JESSICA KIDDLE

I DIDN'T HAVE TO contort myself into the lotus position, chant "Ohm" repetitively, or don a saffron robe. All I had to do for my first ever meditation was shut my eyes and concentrate on my breathing for a sense of tranquility to sweep over me.

Maybe it was the relaxing voice of my teacher Kalyanavaca talking me through the meditation process, or the incense wafting around me, but my hour-long introduction to meditation at The Edinburgh Buddhist Centre was certainly restorative.

Meditation is traditionally a devotional exercise for Buddhists, helping them heighten their awareness of themselves and the world around them on their quest to become spiritually enlightened. But the good news is that you don't need to dedicate your life to reaching Nirvana to reap the rewards. According to Kalyanavaca, by taking just 20 minutes a day to be still, you can feel more at peace.

Buddhists have long believed that meditation is the secret to a healthy mind and body, and now the general consensus among the medical profession in the West is that it can help rocketing stress levels by decreasing muscle tension and blood pressure. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence - the UK watchdog charged with deciding whether drugs and therapies should be made available on the NHS - even recommends it as a way of preventing the recurrence of depression. And in America, as more people discover the therapeutic benefits of this ancient art, CDs of guided meditation are the latest accessory for high-flying executives.

So how does it work? "We only normally use one eighth of our consciousness," explains Kalyanavaca, a dharmacharini (someone who is not a monk, but who studies the teaching of Buddha). "By trying to get in touch with the other seven eighths through meditation, we can expand our mind and our awareness of what's around us. Your consciousness is very powerful and, if you can learn to use and direct it, you will start to feel more in control of your life. "You'll notice subtle differences at first. You'll be able to concentrate better, you'll feel a lot calmer and more focused, and then your whole world will go from black and white into Technicolour because your mind will be so much sharper and will take note of your surroundings."

There are a multitude of meditations from which to choose - some are designed to refresh and others to relax, but for a beginner the "Mindfulness of Breathing" exercise is the most basic and easy to grasp. Practised by all Buddhists, this technique is designed to empty your mind and increase your self-awareness by getting you to focus on the sensation of breath flowing in and out of your body.

To help me do this I was encouraged to close my eyes, sit still with my palms in my lap (I sat in a chair but you can sit anywhere that feels comfortable) with my spine in a relaxed position. The meditation was broken down into four different stages. I started by silently counting my breaths from one to ten, and then starting again. Initially I was to count as I finished exhaling and then, in the next part of the process, I was told to count as I inhaled. Then I was told to stop counting and to hone in on my breath and how it affects my body. In the final stage of the session, I had to switch my attention to the place where I first feel my breath entering my body - in my case, the tip of my nostril.

As a result of concentrating on something I usually do without thinking, my breathing not only became slower and more deliberate (thus helping me to relax) but, as I focused inwards, it helped to eliminate - or at least minimise - the worries and stresses occupying my mind.

It sounds simple, but the technique is not mastered as easily as it may sound. The problem was that, while I was desperately trying to focus, intrusive thoughts kept popping into my head at random. Visions of the black skirt I have my eye on in TopShop floated past, then I developed an urge to decide what I was going to cook for dinner.

Kalyanavaca assured me that everyone's mind wanders. Buddhists call this "monkey mind" - like a monkey grabbing at bananas on a tree, our brains continuously snatch at one thought after another.

To combat this, she told me to re-focus and return to breath number one every time I was distracted. With practice, I should have been able to count up to ten without my mind wandering, but I never progressed past the third exhalation. Evidently I have a particularly active monkey inside my head.

But, hoping to attain the zen qualities of Buddhist monks worldwide, I decided to give it a go the next morning. Sitting cross-legged on my living room floor with the aid of a few cushions, I was ready to go. Taking my first few breaths rather zealously, I began to feel light-headed but, once I started to relax and breathe normally, I tried to clear my mind and count. However, without Kalyanavaca's guidance, instead of getting that feeling of serenity I achieved the day before, all I secured was pins and needles and an ensuing sense of boredom. I gave up.

While it was enjoyable to spend a few hours at the Buddhist centre, I conclude it is going to be impossible for me to dedicate every morning to paying homage to my lungs. However, as Kalyanavaca explains, this level of dedication isn't required. "This is an organic meditation - all you need is your breath," she says. "This means you can do it anywhere - on a bus, walking along the street or at your desk."

I try again that afternoon while sitting at my office computer. Trying to distance myself from the ringing phones and tapping of nearby keyboards, I sit still and focus on my breathing. Although I am aware of chatter going on around me, I think of nothing but my breath for what must be at least three minutes. Perhaps 20 minutes a day is too ambitious for beginners and, when I call up The Buddhist Centre to ask whether it would be acceptable to start with a lesser amount, they seem quite happy.

"You can always find a reason not to meditate and it can be strange at first because we are just not used to sitting down and being with ourselves," concedes Kalyanavaca. "But if you try for even a little bit each day to train your mind and learn a basic concentration practice like this it's quite remarkable what a difference it can make."

• The Edinburgh Buddhist Centre offers daily introductory meditation classes. For more information call 0131-228 3333.

• Stage 1: Count silently at the end of each breath

• Stage 2: Count just before you inhale

• Stage 3: Let go of counting and just take note of the experience of the breath coming in and out of your body. Try to keep your focus on the breath - how fast or deep it is and how it affects the other parts of your body

• Stage 4: Focus your attention on the point of your body where you first feel your breath - maybe the top of your lip.