally settled down with one at 11 pm one night. I'd had a nonstop busy day. Midway through the CD instructions, my head started drooping and I crawled into bed, vowing to try again the next day. For the next two weeks, though, every time I sat down to meditate, I couldn't seem to clear my head of thoughts -- the business calls I didn't get to, what I should cover on my next radio show, you name it. Within a few minutes I'd lose focus and give up.

"I'm not cut out for this," I told my editor when she called to check on my progress. "It's excruciating." She laughed and said she thought I was running away from meditation. That gave me a great visual: sprinting away from a meditation cushion, leaving it in the dust. She was right, though -- I was resisting the whole concept.

The next week I was stuck in a tortuously slow-moving line at the Los Angeles airport. It seemed that no one in front of me had ever used a self-service kiosk. I grew increasingly frustrated as my flight time neared. I thought about the breathing techniques I'd learned at Duke. Right there in the airport, I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. When I opened them, the stress seemed to have evaporated from my body. When I boarded the plane, I was relaxed.

The following week I took a two-hour seminar with Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation teacher. No matter how long you've been practicing, she said, thoughts will come and go; you just need to accept them, let them go, and start over. This was a revelation for me. I'd been focusing on the goal of meditation -- clearing the mind -- not the process.

"I wish I could meditate lying down," I told Sharon during a one-on-one session a few days later. She said I could. I was shocked. There are several ways to meditate, she said: sitting, standing, lying down, or even walking. This got us talking about my experience as a competitive swimmer. Every week, the coach would guide the team through a visualization exercise. After having us lie down on a towel, he would take us slowly through all our muscles, head to toe, and then have us see the upcoming race in our mind's eye.

"In a way," I told Sharon, "we were doing a kind of meditation." She nodded and explained that we were doing what's called a body sweep -- a technique that makes you aware of the sensations your body is feeling during meditation. "See," she said, "you know more than you think you do."

That night I sat up in bed and did a few minutes of meditation, focusing on my breath. Thoughts entered my mind, but instead of getting frustrated, I cleared my mind and started over. Then I did a body sweep, starting with the top of my head and ending with my toes. I fell into one of the best night's sleep I'd had in months.

I'll certainly never be a meditation master, and a silent retreat still sounds like a terrible form of torture. But I now realize that even a few minutes here and there -- at bedtime, at the supermarket checkout, before meetings -- can help me wind down and clear my head. When it feels like nothing is happening, I remind myself that at least I'm practicing mindfulness. Did that just come out of my mouth -- "mindfulness"? I must be learning something.

Follow Dawna's Plan
In the September issue, Dawna will write about expanding her repertoire of healthy, whole foods. Below are two more changes that she'll incorporate into her life.

+ Overhaul your beauty products. Plant-based lotions and makeup are better for your body ad the planet. And they work.

+ Keep a self care journal. Track the habits that keep you balanced and the stressors that throw you off.

Dawna Stone is vice president, director of development of Body+Soul and founder of Her Sports + Fitness magazine.