MEDITATION – What, Why & How

In Featured, Fitness, Health & Wellbeing, Stress Management by Diane Richardson Clarke3 Comments

Meditation is something I’d wondered about for a very long time, but like many people never did anything other than wonder what it was, why people did it and how they did it.

Then Lucy started her journey into Kundalini Yoga, which includes meditation.  It came up in conversation a few times and I started asking questions – my interest was piqued!  The real moment of enlightenment was realising the positive effect it was having on Lucy.

I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, Lucy was struggling with the effects of menopause, one of which was a lessened tolerance level, a trait that gave me many hours of amusement when she would call me on the phone to get her frustrations off her chest.  Oh and I should say, I was exactly the same and we would spend many an hour ranting on the phone, totally forgetting what we called each other about and not feeling much better when we finished the call!

Meditation - What, Why & How

Anyway, back to the point of the blog, the change in Lucy was inspiring.  Firstly she was much calmer, more considered and contemplative and would talk about issues from the other parties perspective.  We would still discuss the things which were irritating us but the conversations would be much calmer and focused and we would finish the chat with a smile or a laugh and move on happily with our days – quite often with Lucy stating she was off up the mountain with her dog to meditate!  It was then I thought could this meditation baloney be the remedy to alleviating my stress, agitation and frustration, which would at times defocus me for a whole day!

Stress was causing poor sleep, back ache, neck ache, head aches, tiredness and a short-temper (I now know some of these were side effects of the menopause)  Wasn’t I a pleasant bunny!   As usual, I chatted it over with Lucy, as I was so impressed with her change in demeanor, and she said her yoga and meditation was what had helped her.  Then being the amazing friend she is (put the fiver in the post) she gifted me a copy of Maya Fiennes “Kundalini Yoga to detox and de-stress” DVD.  This was my turning point.

I waited with baited breath for Mr Perfect to leave for work before put the DVD on.  If you knew Mr Perfect you would understand why – let’s just say practicing meditation requires peace and quiet, two words not in his vocabulary!  The door clicked shut, I whizzed upstairs, dimmed the bedroom lights, put the disc in the player and followed Maya’s instructions.

If anyone had watched me do the first session they would have had access to a free comedy show!  Being told to keep your eyes shut whilst trying to do the moves for the first time is pretty impossible, after all how did I know if I was doing them right or not!  The session consisted of Yoga exercises, breathing techniques, mantra’s and chants, even trying to understand the chants was hard enough for me. I persevered and felt a wave of euphoria that I had actually managed to get to the end (even if I didn’t do it all quite right).

I continued doing the DVD during the week, I think 4 times in total and the main benefit I noticed was how much more focused and awake I felt, plus I was sleeping better!  Yep, after one week I was hooked especially by the meditation aspects of this particular Yoga.  If you fancy trying it at home, I highly recommend this DVD Maya Fiennes Kundalini YogaMeditation - What, Why and How

As with most new exercise regimes, I continued for about a month, noticed a huge difference in my mindset and waistline (it seemed to tone me up really quickly) but unfortunately after a month the number of sessions I was doing started to dwindle, which is typical of me, soon I was only doing it about once every two weeks, which is better than none but not enough.

I felt I needed to find something which would take less time, which I could squeeze in whenever I had a few minutes to myself.  Lucy had also mentioned an app called HeadSpace, so I looked it up on my phone one evening and was delighted to find you can get 10 free sessions to start with, each one 10 minutes long – PERFECT.  So I downloaded the app and tried it straight away.

You are told to sit upright in a chair or on the floor with your hands in your lap, but the only place I could do it the first night was in my bedroom, so rather than not do it at all, I sat up on my bed with my legs out straight, with the door shut and the lights dimmed, I did my first 10 minutes.

Firstly, I love Andy Puddicombe’s voice, it’s so mellow and relaxing (he is the founder of HeadSpace and a former Buddhist monk).  His instructions are simple to understand and not constant, so you don’t feel too disturbed during the meditation.  The more sessions you do, the less instruction he gives, as you learn the basics for yourself.  By the end of my first 10 minutes I felt completely relaxed and a little zoned out, which was probably because it was around bedtime so I was pretty tired any way.  I turned off the lights put my head on the pillow and had one of the best nights sleep I’d experienced for months!

Meditation - What, Why & HowQuiet the Mental Chatter – I’m sure it’s not just me?  You lay in bed, exhausted after another long and busy day, you put your head on the pillow, snuggle down, close your eyes and BOOM!  101 different things start running through your mind, your to do list for tomorrow, what you forgot to do today, plans for a party your arranging, shopping list of food, who you need to ring or text, the list goes on and on – well it does for me!
This is one area mindfulness meditation has really helped with – as soon as my mind starts running through my action list, I mentally stop, get comfortable and start my meditation from the beginning, a little quicker than when I listen to the app but to get me to the point of concentrating only on my breathing and I would say 8 out of 10 times this gets me off to sleep, I seriously wish I’d learnt this years ago!

Why not give HeadSpace a try for yourself?  As the first 10 sessions are free, you literally have nothing to lose!  Plus you can listen to it on your desktop, laptop or phone, with or without headphones, giving you the freedom to do it anywhere, anytime and any place.  Follow this link to download the app HeadSpace Free Trial.  There are many other meditation apps, dvd’s, cd’s and YouTube video’s to teach you how to meditate, so well worth having a look on Google to see what suits you.

What is Meditation:  Meditation is a technique for working  and training your mind. Just like running or going to the gym to keep your body fit, meditation makes and keeps the mind fit. It can take a lot of practice to train the mind. After all, for years most of us have let our minds do whatever it wants! Meditation is a way of exposing your minds weaknesses and enhancing its strengths.  The good news is you don’t need any special equipment or need to be a particular type of person, anyone from children to the elderly can do it.  There is a plethora of information on the internet if you want to look more deeply in to it.

