5 tips for getting started with online meditation

NOTE: This post was originally posted during September 2019 on the robertalearns blog.

This week marked my final week of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course that I’ve been taking through Brown University. As I look back and reflect on the past 8 weeks, I’m so grateful for the tools, resources, and relationships that the program has brought into my life.

For those unfamiliar with MBSR, it is an 8 week evidence-based secular mindfulness training program that focuses on helping people with stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help students explore patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling, and action. The program was originally developed in the 1970s at UMass Medical Center by Jon Kabatt-Zin. Since then, it has continued to grow all over the world and many attribute the MBSR program as a major reason for mindfulness being in the mainstream today.

Personally, I have been practicing mindfulness meditation on and off for the past ten years and have a long-term dream of being a meditation teacher. I decided to sign up for the formal MBSR program to help me solidify my daily practice and take the first step towards my teacher certification.

When looking at the program at Brown, I noticed that they offered an online virtual version and couldn’t help but be intrigued. With my background in virtual learning and education, I wanted to see what the experience was like and whether they could be able to replicate the feeling of a meditation class in an online environment.

After signing up, I discovered the course took place on Tuesday evenings from 6 – 8:30pm over zoom. Yes, you read that right, the class would be 2.5 hours long and take place all virtually. I immediately started swinging between extreme excitement and pangs of anxiety about whether I would be able to make it through the full 8 weeks.

[Full disclosure: I am not only your average tech worker who constantly shifts between 10 tabs in my web browser at all times, but I also have ADHD which makes it next to impossible to sit in a place for multiple hours at a time].

Despite my inner voice, telling me there was no chance I’d be able to make it through such an extended period of time meditating, albeit, virtually. I am happy to share that I made it to the other side! Online meditation is a great option for people who are unable to physically get to a meditation studio or class but want to form a community with others.

Below are some tips for anyone interested in getting started with virtual meditation classes:

Carve out a space for yourself: One of my favorite things about attending an in-person meditation class is entering into a peaceful environment with little to no distractions.

An example meditation space at The Shambala Center in Toronto

When you’re taking an online meditation class you physically don’t have to go anywhere, that’s why it’s important to create a peaceful environment to practice in. I found it really helpful to carve out a tiny space in my home office that I used during the live online sessions and my personal practices. I tried to eliminate distractions as much as possible by putting my cellphone in another room and making my Zoom window as big as possible to help dial down the urge to surf the internet during class. At one point I also had to end up locking my cats in another room because our kitten decided to do a dive bomb on top of my keyboard during our live class. While it’s unlikely you’ll have to deal with flying cats during your online meditations, I definitely cannot recommend enough eliminating distractions in your personal space as much as possible while taking an online meditation class.

Dress comfortably: Whether it’s a 2.5-hour long meditation class or a quick 10-minute sitting practice, the right clothes can have a huge impact on your ability to get comfortable and relax. I found myself gravitating towards my comfy jogger pants, shirt, and sweatshirt since my body temperature oscillates between freezing and warm when I meditate. Find out what you are most comfortable in during your sessions and rock it!

Connect with your peers: To my surprise, despite the MBSR course taking place virtually there were many opportunities to connect with others in the course. During each class we were introduced to a different type of practice. After the lesson, we had time to apply it together as a group, had group discussions, and smaller break out sessions. The discussions gave us time to reflect on our experiences and share stories on what thoughts, feelings, and sensations arose for us during the practice. At first it felt a little odd talking to a group of 20 other people I’ve never met before about how I was feeling, but that quickly faded away. Everyone in the class quickly formed connections and shared stories about their experiences. I cannot emphasize enough how much I learned from my fellow students, I miss them already.

My fellow classmates from the MBSR course!

Listen to your body, it’s okay to take a break: At the beginning of our 8-week course, our meditation teacher told us that the format of the course didn’t incorporate breaks, however if we found ourselves needing to step away for a few minutes throughout our time together we were okay to do so. I definitely took this to heart, especially during the first few weeks of the course. I would get up at least 2-3 times per session to get water or just stretch. After coming back, I found myself refreshed and better able to participate in the practices and discussions.

Be kind to yourself: Whether it’s your first time practicing or you’re a long time practitioner, it’s important to be kind to yourself throughout your meditation experience. At it’s very core, meditation, is the act of noticing. If you ever find your mind drifting off during your practice, gently notice, and bring your attention back to your anchor. The very act of noticing this happening is your practice.

Looking back over the past 8 weeks, I am so grateful for my time in the online class. I was able to become more structured in my personal meditation practice, learn new techniques, and connect with others from all around the world. Do you have any meditation tips for beginners getting started in online meditation? Post them in the comments below!

Mindful Reading List

Over the years, I’ve encountered countless resources that have had a profound impacts on my own personal mindfulness practice. Below are a summary of some of the top books that I most often recommend to fellow practitioners looking to deepen their own practice. I’ll continue to frequently add to this list over time. Happy reading!

General Mindfulness

Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn

A classic introduction to mindfulness and awareness in everyday life.

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer

Discover your relationship with your thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness in Education

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teachers Life

A great reminder on how remaining authentically present as a teacher can impact your classroom and students.

The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer

A classic work on how mindfulness dramatically enhances how we learn.

