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Meditation and health – Why it’s good for you and how to start?

Meditation and health – Why it’s good for you and how to start?

Today I am not sharing about food or a new recipe. At the heart of what I believe, is that our health and well-being isn’t just what we eat or how we move, but also has to do with what we think and how we manage our stress.  Meditation is one healthy habit that I use often and I am a big fan of it.

I use it to relieve stress, to help focus on what’s important, and it helps to tame my overthinking and gets my brain to stop for a bit.  

I began to use meditation actively in my life about five years ago.  Prior to that point, I had heard and read about meditation and was interested, but hadn’t started practicing.  However, I was uncertain how to do it, and to be honest it felt awkward and even a bit silly.

My friend recommended starting with Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s 21-day Meditation Challenge.  To this day, I am still a huge fan of this style of meditation. There are many other ways to meditate that provide the same benefit, but they don’t work for me.  I love the broad theme of each 21-day challenge, and the talk given by Oprah and Deepak each day prior to the meditation are inspiring and very helpful to me.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a mind and body practice which focuses on the brain or mind, the body and behavior.  In my opinion, meditating is not a religious practice though it may be a part of some religions.  No matter what your beliefs, meditation is a practice from which we can all benefit.  There are many different types and styles of meditation, but they all generally have some basic similarities.  Similarities such as:  a quiet place without anything to distract you, a simple position such as sitting or lying down, an attention focus such as your breath or a mantra and lastly an openness to the process.  (nccih.nih.gov)

You can really meditate anywhere. I’ve even meditated on a crowded subway in NYC. Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash

Why is meditation good for you?

Meditation has been around for centuries in some parts of the world.  It is one of the basic practices in yoga and was founded in ancient India.  In the US and other western cultures, the practice of meditation is relatively new and in recent years it has received much more widespread attention.  Today, more people in other countries, especially the United States have discovered meditation as a means for stress relief and relaxation.  Science has also been interested in meditation.  There has been much research to substantiate the benefits with scientific evidence.

The primary benefit from meditation comes from its ability to help us better manage the stress response in our bodies.  No matter what type of stress we are under, our bodies respond in a physical way.  Our muscles tighten, our breathing increases, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure increases, and our bodies release more of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Now imagine, if we are always stressed and not doing anything to try to decrease or relieve our stress, this becomes a more permanent state for our body which is dangerous to our health.  Science indicates that engaging in a regular meditation practice works to break this cycle.  Meditation actively engages and triggers the relaxation response in our body.

The science behind meditation

Research indicates that meditation helps to lower blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression and insomnia.  Some studies show that meditation actually physically alters the brain and may even delay some of the changes in the brain due to normal aging.  In a 2012 study, demonstrated that meditation can affect the activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain which processes emotions.  Furthermore, this process may continue even when a person isn’t meditating.  (nccih.nih.gov)

Another study which I find so interesting, showed that physical differences actually exist in the brains of persons who are regular practitioners of meditation. In this study, after 8-weeks of meditation, MRIs showed an increase in the amount of gray matter of the hippocampus, the region of the brain connected to learning and memory.  The MRIs also showed a decrease in the amount of gray matter of the amygdala, the area of the brain most associated with stress.  These same changes were not seen in the control group, which didn’t meditate or participate in mindfulness activities. (news.harvard.edu)

More research exists that show the benefits of meditation.  And more studies are being done to really understand the mechanisms behind how meditation actually helps improve health.

How meditation helped me?

I have found meditation to be beneficial to me in a number of ways.  Firstly, meditation helps me manage patience. By nature, I am not a patient person and it shows up in almost every area of my life:  professionally, in relationships, day-to-day, with myself and with others.  I could go on and on about how I struggle to let go and just let things be.  Meditation doesn’t fix my impatience, but it does help me to be aware when it’s appearing.  This awareness allows me the opportunity to acknowledge it and to figure out my response.  As a result, it slows down the reaction and gives me time to think about my response rather than simply going to straight to frustration or anger.

Meditation has also helped me find focus.  Somehow the time in silence, allowing my mind to be still, and drowning out the noise of everything else translates into the rest of my day and life.  I find it easier to set thoughts aside and focus on what is truly important or on my immediate goals.

Meditation has helped to balance my moods as well.  When I am meditating regularly, I am generally much more aware of how I am feeling in each moment.  Along with this awareness comes an ability to also delay or withhold a response.  Often I am able to just let my irritation or anger just slide away rather than reacting upon it.  Now, I am not saying it has completely gone away but it certainly improved after beginning a regular meditation practice.

The outcome of all these and other combined changes from meditation is that in general, I am a much happier human being.  I am more appreciative of what I have in my life.  I feel better about my emotional and mental state, and that translates into hopefully making others feel good about themselves.

All you need to get started is a quiet place without distractions. Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash

How to start

You don’t really need anything to begin meditating. All you really need to start is find a quiet place, sit down and get still.  But for me, that method just didn’t work, and I prefer using guided meditations.  To find these or other forms of meditation, I suggest starting online to try to find free meditations that you can use initially to see what type and style you really like.

Some meditations are more guided than others.  In those with more guidance, the person leading the meditation speaks through almost the entire length of the meditation.  I prefer the style used by Deepak Chopra.  In his meditation, he first gives a short introduction and provides you with a mantra to use during the silence.  Silent meditation for about 10 minutes or so follows the introduction.  His meditations generally include gentle music playing in the background while you meditate.

YouTube and Google are places to search for free meditations.  I have provided some links of some of my preferred meditations as a start.  However, if none of these really resonate with you, look for others using some of the sources I mention above.

When you are looking for different meditations you will want to consider the voice, the topic or theme, music and the length of the meditation.  If you can’t stand the voice or the way the person talks, you won’t be able to focus.  The theme or topic has to be something meaningful to you.  You may or may not find music in a meditation to be distracting.  Choose a length of meditation that you know you can commit to at this time.  There are some that are no more than five minutes long, and that may be a great place to start.

Guided Meditation on YouTube:

Other:

  • 21-Day Meditation Challenge (The free challenges take place 3ish times a year but free samples are available on their website when a challenge isn’t taking place.)

In conclusion

The brain is truly amazing and remarkable, and to find out that it can be altered in a way that improves our health just by setting aside a few minutes a day to be quiet is so incredibly amazing.

I will admit to you that over the last year, I have been lax in my regular meditation practice.  Often I just feel like I don’t have the time to set aside to meditate every day.  But I think we can all admit that there is likely somewhere in our life that we can eek out the 20-30 minutes to get quiet and still.  I know for me there are definitely areas where I can easily fit it in simply by cutting down on tv time or eliminate some of the mindless time I spend on social media.

After writing this piece and looking at the actual research, I am certainly inspired to find a way to make it happen.  I hope you join me this week in creating space for this healthy lifestyle habit of meditation.  If you have any other meditation sources or other comments about this post, please leave me a comment on the blog or send me a message via the contact me page.

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy week.  Namaste.

 

Sources:

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/



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