It was an autumn morning inside my city’s lakeside Zen Center, where I spent a lot of time during my mid-20s. I’d been on the cushion meditating for about 45 minutes, breathing, observing the interior swirl of thoughts and feelings, until — miraculously — everything began to quiet down, if only a little. It was my first taste of freedom from a relentless internal monologue.

Back after i began meditating, I had a humble practice yielding results that carried into the everyday. Still, my practice didn’t survive the transition to what renowned meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “full catastrophe living”: career, parenthood, and all the associated gravity of adult life.

A couple of decades after I stopped meditat­ing, I discovered a local company offering ­sessions in a sensory-deprivation float tank, something I’d always wanted to try. Inside that dark, warm space, suspended weightless and alone with my thoughts and feelings, something came to life again — the textures of my abandoned practice, stronger and easier to grasp, an open pathway that felt as if it led me home.

We know the physical and emotional benefits of meditation are considerable: greater physical and mental resilience, better impulse control, and healthier aging, amongst others. But there are plenty of reasons why the majority of us don’t meditate. Our lives are overscheduled. We have relationships or family to tend to. We feel too restless.

Sometimes the anxiety or memories of trauma that meditation might heal are what make it feel impossible. “There are people whose minds are so distractible that traditional sitting meditation might just seem too hard. They might struggle to have that kind of mental focus,” says Minneapolis-based integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm. “There are times when people are in such a state of distress that sitting and being present is too difficult.”

Yet there are plenty of ways to find calm, Emmons notes. If meditation feels unrealistic, we can still gain many of its benefits from other sources.

Mindful Movement

Sitting meditation is often seen as the gold standard for calming and centering your brain, but practices that incorporate focused movement can deliver the same rewards — and potentially more.

“Part of our problem with the modern mind is that we’re so head-oriented,” says William Prottengeier, a longtime St. Paul, Minn.–based yoga teacher. “We live in these bodies and have these senses, and the tendency for living in our heads too much creates a real hunger for body-based practices that may ground us.”

Just as many meditation techniques foster awareness of the breath, many movement practices promote a powerful awareness of the body that both stimulates and calms the brain. Research even offers provocative evidence that movement practices may positively stimulate the mind in ways that sitting meditation doesn’t.

Psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky, MD, director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, led a study measuring the neurobiological effects of yoga in seniors with memory issues. “Yoga practice showed the same changes in memory as memory training,” she says. “We also saw improvement in executive function, mood, anxiety reduction, and resilience, changes in concentration in the brain, and demonstrated improved connectivity in various areas of the brain.”

Some of the results Lavretsky describes are similar to the benefits of sitting meditation, which include lower levels of stress and anxiety, a better-regulated parasympathetic nervous system, and more functional aging-related chromosomal enzymes.

“Yoga is a superb way to enter or learn mindfulness, in order to precede a sitting practice,” says Mirabai Bush, cofounder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society in Northampton, Mass. “Yoga is basically bringing your attention to different parts of your body as you move.”

Yoga encompasses a wide array of practices, some slow and passive, others active and strength-based. The things they all have in common is the concentrated effort to link the body and mind, which may have a pacifying effect since it helps break down the artificial among the two.

Lavretsky notes that meditation and movement activate some of the same areas of the brain, but yoga and tai chi stimulate several additional regions. “Mindfulness trains focus, and much more is done in yoga than mindfulness,” she says. “If you do more, more areas of the mind are activated.”

Tai chi is really a movement practice derived from Chinese martial arts. Lavretsky’s research has found that, along with activating important parts of the mind, it also improves cognitive function, helps treat depression, and reduces levels of inflammatory CRP (C-reactive protein).

Of course, movement and meditation coexist in mindful exercise practices such as tai chi and yoga.

“Moving in yoga has a calming and de-stressing impact on the body,” Bush points out. “After that practice session, there’s an ideal opportunity for deep relaxation. Instead of jumping up from the mat, you can sit for a while and allow you to ultimately watch the natural flow of your breath.”