Mindful Learning: Mindfulness-Based Techniques for Educators and Parents to Help Students by Craig Hassad and Richard Chambers

Discusses how mindfulness-based practices can be used in the classroom and other school based settings.

Mindful by Design by Caitlin Krause

Great for anyone looking to incorporate mindfulness in K-12 learning experiences.

Mindfulness in the Workplace

Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles

A look inside how business leaders are using meditation to foster happier and more productive workplaces.

Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership

A great primer on how mindfulness can be incorporated into the everyday life of anyone in a leadership role.

The Mindful Workplace: Developing Resilient Individuals and Resonant Organizations with MBSR by Michael Chaskalson

Practical guide on how to incorporate Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the workplace.

Mindful Learning Practices

As I’ve continued my own personal meditation practice over the years, one area that has continued to fascinate me is the potential to integrate mindfulness practices into education and learning environments.

I’ve spent some time exploring how various organizations (workplaces, universities, and even schools) have begun integrating mindfulness approaches to the learning they provide. At a high level, many of these organizations emphasize qualities such as presence, non-judgement, and openness throughout the learning process.

I’ve packaged my learnings into a summary of what I’m called Mindful Learning Practices. These practices are meant to be used by learning practitioners (facilitators, instructors, teachers) who are designing or delivering experiences to learners. Whether your audience is for K-12, higher education, or workplace employees; these learning practices will help to ensure you’re putting your learners priorities first. I will frequently add to this list as I identify practices and techniques that may help others as they develop learning experiences.

Explore the Mindful Learning Practices below:

TAKE TIME TO SET INTENTIONS

As learning practitioners, our curriculum and lesson plans often convey what we’re looking to teach to attendees. By setting intentions for our learning experiences, we’re widening the focus to consider how we’d like to facilitate our sessions. Think about your goals for the way you’d like the experience to unfold and how you might best facilitate the skills you’re helping your audience grow.

MANAGE DISTRACTIONS

A learning environment can be conducive or inhibiting to fostering mindfulness among learners. Whether you’re designing in-person or virtual learning experiences, look at your environment without any learners present. Remove items that are not useful such as clutter, untidiness, or features of online environments that may compete for learners’ attention.

BEGIN WITH A MINDFUL MOMENT

Start off your learning experiences with a mindful moment. Take a few moments (30-60 seconds) prior to a learning session to sit quietly with learners. This will allow your audience to disconnect from distractions that may have been on their mind prior to joining your session.

SET AGREEMENTS WITH LEARNERS

Learning experiences at their core are built on a foundation of trust. Take the time to set working agreements with learners as to how you’d like to work together to create a positive and cohesive learning environment. Inform learners of timing, breaks, and where you are throughout your time together. Enable learners to take care of their own unique needs throughout their learning journey.

PAY ATTENTION TO POWER DYNAMICS

In many learning environments, teachers have the power to help or hinder students while on their path to success. Be intentional about the signals you’re sending about teacher and student relationships. Reflect on how you present yourself and engage with learners. Consider how things like age, race, gender and other factors may come into play with your interactions with your learners.

FOSTER A SPACE FOR INQUIRY AND DISCOVERY

Rather than simply telling learners about content or topics through your learning experiences, encourage them to question and inquire. This will enable learners to come into their own answers and conclusions with full ownership and confidence.

MAKE IT PERSONAL AND RELEVANT

Learning is a personal process that unfolds continuously over time and it is rare that a single approach to learning will resonate with everyone. Make your learning experience more personal by allowing learners to set intentions for their time with you. Reference their intentions along the way to keep content relevant and learners engaged.

COMMUNICATE MINDFULLY

Mindful communication begins when we bring our full presence to interactions with others. Embrace a mindful communication style with learners by being supportive during their struggles or challenges without stepping in and taking over. This means coming in alongside learners and making time to listen not only to hear, but rather to understand. Practice remaining present by pausing when others are done speaking and repeating back what you heard them say to ensure you understand what they are experiencing or asking from you.

INCORPORATE EXPERIENTIAL ACTIVITIES

Engage learners in activities that increase their awareness of a diverse range of contexts and experiences throughout their learning journey. This could mean including activities such as role playing, roundtable discussions, case studies, scenarios, or think-pair-share exercises.

FOCUS ON THE PROCESS, NOT THE OUTCOME

The more learners focus on the expected outcome, the more they put pressure on themselves to perform.  Rather than focusing on standard identifiers of success such as grades or test scores, emphasize the importance of learners staying in the present moment throughout each step of the learning journey.

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR “FAILURE”

Reframe “failure” as learning opportunities for learners; praise them for making mistakes, encourage them to investigate what didn’t work, and mindfully explore the reasons why. You may find learners’ attitudes towards learning will change – leading to an increased development of resilience and perseverance through difficulties.

PROVIDE SPACE FOR REFLECTION

Take a few moments at the end of a task, lesson, unit, or exercise to allow learners to reflect on the feeling of completing a task before immediately moving onto the next one. Reflection can take the form of a debrief discussion with the entire group or a simple mindful moment alone.



ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Hassed, C. & Chambers, R. (2015). Mindful learning: reduce stress and increase brain performance for effective learning. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Langer, E. J. (2016). The power of mindful learning: with a new preface by the author. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teachers life. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.