Meditation is one of the best things we can do for our health and wellbeing, it’s easy and it’s free! And it will improve you life on EVERY level. So why don’t we do it on the regular? It’s a bit like exercise in that way. I know it will make me feel SO much better once I do it, but getting myself to actually do it seems to be the challenge. It’s so curious to me that the things that we know will have exponentially positive effects on our life, like meditation, exercise, and eating well, are sometimes the most challenging things to do on a regular basis. Why? I think part of the challenge are all the “ideas” we have of what meditation is. That you have to sage your space or burn some cleansing incense, chant a mantra given to you by some guru who is so enlightened their body no longer requires sleep or food for that matter, and sit for a minimum of twenty minutes in perfect stillness with a blank mind. Oy. That kind of pressure is enough to make anyone not want to do it. If you are a perfectionist like me, chances are you probably approached meditation with a similar checklist on how to do it right. The truth is NONE of those things are required. In fact NOTHING is required. You don’t need to do ANYTHING. That is the true beauty of meditation. I find when we release the expectations, and just focus on making small changes, we reap even bigger rewards. Like with diet and exercise, instead of overhauling your entire way of eating and moving, focusing on small manageable goals like eating more vegetables, incorporating a daily green juice and taking a nightly walk tends to lead to further healthy changes in an authentic and comfortable way. Same goes for meditation. So if you are a black or white, all or nothing, type A perfectionist like me, then here are some suggestions of gentle ways to incorporate meditation into your life that are easy and pleasurable, and will improve your wellbeing without question.
First let me offer you some genuine motivation. let’s look at how meditation can improve your health and life, because it’s unbelievable how beneficial it is.
Meditation protects the brain from age related decline
A very recent study out of UCLA showed that meditators had better preserved brains than non-meditators. They had a greater volume of grey matter. This has incredible implications for things like age related dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Meditation changes the structure of our brain in positive ways
A study out of Harvard found that mindfulness meditation over only an eight week course showed increase in cortical thickness, an area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and regulation of emotion, and a DECREASE in volume in the amygdala which is the part of the brain responsible for fear and stress! The participants had the subjective experience of improved mood and well-being, so the changes in the brain were also felt subjectively by those participating. I mean….. if there was ever a reason to meditate!
Meditation reduces depression and anxiety, including social anxiety
A study shows that mindfulness meditation reduces a persons anxiety and stress levels, including those experiencing social anxiety. Another study out of John Hopkins also showed meditation to be as effective as antidepressants in the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Meditation increases your immune response
This study showed that meditation reduced stress-induced immune and behavioral responses. Another study showed that HIV positive men who practice mindful meditation slowed down the reduction of the immune cells that are responsible for keeping the virus from replicating.
Meditation makes you happier!
A study out of Wisconsin saw an increase in electrical activity in regions of the left frontal lobe, which is an area of the brain that is active in optimistic people, and this was only after an eight week course of meditation!
I could go on and on with the studies! More benefits of meditation include:
- Reduced pain levels
- reduced blood pressure
- Improved concentration
- Slows aging
- Increases energy levels
- Increases compassion
- Lessens inflammation in the body
- Improves ADD/ADHD
- Helps in the treatment of addiction
- improves self-esteem/self-acceptance
It’s just simply too good to not incorporate it into our daily lives. Most of us are so busy with work and family that the idea of adding one more thing to our “to do” list just feels daunting. But meditation can be a simple and wonderful thing. Here are a few ways to add a gentle meditation practice into your life.
Meditation can be as simple as just focusing on your breath. If you can simply take five minutes out of your day to sit quietly and pay attention to your breath. A simple and effective technique I learned years ago to deal with anxiety was as follows: Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of six, and exhale for a count of eight. For even more benefit place the tip or your tongue on the ridge just behind your upper front teeth.
Another breathing technique that Dr. Joan Borysenko claims will bring your frontal cortex “online” is to breathe in for whatever count is comfortable for you, could be five seconds or ten. Then purse your lips like you are sucking through a straw and exhale for twice the length of your inhale. Do this for two to three minutes.
While you breathe, just notice your thoughts. You don’t have to stop them from happening and you also don’t have to indulge them. Just let them be. It’s as simple as that.
Get out into nature.
This is my favorite form of meditation. For me this is the most powerful. There are no rules here. You can sit and breathe, or stare at the sky and clouds, or you can just walk. Whatever you do, be mindful of what is going on around you. Listen to the birds in the trees, feel the breeze and sun on your face. Feel the crunch of dirt beneath your feet. Allow the thoughts to come and go as they please and keep bringing your attention back to the present moment. I find this easiest to do in nature. There is so much to focus on, and be present for. It’s particularly powerful if you are experiencing anxiety. The visceral experience of nature can redirect your attention in a positive way. Dig your hands into the sand and look out at the sea and just see if it doesn’t shift your stress and anxiety.
This digital day and age is so strange in so many ways, and yet so awesome. If nature isn’t available to you, or maybe just isn’t your thing, turn to your iPhone or whatever device you have. There are AMAZING meditation and mindfulness apps available that make everything simple and easy. Here are a few to try:
- Omvana – Omvana brings you guided meditation from some of the best teachers in the field. They offer hundreds of guided meditations and inspirational speeches. One amazing feature is that they also offer meditation music tracks as well as ambient sound tracks that you can “mix” with any of the guided meditations that you choose, so you can tailor your experience and really make it personal.
- Mindfulness Training App – by Sounds True – This app has guided meditation and instruction from masters such as Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dr Andrew Weil and Thich Nhat Hanh. Need I say more? I think not.
- Headspace – Heaadspace contains hundreds of guided meditations ranging from 2 to 60 minutes. You can pick and choose what works for you. They also offer the first 10 days/lessons for free. They are simple 10 minute guided meditations designed to effortlessly ease you into a practice. Plus he has an amazing soothing British accent that makes everything just sound better. Why is that?
- Buddhify – Buddhify offers a guided meditation for any situation. They have ones for “waiting in line”, “feeling stressed”, “need to sleep”, you get the idea. It’s a way to incorporate meditation into whatever it is you are doing at the moment. You can also set a timer if you want, and it will track your preferences as well as show your stats. Not sure I love the “stats” part, as meditation is not something that should be results oriented in that way, but if seeing your stats motivates you to keep going then I’m all for it.
Basically meditation is the bomb. So let’s stop fighting it, and find ways to bring it into our lives a little bit more. It’s not as hard as we think it is, and the benefits are SO worth it. Plus, if I could be like those enlightened meditating gurus who don’t need sleep at all, my parenting woes would be solved. So there’s that.