Lavretsky, a certified yoga teacher, favors the practice like a tool for those who find sitting meditation difficult. “For those who can’t steady their mind to sit down in silence and pay sustained attention, a string of movements or chanting can focus and occupy their minds,” she says. “This can be very helpful for those who can’t sit still.”

Combining his teaching of Iyengar yoga having a longstanding meditation practice, Prottengeier links the points on the contemplative continuum. “You have to bring all of the components of who you are with yoga,” he says. “The breath, the heart, and also the mind come together. Yoga as a conceptual practice becomes more internal and intuitive whenever you slow it down.”


Henry Emmons’s psychiatric practice takes a whole-body approach to mental health that includes nutrition, therapy, and mindfulness. He’s long promoted meditation as a tool to address some emotional dysregulation, though his position has changed over the course of a decades-long career.

Emmons once viewed sitting meditation as the benchmark. “I’m not so i believe that anymore,” he now says. “What I think is really key is that you do whatever you’re doing with attention, and be present to it.”

He now feels there are lots of ways to achieve this state of presence.

Therapeutic biofeedback, for instance, tracks the body’s automatic functions with electronic monitors to aid people in understanding and regulating them. It can benefit us connect with (and change) physical systems that have an effect on our mental and emotional states.

Witnessing our breathing, heart rate, and sweating on display monitors can make it notably easier to consciously moderate those functions. Which can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure level, ease chronic pain, and improve concentration.

Tampa-based clinical therapist ­Penijean Gracefire, LMHC, has ­researched neurofeedback as a possible PTSD treatment and now pairs it with brain imaging to deal with clients in her own practice. Gracefire ­believes that identifying and changing cognitive patterns might help promote resilience. She’s also quick to emphasize that ­basic contemplation is essential for recharging minds exhausted by contemporary life.

“What's low on the list for many people is resting and repairing,” she says. The body restore tissues as we sleep, “but if we want our brains to work optimally, we need to essentially be doing nothing not less than 30 to 60 minutes a day.”

Gracefire acknowledges that meditation, yoga, and tai chi might help us achieve this neurological restoration, though she notes that merely doing nothing is also restorative. She suggests simply doing nothing without meditating — no electronics, no music or podcasts, no interactions — for any set period of time each day, focusing on breathing and staying awake. No other formal technique required.

For anyone who has trouble sitting still, there’s walking meditation. Requiring only a space where you can pace slowly backwards and forwards, mindful walking involves looking straight ahead and keeping your attention focused on your breath and steps. Proponents contend that greater mindfulness develops without the stress that can accompany sitting meditation which these effects can carry over into everyday routine. (For more on walking as meditation, see “6-Week Meditation Guide for Athletes.”)

On that score, just taking a simple walk — especially in a natural setting ­— without the distraction of devices will also help settle the mind.

A prayer-based contemplative practice is another path to mindfulness for many people. In her book An Altar in the World, religion professor Barbara Brown Taylor, PhD, describes her own altar: a vanity with a mirror, icons, candles, along with a box where she places slips of paper bearing the names of people who have asked her to pray for them.

She tries to maintain an attitude of prayer in everyday interactions, and she or he writes that her altar helps bring her to a state akin to transcendent mindfulness, where she can “no longer tell the difference between need, fear, thanks, and want.”


Leigha Horton was camping in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota three years ago when a massive storm hit the remote area, claiming the lives of two other campers. Within the storm’s aftermath, she spent almost an entire day hiking amid a labyrinth of felled trees before she reached safety.

The experience left her shocked and traumatized and, paradoxically, compelled to return to the forest. Today, she is an accredited guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and leads groups on mindfulness-centered excursions in to the woods.

“People have retreated to the forest to mirror for millennia,” says Horton, “but in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, became solidified in Japan as a response to a national health epidemic among workers in offices, which had seen increasing rates of heart disease, cancer, and suicide.”

