Few things about meditation are more frustrating than a bring-on-the-zen session that never centers you, let alone leads to inner peace. It’s even worse if you’re usually stressed or anxious.
Meditation, as you likely know, is supposed to bring you into the present moment. Basically, the idea is that if you’re totally engaged with what’s happening “right now” there’s no space to get wrapped up in debilitating thought.
Active, or Yang, as Traditional Chinese Medicine calls it, meditation styles do this (or at least try to) by helping you direct your attention to something: your breath, a sound, a mantra, sensations. These styles are the most well known and work great—if you can corral your mind. But lots of us can’t, which is normal.
“I’ve found that many people struggle with meditation because they feel that they are supposed to be able to either stop their thoughts or not be lost in their thoughts,” says Josh Summers, a meditation teacher, licensed acupuncturist and founder of the Summers School of Yin Yoga.
What’s more, if someone has anxiety they often already feel overwhelmed and trapped by an inability to control their racing thoughts, and trying to gain a hold of them through meditation can compound those feelings. Plus, focusing on the breath intensifies feelings of anxiety in some people.
In turn, Summers suggests a style of meditation that is more receptive, or Yin, as Traditional Chinese Medicine calls it. Yin meditation encourages students not to stop their thinking. “Rather, there is the encouragement to try to bring a gentle interest, curiosity and tolerance to their thoughts and feelings,” Summers says. This approach reduces tension people often feel over whether they are meditating “correctly.”
“Yin meditation makes it clear that all experiences, including thinking, are part of the meditative process and that there aren’t privileged states or optimal experiences,” Summers says. “Everything is grist for the mill of cultivating kinder, gentler and wiser modes of relationship to oneself.”
Yin meditation also lets a practitioner direct his or her experience, as opposed to following structured rules that dictate maintaining a certain point of focus. The mind can wander—but if difficult sensations, feelings or thoughts arise, the practitioner can guide their attention to an anchor of sorts: a neutral feeling in the body, their breath, environmental sounds. They can even open their eyes. The ability to direct one’s experience can be especially helpful to people who feel anxious.
“What I’ve seen is this: When people are able, in their own time, to go back and forth in the meditation between being receptive and tolerant to their feelings of anxiety, and then turn or redirect their attention to more neutral experiences, they trust their own ability to ride these internal waves,” Summers says. “Their tolerance to the difficult rumination increases and their meditative experience starts to be calmer, not so much by having turned away from the difficulty, but by having gradually cultivated a gentler tolerance to the challenging mind-states.”
Yin meditation is accessible to anyone. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes, longer if you choose. Then sit in a comfortable position and follow these three steps from Summers.
Let your mind be led by what comes up.
There’s no special experience to have. Be receptive to any sensation, sound, thought or feeling that comes along.
Notice how you feel when the session ends.
“It’s that simple,” Summers says.
Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly writes and edits content related to personal health, including for Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at mitramalek.com.