Editor’s Note: Andrew Weil, M.D. is a world-renowned leader, best-selling author, and...
During each 21-Day Meditation Challenge, we receive questions from participants who are curious about the sensations they experience during meditation, including everything from tingling feelings in the body and sleepiness to the desire to cry or laugh out loud. Although there are a variety of sensations that you can experience during meditation, in reality, only four things can happen during meditation:
You can be reassured that meditation is always healing and that your body takes exactly what it needs from your practice. When you notice that your attention has drifted from your mantra to a thought in your mind or to a sensation in your body, gently return your attention to the repetition of your mantra. If you fall asleep, it’s because you were tired and needed to rest. If it happens a lot, you’re probably overtired and need to get more sleep at night.
When you enter the silence between thoughts, you won’t actually realize it until after you have drifted back out of the gap. There are no thoughts in the gap – just pure consciousness or restful awareness, so you can only have the realization that you were in the gap once you are leaving it. This gentle drifting between thought and silence is a natural part of the meditation process. We don’t try to get rid of thoughts or do anything with them, for that only creates more mental turbulence. Instead, you just keep returning your attention to the mantra. As you meditate on a regular basis, cultivating inner quiet, the time you spend in the gap during meditation will increase.
Over the years, people have sent me many questions about the physical sensations they experience during meditation. I have compiled some of the most common questions and my responses here, with the hope that it will help you in your own meditation practice.
Question: Sometimes when I meditate I get a really ticklish sensation in my heart area. It simultaneously makes me want to laugh but there is also sense of anxiety or fear attached to it. If I keep sitting, I just feel like my heart has opened up and I feel a part of me is very vulnerable or scared, but at the same time another part of me feels very soothed. What could this mean?
One can have almost any type of physical sensation during meditation in any area of the body. Because the mind and body are so closely connected, when the mind experiences more expansion in meditation, the body gains a deep enough state of rest to normalize any imbalances that may be stored in the body. The ticklish sensation in your heart just means that some normalization is occurring there, allowing for a more full expression of your emotions. The sense of anxiety or fear is a by-product of that clearing process. Don’t give these sensations and feelings too much importance. It is a valuable process, but don’t focus on it; simply return to the meditation process.
“Twitching” during meditation
Question: The past few months I have been experiencing an unusual amount of “twitching” during meditation. Coincidentally, for the past few months I have also been a volunteer Reiki specialist in the advanced cancer ward at a hospital. After my shift at the
hospital I generally find that I need to go sit by a tree or something in order to help clear the energy. I was wondering if you thought the twitching could be related to my healing work and if you might have some suggestions for other ways to help clear this energy. I
miss my more peaceful and bliss filled meditation time but believe the healing is important work and plan to continue.
Twitching or other physical movements during meditation are commonplace when the body is releasing more intense conditioning or stress. It’s possible that this release
process is connected to the extra stress burden you have now with your hospital work, but it may also be unrelated to it. There’s no way to know for sure. Either way, it is nothing to worry about. The important thing is that you are clearing it, and not storing it.
Spending time in natural surroundings after your hospital work is a good way to help release the stress and tension you are picking up in the cancer ward. Regardless of the
source of the twitching during meditation, whatever you can do to relax will facilitate the release process. Long walks, deep breathing, talking with friends, yoga asanas, watching funny movies, and warm baths are just a few of the practices that people have found to be helpful. Do the things that help you unwind and relax, and that will smooth out your meditation.
Difficulty staying awake
Question: I have a difficult time staying awake when I meditate! Location, time of day, and physical position do not seem to impact this. After I’m able to stop thinking, I’m aware of a short time of silence, then I feel like I’m dreaming and I start to nod off. I feel a strong desire to nap. Sometimes I indulge this desire, and sometimes I force myself into wakefulness. I enjoy sleeping, going to bed around 10, falling asleep right away, waking once or twice during the night but falling right back into sleep. I wake up between 5 and 6 each morning. I’m generally alert and not tired during the day. Do you have any insights or recommendations?
Go ahead and let yourself sleep if you feel a strong urge to nod off during meditation. It’s not a good idea for force yourself to stay alert. Even if you don’t have a sleep deficit from the night, sometimes you can go through a period of meditation where your body requires an experience of sleep in order to release a particular quality of conditioning. Don’t worry about it; just let the body shift into the state it needs, and when that conditioning or stress has been cleared, then your meditations will resume their usual character.
Spontaneous movement of hands and head
Question: Sometimes in meditation my hands (particularly my right hand) will
rise on its own accord and begin to rotate at the wrist. I have had other sensations as well – my head will turn and feel pushed over either my right or left shoulder as
far as it can stretch. The movements feel very strong and powerful, though slow and almost methodical. I haven’t (yet) become alarmed by the movements, because they are not painful (the stretching is almost pleasant like yoga) but they do seem to keep me from meditating regularly. Is this something I should avoid and it is helpful for me to resume my meditation practice? If I feel these sensations coming on, should I end my meditation immediately or somehow direct my mind to “talk my body out of” these movements? What is going on? Thank you.
As the mind settles down in meditation, the body follows it in terms of getting deeper rest, softer breathing, and lower metabolic rate. And whenever the body gets an
opportunity for profound rest, it takes that opportunity to clear away whatever old tensions and traumas there may be stored away from the past. Typically these stresses
are physically released during meditation with little perceptible movement, but sometimes, when the conditioning or stress is imprinted more deeply, then you may experience periods of more pronounced or exaggerated physical movement in meditation while the body is being healed.
