This week I've stumbled across a number of new studies on the benefits of #meditation and I am even more excited about where we are going with our practice. The evidence is growing in the ability of mindfulness and meditation to really change and remold our brains, even altering how we respond to our reality. While functional medicine experts are always addressing the gut, and appropriately so, my sense is to prioritize the nervous system even higher than the gut health.
Our society is maxed out. We were maxed out even before COVID. We work too many hours at too high of a demand and struggle more and more, every day, to make ends meet. Never are our efforts enough, yet we get up each morning with hope that if we get past this next hurdle we will finally be able to take a breath and prioritize our own needs, yet this never happens.
When we are drowning, we struggle to go off course because we haven't the mindspace to consider something new. We haven't the energy to learn or take on a new challenge. There is simply no reserve, so we remain within our old, sometimes even traumatic reality, because it is familiar. Here's the thing though, even when I am teaching and certifying nurses and midwives in neonatal resuscitation, I encourage them to stop and take a breath themselves when needed, even in the midst of a resuscitation because those few seconds, while they seem a dangerous pause, can alter the course of the entire rest of the resuscitation because you are now better equipped. We must put on our own oxygen mask first, and then I promise you, those few minutes will course correct your next steps and can ultimately, save a life.
If you are thinking about meditation, searching for a bit of inner peace, I would love for you to join one of my #yoga classes as we implement these practices in every class. Meditation is like those calming breaths at the onset of a stressful situation, they take a few minutes maybe even an hour from your day but they help you course correct - calming your nervous system and de-stimulating your brain.
Meditation Looks Different for Everyone
There's no right or wrong way to meditate. It's hard to mess it up. When you are a newbie, the hardest challenge may be finding stillness and settling into the habit. When you are moving and thinking at full speed all the time, and always feeling like you have a mountain of tasks to climb, taking a moment to be still sounds like torture, or at least, idiotic to meeting your goals. Be creative though and find just three minutes (maybe they are on the toilet) to start. I often meditate in the tub or in the car (eyes open). Set the timer if needed.
Once you find time and settle into a meditation, the real work begins. At first, you may begin to just observe. What are your thoughts? Can you let those drift away without judgment? You might notice the pattern of your breath. Maybe you begin to scan your body, noticing what you notice.
The more you can detach from running commentary in your brain, the easier it becomes for deeper thoughts and that inner voice to arise. It's like clearing away old leaves and debris so new plants can poke up through the soil.
A popular style of meditation, often the term is used interchangeably with meditation, mindfulness is a focus on something such as your breath while allowing thoughts to naturally arise and then letting them drift away. Again, there is no judgement, just a stream of thoughts flowing away from you.
Maybe you begin to count the breath, inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to the count of seven. Maybe you pay attention to the coolness of the breath on the inhale, and the warmth on the exhale. Maybe you even pay attention to your chest rise, rib expansion, even the rise and fall of your perineum. Developing a relationship with your breath is the key to awareness. This alone can profoundly impact your life.
Using a word or phrase repeated can help focus the mind in a similar way as being mindful of one's breath. When teaching yoga and working to be mindful of he breath, often I will pair a mantra with our breath work. For example, on the inhale, I may encourage students to say to themselves something that resonates, such as "I am safe." Then on the exhale, repeat another mantra which empowers them, such as "I am loved." Some teachers will utilize Sanskrit words and let the sound of those words resonate within them, even when maybe their meaning escapes them.
You might also engage in metta meditation, which is a lovingkindness approach, cultivating love and kindness towards yourself and others. In this practice, you might recite a series of statements regarding being happy, safe, well and strong.
If you picture yourself in a peaceful place, on the beach or on top of a mountain, does your body know if you are truly there or not? If thinking stressful thoughts can engage our nervous system and even lead to disease, can thinking positive thoughts do the same, calming our nervous system and healing our bodies and minds?
When working with pregnant mommas in childbirth class, educators will often use an imagery of holding onto a piece of ice and then breathing through that to represent what contractions will feel like and how to move through them mindfully. Staying focused and grounded is often the best tool we need to face life's challenges.
Body Scan & Progressive Relaxation
This is often practiced lying down, although I've offered this often to women in the earlier stages of labor or even late into labor when their mind becomes more exhausted even than their body. Briefly focusing on different parts of the body, scanning and noticing different sensations arising or intentionally tensing progressive areas of the body and then purposely relaxing them as you move along from muscle to muscle.
Enjoy the Experience
The common theme no matter your approach is that the mind will inevitably wander. It's the nature of our brain. When it does, just gently bring it back to the breath and back to whatever your focus was, without judgement. Medication can be a challenge; it does take time to develop stamina. I struggled with just three minutes for a long time and then all of a sudden went from five to twenty minutes without much effort. This isn't different than any other endurance exercise, and with consistency and practice, you'll reap great benefit and if you already know this, please share in the comments below how meditation has helped you live a healthier life.
Some meditation practices are more spiritual than others, maybe have more philosophical underpinnings or rules as you advance your practice. These nuances may intrigue you and allow you to dive into the practice more deeply, but at first, three minutes of stillness will offer you significant benefit, truly. Try not to attach expectations to your practice and just enjoy the experience.