The first time I tried meditating, I was 20 years old and pretty impressed with myself. I was a relatively new but 100% committed yoga student, and my teachers had made it clear that meditation was something I should do if I was serious about this yoga business. I solemnly rolled out my yoga mat in a tiny corner of my tiny New York City apartment, lit a candle, and sat there with closed eyes trying to figure out if I was doing it “right.”
After a few minutes of being berated by my inner critic for not being able to stop thinking about that night’s dinner menu or the conversation I’d just finished with my mom, I blew out the candle and convinced myself that maybe I just wasn’t ready.
For my next attempt, I attended a group meditation at my local yoga studio, a musty 2nd floor walk-up with a fireplace and om signs everywhere. We were given a brief overview of what meditation was (“a vehicle for enlightenment”), then we were instructed to find a meditation posture (lotus was best, we were told) and stay completely still for 30 minutes.
About 15 minutes in my legs were tingling, and within 20 minutes I was in excruciating pain. It felt like someone was stabbing the soles of my feet. I snuck a few peeks around the room to see if anyone else felt like they were dying, but they all seemed perfectly serene, so I sucked it up and just tried to shift position a little to make it tolerable. By the time the teacher rang the bells to signal we were finished, I could barely move my legs and decided that meditation, unlike the serenity my teachers described, was scary and painful.
I’ll admit it. With meditation, there’s really no such thing as being better at it than someone else. But this week when I was teaching yoga to my daughter’s 1st grade class in the gorgeous prairie garden outside her school, it occurred to me that kids get mindfulness in a way that I’m only now discovering 20 years into my yoga practice.
I arrived at the school garden ready to teach a boisterous animal-themed yoga practice that was all about moving quickly, making fun and silly sounds, and playing games. But as I was talking to the 1st graders before class about what yoga is and why it’s helpful, the first benefit they listed was relaxation. Not the response I’m used to when talking with people about yoga; usually the focus is on the flexibility bit, aka bending into a pretzel.
“Have any of you done yoga before?” I asked. All but two kids raised their hands. (Yoga’s come a long way in the last 20 years; when I first got into it my family worried I had joined a cult.)
As I told the kids my plan for our time together – breathing exercises, poses, then games – one boy interrupted me. “Can we meditate? I love meditating!”
Another boy chimed in, “I’m awesome at meditation,” and he sat up super tall, closed his eyes, and struck jnana mudra (it looks like the OK sign). Several other kids joined him.
I couldn’t contain my smile. It blew my mind that the kids knew what meditation was and that it was now considered a cool thing. So I scrapped the games and said, “After we do some breathing and poses, we can sit on the logs and meditate,” like I was promising dessert if they ate a good dinner.
Throughout the breathwork and poses, they were focused little yogis who had lots of commentary to share:
“This is easy!”
“I do yoga in my living room.”
“I’ve balanced on one leg for four minutes before.”
When it came time for dessert, I asked everyone to find a spot on the logs and pick a comfy position. Some sat cross legged, some didn’t. Most hadn’t tried meditation before, but they all followed my cues to sit up tall and close their eyes. As I guided them through a very simple “Special Place” meditation, they were quiet and still and attentive.
I’d bet that none of these kids, even the awesome meditators in the group, has ever been taught an official meditation technique or forced themselves to hold a painful position in the hopes of reaching enlightenment, but instinctively they get it. After a couple minutes, I gently brought them out, and we checked in about how they felt.
Their responses: relaxed, calm, in a special place, sleepy.
Some might argue that 2 minutes is nothing and that these eager 1st graders weren’t really meditating. I used to be one of those stalwarts who insisted that if I hadn’t read the technique in a book, it wasn’t valid.
I just don’t buy it anymore.
I think that any mindfulness practice, however long, is beneficial and beautiful and worthy of the big M word. Today’s little yogis are at a huge advantage having had exposure to even small bites of yoga and meditation by the age of 7. And I think all of us can learn from these wise little teachers.
When you love something, when it’s really important to you, set it free from your own expectations. Don’t wait – just like you don’t need to get fit or flexible before starting yoga, you don’t necessarily need to wait for a peaceful, candlelit room to try meditation.
Just start small.
And then, be awesome at it.