Japanese researchers found substantial evidence for the health benefits, she notes, “including compounds called phytoncides, which all trees and plants release to varying degrees like a communication method.” When inhaled, these compounds seem to boost the human immune system.

Other results of forest bathing include improved lung and heart function, decreased depression and anxiety, and reduced cortisol levels.

“Humans aren't apart from nature. Humans evolved with nature before the industrial revolution,” Horton says. “It’s then that people started spending loads of time indoors — and our health has suffered from it.”

She recalls a military vet who arrived on a walk she led. He'd seemed skeptical at the time, but later described how the experience changed him. He started to see the natural world like a place of pollinating bees and teeming life instead of enemy territory where he required to scan the brush for someone with a gun.

When people connect with their senses inside a natural environment, a profound form of mindfulness can awaken. “I invite them to open their eyes very slowly and take into account that everything they are seeing is also seeing them in return,” she explains. “It’s a feeling of place, a sense of belonging and interconnectedness along with other beings.” (Read about a shinrin-yoku retreat at “The Benefits of Forest Bathing.”)

If forest bathing is all about fully engaging the senses, the sensory-deprivation float is its polar opposite. The practice often takes place in a horizontal tank, where about 10 inches water and 800 pounds of Epsom salts combine to allow effortless floating. (Some newer facilities allow individuals with claustrophobic tendencies to float in a room.) Water is warmed to skin temperature, and the tank is dark and soundproof. The resulting experience is relaxing, deeply contemplative, or anywhere in between.

“As soon as I closed the door, discomfort and distraction were gone. I thought, Wow, this is great,” says health educator and artist Richard Bonk, who has floated almost weekly for more than 30 years. “Meditative states happens, and I didn’t have to do anything. That’s the way i fell in love with floating — it’s a reliable way for the body and the autonomic central nervous system to relax without having to work at it.”

Research reveals a number of advantages to floating, including decreased stress, anxiety, and depression; reduced physical pain; better sleep; and increased mindfulness during everyday life. The experience can seem intimidating at first, but many find it deeply restful — a kind of shortcut to the state by which mindfulness is sparked.

“I’ve discovered that floating is a way to directly experience what is being taught in meditative traditions,” says Bonk.

In my very own personal journey, a couple of years of monthly floats laid the groundwork for any deeper and more effective daily meditation practice, building on the relaxation I experienced inside that place with no sights, sounds, or sensations.

Whatever tools you can use to achieve a calm outlook and a centered mind, whether in conjunction with meditation or alone, the advantages of equanimity are undeniable. Fortunately, many paths result in that peaceful place.

Mind, Body, Heart

The Sanskrit word citta has been translated as “mind,” nevertheless its more literal sense connotes a dual concept, more like “heart/mind.” This duality is reflected in the practices of many mindfulness traditions, which combine a comprehension of the body with a concentrate on the activities and attention of the mind.

So the focus on the breath in many meditation traditions is more than a strategy for distracting the brain (though it also serves that purpose quite well). Concentrating on long, deep breaths slows the nervous system and creates a state of physical relaxation in which the separation between mind and body dissolves.

Whatever mindfulness-related activity you might pursue, keep these things in mind:

  • Gradually increase your perception of the breath. Notice how, at first, your awareness is in your chest and lungs. Let it move to the fine sensations of air passing into and out of your nostrils.
  • Relax and befriend the mind, no matter what it's doing. Acceptance and interest assists you better than fighting your mind's habit of activity.
  • Remember that physical and mental relaxation go hand in hand. If you feel your mind or body beginning to relax, lean into the feeling by noticing and enjoying it.
  • Know that every thought and sensation is common and an important part of your journey. There's no need to compare, judge, or scold yourself.
  • Each day, try to take five long, deep breaths while reflecting without judgment on your feelings and thoughts. Should you experience a feeling of peace and relaxation, for a second, compliment yourself on the good job you're doing.