I sit with my eyes closed, breathing rhythmically through my nose. I focus on the gentle rising and falling of my chest. Silently, I count each breath.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven —
“This is the Northbound 4 Train!” a voice blares over the speakers. “The next stop is Grand Central, 42nd Street! Stand clear of the closing doors!”
My eyes snap open. I scramble to gather my backpack and coat. I squeeze through the crowd of passengers, slipping through the doors just before they close. I transfer to the local train across the platform and find a seat near the end of the car. Making a note to adjust my timing tomorrow, I close my eyes.
Eight. Nine. Ten. One. Two…
Until recently, I lived in Brooklyn, New York and worked in Manhattan. When I started meditating with Headspace, I had a strict morning schedule: wake up, eat breakfast, walk the dog, meditate for 20 minutes. Then I’d take the #4 subway train to Union Square, transfer to the #6 local, and head uptown to my office.
But life is unpredictable. Some days I didn’t have time to meditate before rushing out the door. Other days, I felt like I didn’t have any free time at all.
So I started experimenting with subway meditation. At first, it seemed impossible. Either the constant noise disrupted my practice, or I got so involved in meditating I missed my stop completely. But each time I did it, it became a little easier, and I started to pick up a few tricks.
If you’d like to make subway meditation part of your routine, here are some tips for mobile mindfulness:
Distance yourself from distraction
When you enter the train, listen to the sounds around you. Where are people talking? Where are they quiet? Do your best to find a place away from conversations, loud children, or music. Don’t worry too much about the train noises or announcements at this point. Just find the quietest place you can.
Get a seat, or stand near the end of the car
Meditation is easier sitting down, so if a seat is available, take it. If not, stand near the very end of the car. I like to stand with my back against the doors between the cars, facing the interior. I put my bag between my legs, rest my arms at my sides and close my eyes. If all else fails, just try to stand as far from the opening and closing doors as you can.
Choose the right session length
You want a meditation session that’s shorter than the length of your ride. If your train ride is 20 minutes, choose a 15 or 10 minute session. Make sure you take transfers into account (as I learned on my commute). Headspace also has a special on-the-go single meditation designed just for commuting, which is a great place to start.
Close your eyes (carefully)
I’ve meditated on the subway many times with my eyes closed, with no problems. But use your judgment. You might need to open your eyes mid-session to make sure everything’s ok. Or if your particular train seems too crowded or unsafe, don’t force it. There will be other trains.
Ignore train noises and routine announcements
Train noises are surprisingly easy to tune out. They’re low and consistent, so they quickly fade into the background. Even the conductor’s announcements aren’t as disruptive as you might think. If you ride this train every day, you probably know what they’re going to say. Of course, don’t tune out so completely that you can’t snap back to your surroundings in an emergency.
Be respectful of non-meditating passengers
This is common sense, but keep in mind that you’re sharing this space with others. You might get jostled, or need to shift your position to let someone pass by. For me, it’s just like noting a disruptive thought: you can acknowledge the interruption in your mind, let it go, and move on.
Don’t stress out if it doesn’t work
Sometimes you’ll have everything perfect, and then the couple next to you will start a conversation you can’t help but overhear. Or someone will blast music through their headphones. That’s ok. Try again on your next ride, or tomorrow.
When you’re back above ground, update your stats!
I’m a big proponent of keeping your daily meditation streak going any way you can. But when you meditate underground, sometimes the Headspace app won’t update your stats right away. When you’re back on the surface, open the app again and watch your number tick up. No matter what kind of day I’m having, that moment is a little reward.
For me, the subway has become a great place to train my mind, and can even be a calming moment in my day. But it’s definitely more challenging than meditating in a quiet room alone. If you find you have trouble, think of it this way: subway meditation might not work perfectly every time. But just by trying, you’re making the effort to take better care of your mind, and that counts for a lot.
At the very least, it beats Candy Crush.