Why You Can’t Meditate: Meditation Takes Preparation!


You know you should meditate, right? Perhaps you’ve given it a try–more than once. You bought a book, took a class, downloaded an app; but, for some reason, it just doesn’t seem to work for you. You either fall asleep or want to jump out of your own skin!


I’ve been asked to teach “meditation classes” off and on over the years. To be honest, I usually decline, or try to morph it into a more physical (Hatha) yoga class. Why? Because it’s a lot of work on my part, and often difficult for participants. We’re just not wired for it in the West, especially the seated variety. To make matters worse, most people don’t show up in “meditation shape.” Wait, you have to be “in shape” to meditate?


You would think that, as we all spend so much time sitting nowadays (even yoga teachers), we’d at least be good at it…but we’re not. “Tech neck” is rampant, and I see it starting earlier and earlier, around middle school. Yep, our heads are continually put in the wrong place as we use our devices, drive, sit in comfy chairs, etc. Eventually, the body “locks-In” the position through calcification pushing your head into a forward position, putting loads of stress on your vertebrae, and hardening muscles like your traps.

Then we work to the other end of the spine: lower back and hips. Whether we sit or stand all day, the calcium finds our hips as well, locking them into position, along w/ the lower back. In short, we just don’t MOVE enough with enough variety to be ready to sit. But what about sports? Great, but their repetitive motion qualities tend to overbuild certain areas at the expense of others, creating asymmetries in the body that can cause achiness and fatigue.


Do you remember the last time you flew on an airplane and got stuck w/ that middle seat? How’d it go for you? Maybe you distracted yourself with a movie, or got your trusty neck pillow out and caught a few winks. OK, so now think about sitting in that seat w/ nothing to do: sleeping not allowed: chatting to your neighbor not allowed; ordering a martini, not allowed. BTW, instead of a cushy seat, you have a basic (hard) chair, or the floor. (ideally). There aren’t even snacks. Getting the picture?


If it were easy, everyone would do it. Meditation is the go-to “miracle cure” for holistic health practitioners for everything from ADHD to anxiety to A-Fib. Anyone with stress should be meditating and with thousands of apps available, you would think nothing would get done with so many people sitting still. The thing is, downloading an app does not a meditator make. Why not?


The typical beginner can’t just stop, drop, and meditate. Meditation requires commitment, community, coaching, and conditioning:

    1. Commitment: While you can/should practice at home daily, you should commit to a group setting once per week to stay on track, avoid boredom and have the support of like-minded people on a similar path. The popular culture will be sending you cues 24-7 that quietly sitting still is a waste of time (unless you #instagram it). This is because the consumer culture, in particular, wants you addicted to “inputs.” It plays upon FOMO and keeps you scrolling, listening, texting, etc. We are in the “attention economy” and they want your attention. The problem is, as multitasking is a myth, you only have a finite amount of attention and you have to commit it 100% to the process.

    1. Community: For support, as mentioned. Also, there’s an energy when sitting with others engaged in the same task. Your own practice gets a boost. It’s the reason why you maybe go to the library to study or the gym to work out, or to worship on the weekend. BTW, meditation can be completely 100% non-denominational, or you can put your own spirituality into it. Christians have a long history of meditation (St. Teresa of Aguilera). A Quaker service is very similar to a Buddhist or Yoga Sadhana– the main difference being chairs. I’ve heard meditation described, “Prayer is when you talk to god, meditation is when you listen.” In any case, the beauty of a silent practice is that the idealogic “isms” need not matter; we can be present together in a community where everyone can belong. You’ll find the major common-denominators are things like self-improvement, life-long learning, curiosity, open mindsets, etc.

