Did you know that we are about to kick off a meditation class this Saturday @ 8:15-8:45am (Sept 29, 2019)? Well, you do now! You may be, before you decide whether to join in me (Annette) in sitting still, wondering what all this hubbub about sitting still, mindfulness and meditation is about and why you would want to do it. It’s true, meditation is becoming more and more recognized (and actually practiced) but it still has a way to go before it truly becomes “mainstream”. However, let me assure you that it is going to eventually get there because just as we have come to understand that a regular movement practice (exercise) is “good” for you, we are also coming to understand that meditation and mindfulness practices bring us a huge range of benefits, many of them similar to exercise.
And yet, here’s the cool part – doing it can compound, and even deepen, the benefits of regular exercise. But perhaps even more importantly, it can be the antidote to many of our modern dilemmas…The least of which is the staggering number of people dealing with depression, anxiety and stress worldwide.
The World Health Organization estimates that about one in four people will be affected by some sort of mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. With stats like this, chances are that if you aren’t directly affected by a mental illness, someone you love will be.
The need, therefore, for an effective way to manage our mental health has never been more pressing. With this in mind, science and major health organizations including the National Institute of Mental Health – the largest scientific, research focused mental health organization in the world – have turned to age-old techniques to explore what they have to offer us in modern times. It seems that the growing body of research showing the clear benefits of mindfulness and meditation give us plenty.
Meditation is a Workout for the Brain
Just as science has confirmed the health benefits of jogging, recent research into meditation suggests its benefits may make it something of a fitness regimen for the brain. There are over 3,000 scientific studies suggesting that meditation is good for us— so much so that there are too many benefits to list here. The following, however, would be more than enticing to anyone interested in health and longevity: increased vitality, lowered blood pressure, higher levels of the anti-aging enzyme telomerase, growth in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex, increased immunity, lowered heart rate, stronger neural connections, better sleep, and greater relaxation and happiness. We can think of meditation as a way to “flex” the brain so that, like a muscle, it grows stronger with use.
The Perfect Place Is Where You Are
Meditation is for everyone—even the type-A hustler. The truth is that many people have only a vague idea of what constitutes meditation, believing the myth that it necessitates shutting down the mind or that it just means concentrating really hard on something. They may also see it as a religious practice, paying money to just take a nap, or just a boring waste of time. Many also simply believe they cannot do it.
The bottom line is that it is difficult to encourage and facilitate peace around us and in the world unless we ourselves are peaceful. This is what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Also, it is simply not true that meditation demands a perfectly quiet environment. Alan Watts, Western philosopher and author of The Way of Zen, wrote, “If you can’t meditate in a boiler room, you can’t meditate.” Of course, beginners might need a slightly more conducive environment, and a relatively quiet space can become the perfect place for them to explore meditation within a class of other curious seekers.
While a yoga classes can give a client an element of inner peace they may need additional tools for those times when stress relief is needed and a yoga class is not an option. After all, stress can start to build again after class as soon as the phone starts ringing while trying to find your car keys in the bottom of the gym bag. Not to mention the to-do list, which, in my humble experience, only seems to get longer as the day progresses.
According to The American Institute of Stress, numerous emotional and physical ailments are linked to stress. Even the most fit and flexible among us may suffer from stress-related disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and skin conditions.
Meditation can be the ultimate stress reliever, available to us at any time of day, making it an essential life skill. As Steve Ross puts it, “The peace from daily meditation flows into the rest of your day and transforms your life.”
A guided meditation class can lead us gently into a peaceful, relaxed state—expanding our imagination, intuition, gratitude, and happiness, and bringing us back into balance. Once clients have begun to experience those effects, their lives become more relaxed. They will be calmer in situations that used to trigger stress, and they will return to class for more.
Mindfulness – Exactly What Is It?
Mindfulness is a way to train the brain to attend to what we want it to attend to by being fully present and experiencing the moment without judging, analyzing or needing to change anything. It sounds easy enough, but we humans tend to drift into worrying about the future or ruminating over the past with spectacular ease, so staying in the present can take a bit of practice.
By learning to fully engage with our experience – what we see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, the person we’re talking to, the food we’re eating, the skin we’re in, the walk we’re walking – we get more out of life. We accept rather than judge. We notice rather than take for granted. We enjoy the pleasures that are right in front of us that we miss too often and we become better at dealing with the things that go wrong.
Life is happening all the time and we miss it by getting caught up in thoughts of the past or the future. Of course, we do need to reflect and plan, but too much of that will lead to depression or anxiety or a host of other discomforts and illnesses. Focusing on the here and now stifles the likelihood of regret over the past or worry about the future, which lie at the heart of depression and anxiety respectively. It also loosens preoccupations with success or how we’re doing in the world compared to others and enhances our ability to form deeper connections with others.
How Does it Work?
Mindfulness changes the brain. It creates new neural connections and pathways and strengthens particular areas including those associated with attention and emotion regulation, anxiety and stress, and learning and memory.
The brain allocates resources depending on need. Mindfulness works by training the brain to re-divert mental resources away from excessive worry about the future (anxiety) or regret about the past (depression) and back to the present experience.
The healing power of mindfulness also lies in its capacity to reverse the stress response. It increases activity in the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that takes care of conscious thinking and planning) and decreases activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex (the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s stress physical response).
This means clearer thinking, more effective planning and less susceptibility to the damage caused by the surge of neurochemicals that are triggered by the stress response – damage that contributes to stress-related illnesses such as depression, heart disease and anxiety, to name a few.
The Proof? It’s in the Pudding, Puddin’!
There’s plenty. MRI scans have revealed that mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the parts of the brain connected with:
- The hippocampus – important for learning and memory
- Neural structures associated with awareness, compassion and introspection;
- The amygdala – associated with anxiety and stress
Studies have also shown that mindfulness:
- Can be as effective as more traditional talk therapies in the treatment of anxiety and depression;
- Decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, so quite literally, it lowers stress;
- Improves cognitive function (helps you to nail that test and make better decisions);
- Helps with greater control over the brain’s ability to process pain and emotions even when you’re not practicing it;
- Strengthens the immune system and helps to get you through cold and flu season a little healthier, reducing the incidence, duration and severity of colds and flu;
- Can help to reduce and prevent depression in teens.
According to the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness can also:
- Alleviate asthma;
- Alleviate hot flashes;
- Improve the quality of life for people with cancer;
- Improve the experience of conditions such as gastrointestinal disorders, HIV and fibromyalgia.
We’re still learning everything there is to know about mindfulness, and we probably will be for a while. One thing we know for certain though is that through mindfulness, we can learn to live better, love better and do better. Which is ultimately in line with our mission to help you become clearer, calmer, leaner, stronger, braver and better at being you – no holds barred! Join us on the mat when you can!