Meditation is becoming more commonplace. It happens on Wall Street, at Google, in the subway, at local schools and all over the world; it brings one to awareness and helps develop a greater sense of self.
What is meditation? Eckart Tolle says “It’s being here now”, being in the moment. Its a way of being. It’s a means of bringing the self to a state of awareness and calmness. Technically meditation means to ponder or ruminate over something. In todays modern society meditation is more about breathing and gathering oneself to a state of awareness. Meditation is a way to settle down, to reduce our chronic state of stress to a state of awareness that is centered, calm, and focused. Meditation and medicine come from the same Sanskrit root word meaning “to take the measure of and to care for”. And there are many different kinds of meditation. The most basic types of meditation are: Concentrative such as mantra, deep belly breathing, prayer, imagery, and visualization; Awareness- Vipassana, mindfulness, and awareness; and Expressive-dance, whirling, chanting, fast breathing, Chi Gong and yoga.
So, what is the big deal about meditation and why such a push now? Modern society is hectic, we eat fast food, we drive fast cars, we are over wired, over tired and under nourished and it shows. In the past 60 years our society has moved from a few overweight folks to 40% of the adult population being obese and over 70% of society being overweight (this includes youth). Diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic disease, Asthma, cancers, ADHD/ADD, stress related illness: poor sleep, inability to concentrate, Anxiety, stress/overeating, autoimmunity and more are closely related to how and what we eat, how we move or fail to move, and our mindset (beliefs, culture, positive or negative thinking, get it done now…). Meditation has positive effects on all of the above and there is lots of research to prove it. Consider meditation as brain candy! Its benefits include an increase in brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), stimulation of the prefrontal cortex, increase in gray matter (this is the good stuff), reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, lowering of blood pressure, blood sugar, oxidative stress, and increases in concentration, and awareness. Those who meditate regularly has smaller amygdalae (the part of the brain associated with aggression and anger). BDNF is a protein found in the nerve cells. It helps build and maintain brain circuits so signals can travel. BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens/protects them against premature cell death. It also binds to receptors at the synapses, to improve signal strength between neurons. So a lack of BDNF has been associated with a variety of neurological/mental conditions such as impaired learning, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, anorexia, depression, schizophrenia, and OCD. The prefrontal cortex is an area where learning and memory processing, emotional regulation, self referential processing and perspective taking occur.
The purpose of meditation is to bring about awareness. Meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing one to a state of calm, or peace, where learning occurs easily. Meditation sets the stage for self care, the beginning of optimal well being. If we are stressed, we are in sympathetic mode and when we are relaxed, we are in parasympathetic mode. The sympathetic nervous system turns on the flight/ fright response causing an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and cortisol levels (chronic stimulation shows up as belly fat and aggression). It also causes a slow down in digestion, urination, defecation, and a decrease in appetite and thirst. The body is ready for action and it can't be running to the bathroom or needing to eat. Everything is turned on! So look out! The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite: a state of rest and digest, a time for creation and procreation. The body slows down to perform functions of daily living. This is where you want to be. But how do you get there? MEDITATE!
At the core of all meditation is breathing. Learning to breathe for relaxation will take you many wonderful places and will support all other types of meditation. There are many ways to breathe, some stimulate and some relax. The most common and the one with the most research behind it is Belly Breathing/Soft Belly/Diaphragmatic breathing, it has many names.
• Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, feet slightly apart.
• To begin place one hand on your belly and let the other rest on your leg. • Inhale slowly through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth. • Focus on your breathing. The hand on your belly should rise with each in breathe and fall with each out-breathe.
• Gently exhale most of the air from your lungs.
• Inhale while slowly counting to 4. On the inhale the belly should extend slightly, while the chest and shoulders remain still.
• Pause for 4 seconds and then slowly exhale, to the count of 6, allowing the belly relax against the spine.
• Now breathe this way for at least 8 breaths.
• Notice how you feel.
If you can take some more relaxation, breathe this way for at least 5 minutes. Pick a time every day to practice it; upon rising, while waiting/standing in line, at the stop light, before eating, before bed…Whatever suits you. Practice it when is not so important, so when you need it, it is second nature. Deep diaphragmatic breathing twice daily will change your life in ways you never imagined. Are you ready for that?