    1. Coaching: If you think meditation is easy, as “Exhibit A” I could present thousands of years of yoga and Buddhist sutras; many of them are offering page upon page of advice and technique. Confronting the silence and stillness, especially in our modern culture is a bold venture and requires some bravery. Our brains are becoming more and more wired to avoid feelings and sensations in favor of what? Inputs, information coming through your eyes and ears at super-human speed that dull and desensitize. Sometimes nothing is louder or scarier than silence. You should have a guide who knows the path.

    1. Conditioning: As mentioned, you’ll have to get into “meditation shape.” You’ll need to strengthen your spine, deepen your breathing, improve ranges of motion in your hips, and tone the abdominals and diaphragm. Why? Likely one of the biggest distractions to your practice will be aches and pains from years of sitting poorly. Now, we can offset that with some walking and reclining meditation, but seated meditation is the sweet spot. Also, a common “cue” in many styles of meditation is “focus on the breath”; that said, most people are terrible breathers because no one ever teaches you how to breathe properly! Focusing on a shallow breath is not enough. You have to make your breath more powerful and compelling–in other words, entertaining and interesting!

Our lives are so full of interruptions. Did you know that research shows a person who is often interrupted by external factors will self-interrupt once those external interruptions are taken away? Think about how many times a day you’re interrupted. That is a pretty good indicator of how interruptive your own thoughts will be once you’re in a quiet room.


Step one for meditation, out of the Kripalu Yoga handbook: “You will need a space free from interruption.” For a lot of people, just that can be a deal breaker. It’s hard to find; and, the reason why you shouldn’t try to use an app on The Most Interruptive Device Ever Invented: your phone. In fact, it’s best if your phone is NOT on your person, and best out of the room. So, while there may not really be “an app for that” in terms of meditation, I am working on “a class for that.” Yes, you’ll have to show up in person once per week. Yes, it will seem boring…and difficult. The question is, are you curious enough to give it a try? Not just once, but say, for a month, 3-4 times? 


In a classic ashram environment, it’s not uncommon for yoga classes to run 2 hours. Is that to make sure there’s enough time for headstands and dozens of sun salutations?  Not entirely.  Rather, it’s to give you enough time to relax, disconnect from linear time and prepare your body and mind for stillness.  

yogi meditating

For thousands of years, yoga was pretty much a seated meditation practice, so why have we strayed so far away from that in the last 200 years? For starters,  we’re no longer agrarians doing physical labor, so we don’t get enough movement.  Industrialization calcified our bodies and agitated our minds, making it harder for us to sit still and be quiet. Colonization created the need for the local population to increase fitness levels to take on occupying armies. And last of all, when the East washed up on our Western shores, mostly in California, it got all tangled up with the fitness movement in L.os Angeles.  So blame Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the British Government, vanity, greed etc., but either way, WE LOST THE PLOT!  

So after boiling it all down, what we’re left with, the “distillate” : group exercise with a yoga theme, that makes students feel exotic/ “yogic” because of the more superficial elements: new agey music, clothin and mats featuring Eastern patterns, a few sanskrit words.  Some might call this religious or cultural bypassing. I prefer to call it “corporatization.” We’ve corporatized something that was meant to be small, grassroots, and well, subversive.  We’ve “standardized” something that was meant to be highly customized and reduced it to transactional, with the organizations that wedge betweeen students and their teachers making the most.  That’s how you get 45 minute classes, young under-qualified teachers with little life experience to offer, and 20+ million people doing “yoga” who still can’t…SIT STILL! 


You can’t “hurry up and meditate.”  You need to shift priorites, MAKE time. You have time– statisitics on scrolling prove that.  What you will notice about people w/ a full inner life and meditation practice: they don’t always respond to your texts or emails right away. They allow themselves the time to be off-the-grid and in the world.  They seem more relaxed, present, youthful, exuberant.  Wanna give it a try? Just show up for a real class at least 75 mins long w/ a minimum 10-minute savasana (“final relaxation”) and interludes of seated meditation/stillness.  Bring a mat if you have one, but you are welcome to forget your phone! 





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Shaila Cunningham

Shaila Cunningham