Meditation is kind of like fitness: it’s very difficult to explain how great it is to someone who doesn’t do it. Meditation can mean different things to different people. I think the best general definition is reigning in your thoughts in a way that brings your focus entirely to the present moment. What if there was something that could give you:
- Lower cortisol levels resulting in more weight loss
- Improved lung capacity.
- Lower blood pressure and fewer heart problems.
- Better communication between the two hemispheres of your brain.
- Increased creativity and willpower.
- Better sleep.
- Increased compassion.
- Less stress.
- Less fear.
- More focus.
- More calm.
and even more benefits for free! I could go on for thousands of words about all the wonderful things meditation can do for you, but if you’ve probably heard it all before. Here’s a list of 100 benefits of meditation if you’d like to start there.
Meditation has finally become huge in the Western world thanks to science. Apparently we westerners won’t believe anything is beneficial unless Western medicine proves it, even if people have been reaping the benefits for thousands of years.
I have had anxiety problems since around the age of ten. I remember always feeling nauseous in elementary school which I later realized was stress-induced nausea. As I got older, that escalated into a full-blown panic disorder in which I would have intense anxiety attacks where I felt like I was drowning. During these episodes, I couldn’t see or think or even breathe and I struggled for years before I eventually saw a doctor.
I began meditating about three years ago when I noticed that Western medicine was doing nothing to help me. My psychiatrist and I exhausted our options for different medication. Seeing no improvement, I was desperate to find ANYTHING that could help me. I must say, three years later, the only thing that’s actually helped treat my anxiety is meditation.
Anxiety is one of them most common mental illnesses, affecting about 18% of the adult population in the United States alone. That’s about one in five people!
Maybe you can relate to that feeling, and that’s what brought you here. Maybe you don’t relate but are curious about the physical health benefits. Meditation doesn’t have to be spiritual, but you can use it as a way to connect with your spiritual practice. Spiritual or not, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from trying it out.
Things You Need
You really don’t need anything at all to start meditating. Just find a quiet place to sit and a set aside a few minutes. I find it helpful to use a timer, especially if you have limited time or are just starting out. Setting the timer for just five minutes at a time can help you shift into a calmer mindset. After all, it’s only five minutes, nothing horrible is going to happen and it will be over before you know it. Timers allow you to focus completely on the here and now because you don’t have to worry about what’s ahead because the timer will stop you from spending more time meditating than you’d like (for example if you’re on your lunch break, you don’t want to get lost in thought and return late but you also don’t want this worry to affect your practice).
Sometimes complete silence can be anxiety-inducing so some people meditate to soft instrumental music. You can even listen to Buddhist chants if you’re looking for a more spiritual approach. If you’d like to concentrate using music, there are plenty of great playlists on youtube and Spotify.
You can meditate in any position. You don’t have to sit in lotus pose with your legs folded if that’s uncomfortable for you. Find a position where your spine is aligned and you can easily take deep breaths. You can sit on the floor, on a cushion or pillow, in a chair, or even lie on your back (beware, this position makes it easy to fall asleep! If you don’t want to accidentally take a nap make sure to catch yourself before you drift off). I personally like to lie on my back because I feel like I can’t breathe as deeply as I would like while sitting on the floor. It’s also a great position for people with hip or back problems.
Some people like to utilize tools while meditating such as malas, crystals, candles, incense, essential oils, singing bowls, or images. Of course none of these are required, but each has benefits and they are all worth exploring. My favorite tool that has helped me develop concentration is a mala. Whether you use it to count breaths, mantras, or keep track of time I find sliding the beads very soothing, and, like a timer, I don’t have to worry about the future because I know exactly when to stop. Although tools are not required, I think they play a role in developing a ritual. Rituals are important in meditation because they tell your mind that now is a time to relax and focus on the now. In our modern world it’s pretty difficult to go from stressing over work, traffic, and social media, to a state of stillness. All of these tools act as sign posts to direct your mind to the present.
Your breath is your anchor to the present moment. Your mind can be anywhere in the past or future, but your body is always in the present. Breathing techniques are a great way to bring your mind back when it’s running wild. It’s the best technique because it doesn’t have to be spiritual. For those of you out there that are looking for the secular benefits, this would probably be your preferred method. There are a few ways to breathe:
- At the end of every inhale, count 1. At the end of every exhale, count 2. Repeat as many times as you’d like.
- Inhale deeply, hold your breath for a second, exhale deeply and count 1. At the end your next breath, count 2. Continue counting this way until you reach 10, then start over. If you forget what number you were on, just start again at 1. Don’t get angry with yourself if you do forget!
- While inhaling deeply, imagine you are pulling in good energy, as you exhale, let go of negative thoughts.
- Nostril technique: Cover your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Switch your thumb to your left nostril and exhale through your right. Continue alternating, ending with an exhale through the left nostril.
- 4-7-8 Method for Calming Anxiety: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds (I don’t like this method because 7 seconds is a long time to hold your breath. It seems more stressful than helpful, but this method is a fast remedy if you have an anxiety attack).
There are dozens of different techniques you can try if you don’t like any of these, but it’s important to find some sort of breathing technique that works for you. In yoga the practice is called Pranayama which loosely translates to “Controlling the Life Force.” Once you can master controlling your breath, you will notice that it begins to silence your mind, allowing you to be fully present in the moment.
Things to remember
It’s best to start with 5-10 minutes but it’s suggested that you work up to one or two 20-minute sessions per day. Most scientific trials found that two 20-minute sessions a day over a number of weeks seems to be the most effective at changing your brain structure. That being said, I find that it takes the first ten minutes for my mind to settle down before I can really be present so I like to sit longer in that stillness.
When you first sit down, your mind is going to explode with thoughts and that’s okay. Every time you find yourself planning for the future or thinking of the past, just gently bring your mind back to your breathing. A lot of people quit meditating because they hear all the noise in their heads and think they’re not doing it right. It’s called a practice for a reason; the more you do it, the better you will get. Never berate yourself for not being able to focus. Every time your mind wanders off, bring it back. Every single time. You have to be patient with yourself because if you can’t be patient and kind to yourself, how can you be patient and kind to others? Over time you will start to feel your mind pulling away before you get lost in thought and you’ll be able to bring it back. Noticing this pull is tremendous progress.
If you keep at it, you’ll notice that your mind will wander less frequently. Staying present in the moment becomes easier, and your anxieties lessen. Ordinary things like driving, commuting, waiting in line, or exercising become less horrible. You’ll probably find yourself calm in situations that normally cause people to freak out (like when I have to wait an HOUR at a doctor’s office even though I had an appointment). Once you start practicing mindfulness you’ll probably notice your life seems to get better because you’re less anxious about the future and unaffected by the past. You can finally be free to enjoy life as it is: happening right now.
I love this cute comic by Yumi Sakugawa that describes how easy it can be to add a little meditation to your day.
Have you benefited from a meditation practice? If you’ve struggled with anxiety or depression have you used alternative methods?
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