Active meditation is a great way to factor some zen time into a busy day. It’s also the ideal way to meditate if you’re the type of person who can’t sit still for too long. A couple of years ago, I did a Vedic meditation course. It’s an ancient type of meditation that requires you to sit still for 20 minutes, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. It’s highly effective, but I wasn’t able to stick with it in the long run because life got in the way. When I was meditating, however, the benefits were incredible—I was more focused, less overwhelmed by life, work pressure or my inbox groaning under the weight of so many unread emails.
I felt lighter, calmer, and less on edge.
Luckily, it’s possible to reach a meditative state when you’re in motion. I know this only too well. I was running the Copenhagen marathon in 2014 and I won’t go into details, but let’s just say from mile two onwards I needed the toilet badly. My tummy wasn’t right and even though a bartender let me use the facilities, I couldn’t shake the need to go as I progressed along the race course. Then, the heavens opened. Every time I ran, I needed to go to the toilet, but walking in heavy rain, sodden through, was miserable.
And so I focused on my breath and repeated the mantra just keep going over and over. I was in such a zone that I couldn’t hear the playlist that was blaring in my ears or feel the rain pelting down. I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, breathing and repeating my mantra.
Of course, we’re not all running marathons with dodgy stomachs, but life can be pretty overwhelming at times and while we don’t all have the time to sit still and meditate, it is possible to be more mindful on the move. I spoke with two meditation experts Adreanna Limbach—senior teacher at NYC meditation studio MNDFL and Karunesh Bodhi, an Osho meditation facilitator—to find out how we can incorporate active mediation into our day to day.
Why Active Meditation?
Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho before he passed away in 1990, invented active meditation to suit the modern world. "You are born in artificiality; you develop in it. So traditional methods… have to be changed according to the modern situation," states Osho. He goes on to explain how when Westerners came in contact with Japanese monks for the first time, they could not understand the concept of why the monks considered thinking to come from their bellies instead of their brain.
"'What nonsense!'" he quotes them. "How can you think from your belly?"
Essentially, Osho masterminded active meditation to quiet the mind and move the focus down to the heart and the belly. We all have gut feelings about situations and often our gut, also known as our intuition, is correct. Active meditations help tap into those feelings and put less focus on the chatter going on in our brains.
The Benefits of Active Meditation
Bodhi tells Byrdie that active meditation has a lot of benefits, “I can only speak from my own experience but it keeps me centered, no matter what happens, I don’t find things as overwhelming," she says. "It has helped to give me perspective. Before, I would have taken things or not been able to let something go, but that doesn’t happen so much anymore. I've learned to shake things off!"
“I also have more restful sleep," she continues. "And I get a lot of stuff out of my system that would have gone into my interactions with people in the office or in relationships. The way I respond, I’m more open, less assuming, and I wait to make judgements.”
But is Active Meditation the Same as Traditional Meditation?
While traditional meditation brings you into your mind, active meditation brings you into your body. “There are more senses involved: movement, breathing intensely, shaking—these sensory inputs anchor you to the present,” explains Bodhi. In other words, you’re less likely to find your mind wandering to that argument you had with your partner or what you need to buy for dinner. (You can read more about what a typical Osho Dynamic Active Meditation session looks like here, plus you can find your nearest Osho session.) On the flipside, Limbach tells me that meditation "involves the cessation of 'doing,' which is what makes it such a powerful practice in the age of distraction." She explains that the purpose of meditation is to take the benefits we accumulate in practice “off of the cushion" and into the everyday moments of our lives.
Notice though, that there is no 'hustle and multitask' meditation. Just because active meditation involves, well, being active, doesn't mean that any sort of activity can help you get in touch with your body. "Running for the subway is not one of the postures that we’re given to practice in," Limbach says. "That’s because in order for meditation to be truly effective, we need to be willing to set aside our other activities for a few minutes to truly feel what it’s like to inhabit our bodies and rest with our breath—without doing anything else.”
She believes, however, that when we integrate an activity into the mix, be it running, knitting, dancing, playing the drums, the activity may be meditative but it is not meditation. And honestly, why does it need to be? Apples and oranges are different fruits, but both have value. This is an important distinction to make.
“What makes any activity meditative is that it taps into our capacity for mindfulness," Limbach says. "To borrow from Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness can be summed up as the awareness that arises when we’re paying attention, on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. While mindfulness is one of the more profound (and popular) benefits of practicing meditation, it’s also something that we can access any time that we are paying attention to what we are doing in this particular way — on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
How Often Should You Actively Meditate?
We get it—life gets busy, so it’s about fitting it in when you can. Bodhi says that there's a famous that goes, "If you’re a busy person meditate for 10 minutes, and if you’re a very busy person meditate for an hour." In general, she says more is always better. She makes the analogy of working out: if you can only fit in an hour a week, you’ll still get benefits, but if you can commit to four times a week, then you'll see even more results.
Active Meditation to Try
Meditate In the Present
You can actively meditate when you're doing daily chores. Being more mindful in the moment can help you find enjoyment in the mundane.
Limbach explains how to do it:
1) The next time you’re taking a shower or washing your face, bring your attention fully to the moment to moment experience as it unfolds. Feel your feet on the ground and the temperature of the water against your skin. Is there a difference between the temperature of the ceramic against your feet and the temperature of the water? We don’t need to label one as “good” and one as “bad”. Just notice.
2) Bring some deliberate attention to the details. What does “wet” actually feel like? Take in the sound that the faucet makes. Receive any other sounds in the room. Notice the scent of your cleanser. Feel the viscosity of the soap against your skin.
3) When your mind wanders, just keep coming back to the simple sensorial experience that is happening in the present without judging the quality of your experience or making it mean anything about you. In this way, we’re practicing the conditions that allow our mindfulness to arise: paying attention on purpose in the present, without judgement.
You can try this simple mindfulness exercise while walking the dog or doing the dishes or riding your bike; really, any daily activity that you would like to be more meditative. The side benefit is that you might actually enjoy what you’re doing a little bit more when you’re fully present and open to it.
Meditate While Running
As you could probably tell from my marathon anecdote, it's possible to reach a meditative state when running. It's what runners call being "in the zone". Next time you head out for a run, try listening to this running meditation.
And, if you want to learn more about the art of combining running with meditation, check out this book.
Meditate on the Subway
You can use active meditation to help you get through some of life's daily struggles, such as commuting to and from work. "There are shorter meditations you can do on the move," Bodhi tells me. "One is called The Pillar of Light. You stand up, stand still and pay attention to your body. You imagine that you are completely immoveable. It’s a perfect active meditation for the subway. Try to be as strong as possible, keeping the body still and the breath calm."
Meditate In the Shower
Why not kickstart your day with an active meditation in the shower? Beauty and wellness brand Rituals has a guided active meditation that takes less than 5 minutes. Most of us shower in the mornings, so it's a great way to multi-task by combining something you do every day with some much-needed mindfulness.