How Does Meditation work: Simple meditation is like resting. When you work your body hard you need to take a break. The mind is no different. You process information all day and your mind needs to take a break. When you sleep is when this normally happens but unless you are able to fully relax, the mind holds onto things and doesn’t really rest. Like I mentioned before about quieting the mental chatter; where your mind can’t let go of tasks, worries or fears.

Mindfulness meditation, which is what I practice, is a very simple form of meditation which allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, let go of struggling with them.  Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness is now being examined scientifically and has been found to be a key element in happiness.

The nature of mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral, and can help put you back in control of your thoughts and ultimately life.

Why Should you do it:  Practicing mindfulness meditation improves both mental and physical health. The below graphic shows just some of the reasons everyone can benefit, even if you are in complete control of your life, your mind still needs to rest and take stock.

Meditation - What, Why & How

Here’s a few other key benefits of meditation:

Behavioural – promotes acts of empathy, increases compassionate behaviour

Emotional – reduces anxiety, improves impulse control, helps combat stress, reduces emotional reactions

Health – Can help: reduce chronic pain, help combat eating disorders, help reduce depression, slows cellular aging

Cognitive – improves attention, sustains concentration, speeds cognitive processing, improves working memory

How To Meditate:

There are numerous types of meditation, the two most common are focused attention meditation, in which the aim is to remain focused on a chosen thing such as an icon, a mantra or the breath, and mindfulness or open monitoring meditation, where practitioners try to become aware of everything that comes into their moment-by-moment experience without reacting to it.

With focused attention meditation, you would start by sitting on a cushion or chair with your back straight, hands in your lap and eyes closed. Then concentrate your mind on your chosen object – say your breathing, or more particularly the sensation of your breath leaving your mouth or nostrils. Try to keep it there. It is more than likely your mind will quickly wander, to a sensation or thoughts of what you will be doing later. Your aim is to keep bringing it back to the breath. Over time this will train the mind in three essential skills: to watch out for distractions, to “let go” of them once the mind has wandered, and to re-engage with the object of meditation. With practice, you should find it becomes increasingly easy to stay focused.

Mindfulness meditation – your aim is to monitor all the various experiences of your mind – thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations – and simply observe them, rather than trying to focus on any one of them. Instead of latching on to whatever comes to mind, which is what most of us do most of the time, the goal is to maintain a detached awareness. Those who develop this skill find it easier to manage emotions in day-to-day life.

The more you practice, the deeper the changes will be.

My Personal Benefits: I started a sceptic and ended a 100% believer.  Meditation is not a myth but perhaps a little magical!  At least that’s how I feel about it – I can’t believe doing something so relatively simple can have such a positive effect on your mental and physical well being.  As soon as I start feeling stressed, distracted, moody or simply can’t sleep, I get my phone out, find a quiet spot and listen to the dulcet tones of Andy Puddicombe on HeadSpace.  My favourite session was sat by the Tamar river in a very secluded spot on a bright October day, with the sound of the river running by and the wind in the trees – otherwise anywhere will do!

Is it just Mumbo Jumbo?  For those of you who are more scientifically or analytically minded than me, there has been a number of scientific studies undertaken, some of the findings, were reported in the New Scientist January 2011, a few excerpts are below or you can follow this link to the full article.

In 2007, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists followed 60 experienced meditators over an intensive three-month meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies, watching for changes in their mental abilities, psychological health and physiology. The participants practised for at least five hours a day using a method known as focused attention meditation, which involves directing attention on the tactile sensation of breathing (see “How to meditate”). The first paper from the project was published in June 2010 (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 829).

Headed by Katherine MacLean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, the study measured the volunteers’ attention skills by showing them a succession of vertical lines flashed up on a computer screen. They then had to indicate, by clicking a mouse, whenever there was a line shorter than the rest. As the retreat progressed, MacLean and her colleagues noted that the volunteers became progressively more accurate and found it increasingly easy to stay focused on the task for long periods.

The notion that by practising meditation people become less emotionally reactive is also reinforced by brain imaging work. A team led by Julie Brefczynski-Lewis at West Virginia University in Morgantown used fMRI to study meditators “in action” and found that the amygdala – which plays a crucial role in processing emotions and emotional memories – was far less active in expert meditators than in novices (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 11483).

The ability to manage one’s emotions could also be key to why meditation can improve physical health. Studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for eating disorders, substance abuse, psoriasis and in particular for recurrent depression and chronic pain. Last year, psychologist Fadel Zeidan, at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, reported that his volunteers noticed a decreased sensitivity to pain after just a few sessions of mindfulness meditation (Journal of Pain, vol 11, p 199). He believes meditation doesn’t remove the sensation of pain so much as teach sufferers to control their emotional reaction to it and reduce the stress response. He is now using fMRI in an attempt to understand why that helps. “There’s something very empowering about knowing you can alleviate some of these things yourself,” he says.

The novices in Zeidan’s pain experiment reported improvements after meditating for just 20 minutes a day for three days. In a second experiment he found that similarly brief sessions can improve cognitive performance on tasks that demand continuous attention, such as remembering and reciting a series of digits (Consciousness and Cognition, vol 19, p 597). “It is possible to produce substantial changes in brain function through short-term practice of meditation,” says Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory. He says data from a new unpublished study by his lab shows “demonstrable changes in brain function” in novice meditators after just two weeks of training for 30 minutes a day. “Even small amounts of practice can make a discernible difference.”

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