Establishing a Daily Meditation Practice, the Freestyle Way

by Kimberly Jordan Allen

Self-care is important. But for some of us, it’s a difficult thing to do. One of our family friends is a psychiatrist. I love talking to him because he’s trained in mindfulness and meditation. His approach is more holistic than some MDs, and he always brings solutions down to the simple essentials. Recently, we discussed how critical the relationship with the self is for our well-being. We also talked about how, for many, simple acts of nourishment can easily become just one more thing to cross off the list. Yes, we all know that we need to take care of ourselves before we can attend to others; the “put your oxygen mask on first” approach is a cliché for a reason. The trick is figuring out how to integrate healthy behaviors into our day-to-day lives. Meditation, in particular, long celebrated for the reserve of quiet stillness it can bring, is hard for many of us. Making it to the meditation cushion can be tough. And simply crossing it off the list is not ideal.

The results of self-awareness practices can be dramatic. Studies show that daily meditation can greatly impact our lives. A recent study found that meditation training is linked to improved brain function, minimized symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increased overall well-being. Research has also verified that meditation can boost resilience, while aiding in stress management. Mindfulness meditation can improve empathy and boost altruism. Furthermore, another study found that meditation doesn’t just provide deep relaxation, but can also potentially alter gene function in positive ways and support the immune system.

These are just a few reasons to get quiet. But how do we truly make it happen? Who has time to sit on a meditation cushion once or twice a day? If I make meditation just one more thing I must get done during the day, I’m less likely to practice. But if I allow meditation to be part of my routine, my self-nurturing, it is something I just do, like making my tea in the morning. I don’t dread making my tea; I look forward to it! Can we apply this to meditation?

In addition, many of us judge the way we practice, assuming it has to be exactly “right”—spine erect, body relaxed, no wandering thoughts. This approach can limit accessibility and leave us discouraged. When we let go of judgment and approach meditation in a more relaxed way, we have a better chance of doing it.

The truth is, there are many ways to meditate. What if we allow ourselves to expand our concept of practice?

“For centuries, meditation was developed and used by groups of people living the same lifestyle—eating the same foods, seeking the same goals. Modern meditators have a unique lifestyle, so the most efficient and effective way of meditating will need to be just as unique,” says Steven Leonard, a meditation teacher and Kripalu faculty member.

Steven breathes new life into the art of meditation, taking the rigidity out of practice and approaching it in a pragmatic, relaxed way. His approach, freestyle meditation, offers easy access for new practitioners and even seasoned meditators who seek to revitalize their practice. By applying intentionality and awareness, we can embark on a holistic meditation practice that applies to the here and now.

“Since there are so many types of meditation, it can be confusing for people to know how or even why they are practicing,” Steven says. “Freestyle meditation uses simple principles to help each person practice in a way that is directly connected with their personal intention or aim.”

It may take some creativity to determine the best practice for our lifestyle and desired effect. But once we do, we reap the rewards. I know that, when I meditate more often, I create a reservoir of calm that infuses my actions—or lack thereof. Quiet deepens my resolve and creates space for me to not only pause, but to deliberate whether I need to respond and engage to a particular situation, or not. This really lets me choose where I put my attention in a more sustainable way. I can avoid wasting time being reactionary and be more intentional overall. And I’m just happier when I do it.

Freestyle Meditation in Three Steps

  1. Clarify your intention. Why are you meditating? What quality of experience do you wish to cultivate? Allow every decision in the course of the practice to be informed by the intention. For example, if you are meditating to relax your body and mind, it’s okay to fall asleep, says Steven. If you are meditating to cultivate steadiness of mind, stay connected to your mantra, breath, or whatever technique works for you.
  2. Use all your skills, instincts, and resources. When you think about your intention, what comes to mind? What position makes sense for your body? What memories, images, or ideas will be helpful to remember? “Allow yourself the freedom to choose,” says Steven. “If I intend to do a meditation that is relaxing and feels like vacation, I might lie down as if I’m on a beach and remember a time when I felt the warm sun on my skin and heard the sound of waves crashing. If I want to cultivate a quality of confidence, I might stand tall for the meditation, think of a person who exudes confidence, and welcome that sensibility into my body.”
  3. Explore the play between doing and allowing. Improvise in moving between the mode of "doing" the meditation, in which you are intentionally cultivating the experience, and the mode of “allowing,” in which you are open to all sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions. Every meditation is a dance between these two modes, and to learn to improvise between them is a skill, says Steven. The ability to accept and be with what is happening around and inside you, he notes, is the essence of the practice—and it will serve you in every aspect of your life.

Find out about upcoming programs with Steven Leonard at Kripalu.

Kimberly Jordan Allen is an award-winning writer, editor, and content strategist. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Shape, and Berkshire Magazine, and has been featured on Sonima and the Huffington Post.