My mental health took a dramatic swerve for the worse in 2020 and 2021, an experience I assume most of the planet can relate to. For me, the problem was exacerbated by physical injuries that kept me from working out, which, up to that point, was the only way I knew how to deal with mental health issues. (Feeling sad? Angry? Anxious? Go for a run and let the endorphin rush distract you.) With no coping mechanisms, my mental health declined sharply. Sometimes it felt like there was a pressure building in my head, throat, and chest, like a scream I couldn’t let out.
I had dabbled in meditation before and even liked it, how it left my thoughts calm and a little quieter. But I never meditated consistently until I sat down on Jan. 1, 2021, and thought, well, something needs to change, so why not try to meditate every day for a year. Definitely an out-of-character thought from someone who can’t even commit to finishing a 10-episode TV show, let alone a 365-day New Year’s resolution.
Over a year later, I’m proud — and frankly, still shocked — to say that I was able to meditate every day for a year, going from a beginner to, well, a slightly more experienced beginner who’s just now starting to realize how long a journey this is. I can’t say that every practice was flawless, or that there weren’t days when I wanted to do anything but close my eyes and focus on my breath. But while I’m still riding that completed-challenge high into 2022, it’s a good time to reflect on what it was like to take on a challenge like this, and how you can try it for yourself.
My Meditation Routine For Beginners
You can meditate any place, any time of day, for any length of time you want, and the only way to figure out what works is to experiment. It took me a few months of trial and error to develop a routine that worked for me, and even then, I sometimes strayed from it when necessary, like when I was traveling or had an abnormally busy day. I realized I was going to need to be flexible in order to complete this 365-day challenge, so my routine went through some transformations along the way.
- I meditated in the morning when possible. I quickly noticed that morning meditation helped me feel more focused and less anxious through the rest of the day. Meditating early also meant I didn’t have to worry about squeezing it in later in the day. My ideal routine: meditating after a workout or yoga (more on that below) and then starting work.
- I meditated before bed if my morning was too busy. If I had other things going on in the morning (doctor’s appointments, early work meetings), I shifted my meditation to after work or just before bed. Sometimes I even did sleep meditations in bed, which were great because they helped me fall asleep quickly, but didn’t have as noticeable an effect on my mental health as morning meditation.
- I aimed for 10- to 15-minute meditations. I learned that I liked longer meditations better because I knew I had plenty of time to relax and sink into the practice. I would’ve meditated for even longer if my feet and legs didn’t fall asleep during 20-minute sessions.
- I did 10- to 30-day Headspace meditation courses to stay motivated. I used the meditation app Headspace for a few reasons, but one of the big ones was that I loved their meditation courses. These are classes made up of 10 to 30 individual sessions, which I liked because it kept me on a schedule and motivated to learn and build upon different topics. The courses had different focuses, like managing anxiety, building self-esteem, and tapping into gratitude. Headspace also keeps track of how many days you meditate in a row, and seeing the tangible evidence of my streak was really rewarding for me.
- Yoga before meditation is the perfect combination. While often done separately, yoga is traditionally used as a way to prepare the body for the stillness and focus of meditation — which is why it feels so natural to transition directly from a yoga flow into meditation. I couldn’t pair them together every day, but it felt like the peak of self-care when I did. Sometimes even a couple stretches or a quick child’s pose helped me get into a good mindspace for meditation.
What You Need to Meditate Every Day
I started my meditation challenge with nothing but the Headspace app and a pair of headphones, and one year later, I still think that’s all I really needed to be successful. However, I did add a few other accessories along the way for extra comfort and motivation.
- A meditation app or playlist: If you’re using guided meditations — which I definitely recommend for beginners — you’ll want to either invest in a meditation app (Headspace is one of the most popular, but there are lots of others) or start creating your own library on YouTube. There are plenty of free guided meditations out there that span different topics and focuses. If you’re not following a pre-set course, I recommend creating your own schedule to keep yourself on track.
- A meditation cushion: You can meditate in just about any physical position, but I prefer sitting with my legs crossed. It didn’t take long to realize that sitting that way on the floor for 10 minutes straight does NOT feel good. I started using a meditation cushion, but you can also use a firm pillow or even sit on a chair. You might also consider creating a little meditation corner if you have the space.
- Meditation tech to help me focus: There are plenty of gadgets out there to build into your meditation routine, including headsets and trackers. I used Apollo Neuro, a device that straps onto your wrist and vibrates in a soothing way to help you maintain certain mindsets; there’s a specific setting for meditation that I really liked. You definitely don’t need this extra technology, but these extra tools are available if you want them.
You can also use items like incense, candles, salt lamps, and singing bowls to take your practice to the next level — again, all optional.
Daily Meditation Takeaways: What I Learned From Meditating Every Day For a Year
I went through plenty of ups and downs with this 365-day meditation challenge. No two days were ever the same: sometimes I’d sink into a deep, relaxing, totally-present state of mind; other times, I’d use all the tricks I knew but my thoughts just wouldn’t quiet down. But one of the beautiful things about meditation is that the more you do it, the easier it gets and the better it feels. Like physical fitness, each day builds on what you did the day before. When I meditated at least ten minutes a day for a few days in a row, I could feel the difference in my mind. My thoughts were less invasive and distracting. I felt calmer and steadier.
Meditation didn’t change those thoughts and emotions — it revealed them to me objectively, and showed me that they don’t define who I am.
Good days and bad days aside, I admit that I did have an expectation that, at the end of the year, I would feel like a different version of myself: improved, fixed, better. It’s a misconception that meditation is about actively changing your thoughts and mind. In fact, in every guided meditation I’ve done, the end goal is to let go of this kind of effort and the mental strain. While meditating, your only job is to notice your thoughts, acknowledge and accept them — no matter how powerful or intrusive they feel — and then let quietly them go.
This, it turns out, is a pretty good metaphor for the entire practice of meditation. Meditating is not meant to change you, per se, but to help you to see yourself more clearly, as a person who isn’t defined by their thoughts, doubts, or expectations, but who simply is.
When I perched on my cushion and crossed my legs for my last few meditations of the year, I wasn’t a radically different person. I still have a temper, I’m still impatient, I still get anxious and stressed. Meditation didn’t change those thoughts and emotions — it revealed them to me objectively, and showed me that they don’t define who I am. Meditation isn’t a journey with an endpoint, but a practice that can last for as long as you want it to. Mine is going to continue past this 365-day challenge, into 2022 and beyond.