This is perfectly normal. Just make sure that you maintain a neutral attitude throughout the process. Neither do you want to resent or be afraid of the sensations, nor do you want to indulge in them by thinking that the more it happens the better the release process is. If you glorify it in that way, you run the danger of promoting it beyond its natural need. Once the conditioning has been cleared, the movements will stop on their own.
Coolness in fingers and toes
Question: Sometimes I get this coolness in my fingers and toes during meditation. I don’t know whether my meditation is shallow or deep when this happens. For the past couple of days, I have also started feeling the same coolness outside of my meditation in my whole body sometimes in chest, legs, hands, and slightly in the head. But the center seems to be below the spine. Is this kundalini energy? What does this mean to me? What should I expect next? I have also heard that the kundalini energy can sometimes be dangerous if not used appropriately. Are there any do’s or don’ts in this case? Just as a background, I have been doing kapalabhati (which is known to invoke kundalini energy)for four years and I started meditation about nine months back – about the same time I had realized that we are not our thoughts but much more than that. Your advice in this case would be really, really helpful.
The experience of coolness is consistent with the movement of kundalini energy that accompanies the expansion of consciousness. In itself, the sensations don’t mean anything. What matters is how much the Self is now awakened. It is better not to expect anything in particular to follow after this. Such experiences are extremely susceptible to expectations. It’s better to let what occurs unfold naturally without anticipation.
As long as the experiences are not uncomfortable and don’t disrupt your daily routine, just continue with your life as usual. If symptoms get difficult, then you may want to ease off the kapalabhati pranayama. You don’t have to concern yourself with how deep you are going in meditation. What matters is doing your meditation effectively, and the rest will take care of itself. That way you will get the experience you need at that moment, whether it is “deep” or “shallow.”
Waves of energy and headache
Question: A couple of days ago in my meditation I noticed a wave of energy coming up and almost moving my mind 360 degrees. I did not want to limit it and wanted it to finish whatever it was doing but I could not keep away from it since it was very strong and thus the action stopped in between. Now my problem is that I have had some sensations of pain in the center of my head for the past couple of days. If possible, can you shed some light on this?
It sounds like this wave of energy activated the release of some deep-seated stress or conditioning that has not yet fully released. Sometimes it can take a few days or even a couple of weeks for some deeply etched patterns to fully heal, and during that time it’s possible for there to be some discomfort in the body as the physical structure lets go of it. During this time, get extra sleep at night and do yoga asanas and pranayama before your meditations. The headaches could go away at any time now.
Whirling and disorientation
Question: I meditate regularly twice per day for twenty minutes each time. Sometimes during meditation I feel that I don’t have a sense of the position of my physical body. I don’t have a sense of whether I’m upside down or upright, and I feel like I’m whirling or moving in an anti-clockwise direction on a spiral. Could you help me understand what is happening?
It’s always a good idea to get a thorough physical exam if you continue to experience a whirling sensation while sitting. Once you have ruled out any organic physical problem, then you should know that such temporary feelings of displacement or disorientation are not uncommon as the body heals various traumas in the senses. Usually it doesn’t last for more than a moment or so. If it persists and is uncomfortable, then stop repeating your mantra and open your eyes. After you have regained equilibrium, you can restart the mantra. Once the underlying stress has been released, your normal sense of balance and ease will return.
Feelings of nausea and heat
Question: I was meditating this evening when all of sudden after about twenty-eight minutes, a huge wave of nausea and heat overcame me. I came out of meditation to take some deep breaths and lean forward, and then the nausea went away. My question is, should I have continued the meditation by assuming this was just another feeling . . . or should I have done what I did?
You handled it correctly. When a sensation is so strong that it becomes difficult to continue meditating easily, then coming out to attend to the sensation until it subsides is appropriate. When the feelings are not so strong, then you can treat them like any other thought that comes up in meditation and easily go back to the mantra. But in your case, you said the nausea and heat overcame you, so in such a situation you shouldn’t try to force your mind to go back to the mantra when it is so completely caught up in that physical release process. By stopping the mantra, breathing all the way into the sensation, and being with it until it went away, you did the right thing.
Pain in the upper body
Question: Last year I learnt the Primordial Sound Meditation and since that time I have been meditating every morning and evening. Recently I’ve had a lot of head, shoulder, and back pains. During the meditation the pains are stronger and my shoulders and arms become heavy. When I feel this, I can’t relax myself. Is this quite normal or is there something wrong in my meditation technique?
Sometimes we can experience joint and muscular pain in meditation as the deep trauma from the past is being released. It doesn’t mean you are meditating incorrectly. On the contrary, it means that your practice is effective and correct because you are healing the old conditioning very quickly.
Just continue meditating effortlessly and not minding the physical release process too much. It will end when the stored stresses have been cleared away. It should help to do some yoga asanas before and after meditation as well to help assist the body to let go of the old pain. Additionally, try to get a massage once a week and soak in a bath with Epsom salts every day until the discomfort diminishes significantly.
Feeling expansive and tilting
Question: Sometimes when I meditate I experience a feeling of “growing” really big and tall, like I’m filling up the whole room or sitting just below the ceiling. Sometimes I also feel like I’m leaning as much as 45 degrees to the right but my body really is straight up. What’s happening when I get these strange feelings?
These experiences are quite common in meditators. As awareness becomes more refined and abstract, it is as if the spatial boundaries and orientation of the body can feel distended or distorted. So we might feel very tall or massive or tilted or turned. Sometimes people report that their body feels incredibly dense and foreign to them. These are all normal meditation sensations as a consequence of the mind experiencing more subtle realms of thought.