How to Lead a Meditation Practice, Part One

Editor’s note: There are numerous factors to consider when leading a meditation practice. In this four-part series, physician turned mindfulness teacher Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and clinical psychologist Greg Serpa, PhD, answer some of the most noteworthy logistical questions about teaching mindfulness. Keep your particular population in mind as you go through their tips; it’s possible that you may have valid reasons to adapt or change the guidelines to suit the needs and experiences of your participants.

Guiding with eyes open or closed?

You should meditate along with your students and lead the practice from your own present-moment experience. At the same time, you have to be attuned to your class and what is going on in the room. We recommend that you have your eyes closed most of the time while leading meditations, but open them occasionally to look around the room. You would also open them if you hear sounds that are not obvious (no need to check the fidgety person to your left if you already know who it is).

Meditation Posture

A rule of thumb: as you practice with your students, model “good posture” with the posture that most students in your class will hold. That usually means sitting in a chair for sitting meditation. You do all mindful movements with them and all walking meditations.

One exception: if you lead a longer body scan and it’s appropriate to invite your students to lie down, you should gauge if you want to lie down with them or stay seated in your chair. The common instruction for a long body scan is to lie down with your class and guide them through it lying down yourself. In our experience, especially in mental health, but also in some general-population class settings, many people have a hard time feeling safe—especially when lying down and closing their eyes. If you as the instructor stay in your chair, it can offer your participants a sense of support, a kind of watching out for them (and keeping an eye on the door). Of course, you should do the body scan yourself, just not lying down.

Teaching Tip: Please don’t make yourself special by sitting on your medi­tation cushion—even if that is how you meditate at home—when nobody or hardly anybody in your class can do that. It’s fine to sit on your cushion on the floor once you have introduced that in the class—if that is even appropriate for your setting—and a good number of your students can and will do it as well.

Before you move into the meditation, reinforce the extra support they can expe­rience from their posture. It gets more important the longer the practice period is. Here are a few pointers for facilitators and class participants alike.

For meditation posture in general:

  • Do what works for your body. Every body is different, and every body should be comfortable (but not slack or slumped over).

  • Sitting still helps the mind to calm down. But if you feel you need to move, do it purposefully. Try to play with not moving and see what happens.

  • Find a posture of “dignity and ease.”

  • Tuck the chin slightly in, or imagine that you are being pulled up at the crown of your head by an invisible string—this relaxes the neck.

  • The position of your arms and hands is not so important, but make sure that your shoulders are not pulling the arms forward in the seated posture. Try hands folded in your lap, or one resting in the other, or just resting your hands on your thighs.

For meditation sitting in a chair:

  • Dining hall–style chairs work best. Couches make us slump. Your hips should be at the height of your knees or slightly higher (sit on an extra cushion, or put a cushion under your feet, depending how tall you are).

  • Sit with an erect upper body, feet firmly on the ground, chin slightly tucked in, hands either on the thighs or folded in the lap, eyes closed or half closed.

  • Maybe use a cushion or rolled up blanket in the small of your back for lumbar spine support.

For meditation lying down:

  • If the body allows it, lie on your back, feet falling away from each other, arms at your sides (palms up or down is a personal preference).

  • A bolster or rolled up blanket under the knees supports the lower back and helps with sciatica. It is also great to simply put the legs up on the seat of a chair (“astronaut’s pose”) for the same reason.

We don’t cover kneeling or cross-legged sitting postures here. Most beginning classes don’t need it.

Offering Participants Options and Autonomy

It’s important to remember that you want your students to be active participants in their growth and healing. In order to do this, you can encourage them to listen to their internal voice for what is “right” for them. Aim to be as inclusive as possible without being too permissive. Let your class know that there is no one right way to meditate, and invite them to either ask in class or talk to you after class to get more individualized instructions as needed. There are many options you can offer:

  • Eyes closed or open. If open, participants should be looking down at their cheeks or with a soft gaze at the floor in front of them. This will diminish the amount of visual input and help the mind to calm down. It can be helpful to open the eyes for periods of time during the meditation if one is sleepy, rest­less, or very caught up in the internal dialogue. Eyes open can also help participants to feel safer.

  • Meditation position. Some meditations require specific postures, but, in general, feel free to have participants make adaptations as necessary.

  • Type of meditation. To some extent, the specific type of meditation can be an option. You want to invite participants to give all meditations a fair try, but eventually people may settle into those that they feel most drawn to (which makes it more likely that they will actually continue the practice after the course is over).

  • Length of meditation. While in general the rule is “the longer the better,” this only works if participants actually do it and not get entangled in (and dis­couraged by) their expectations. Also, for people with highly activated nervous systems (for example, those who suffer from post-traumatic stress), longer meditation can be destabilizing or lead to dissociation.

For more from Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and Greg Serpa, PhD, check out their new book, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness.

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