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Meditation 101

The first documented record of people practicing meditation is in the Vedas, an ancient Hindu religious text written around 1500 BC in India. Since then, people all over the world have adopted meditation to improve their spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. But despite its ever-growing popularity, meditation still suffers from a bit of a stigma among the average American—perhaps it elicits images of mystical monks or long-haired, free-loving hippies from the 60s. But meditation is not mumbo jumbo—it is a scientifically, medically, and time-tested effective practice that can be applied, in one form or another, to enhance any lifestyle.

Meditation is a contemplative practice using techniques like breath, mantra, and movement to achieve physical, mental, and emotional calmness and presence in the moment. To achieve such a state—called a “meditative state”—means training the mind to let go of distracting thoughts and to objectively and non-judgmentally observe inner thoughts and feelings. This is no easy task, especially in this busy world we live in! It is common even among seasoned meditators to have momentary lapses where thoughts drift to a mental to-do list or a stressor from the day. But this is exactly why meditation is important! And with practice, you’ll learn to move past these distractions just as quickly as they came up.

Physically, achieving a meditative state through meditation induces calm and relaxation by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system decreases the heart rate, blood pressure, and breath rate and increases function of the digestive and reproductive organs. This directly counteracts the physical response to feelings of worry and fear, making meditation an especially useful tool for those experiencing chronic or occasional stress or pain, anxiety, depression, and any related digestive or reproductive conditions. In fact, over time, this type of practiced focus has countless physical and mental benefits.

Scientists continue to study the mental benefits of meditation. Initial studies show that meditation induces positive changes to the brain’s structure. The brain is made up of two types of tissue—gray matter and white matter. We require large amounts of gray matter in certain parts of the brain; it’s responsible for processing information. According to a 2011 Harvard study, participants who consistently meditated over the course of eight weeks showed an increase in gray matter density in the learning, memory, self-awareness, introspection, and compassion part of the brain (hippocampus). Conversely, participants showed a decrease in gray matter density in the stress and anxiety part of the brain (amygdala). This translates to more brainpower for learning and remembering and less for worrying. While these brain changes happen during meditation, they last long beyond the time spent meditating. This eight-week study sheds light on how quickly and enduringly the body and mind benefit from meditation.

There are many types of meditation. Below are a few different types to explore.

Moving Meditation

Movement forms such as tai chi, yoga, and even walking, challenge you to focus on synchronizing breath and movement to activate a meditative state of mind. Great for beginners, moving meditation gives you something tangible to focus on in a low-pressure environment, so you don’t have time or mental energy available for non-essential or troubling thoughts.

Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga uses props to support the body in comfortable shapes and breathing techniques to encourage muscles to release excess tension. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a calm and meditative state.

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental meditation employs the use of mantra, a word or phrase repeated over and over again, to limit distracting thoughts in order to achieve greater presence.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Used primarily in psychiatric settings, MBSR focuses on observing the sound and cadence of breath to induce a meditative state and reduce feelings of stress.

Zen or Buddhist Meditation

Typically practiced in an upright seated position, this is a method of observing the breath as well as inner thoughts and feelings. Arguably one of the most difficult methods of meditation, it requires “advanced” physical and mental discipline.

No matter the style of meditation you choose, with consistent practice, the benefits will become increasingly apparent in your everyday life, enhancing mood, critical thinking, productivity, patience, and overall well-being. Determine the style that most appeals to you, and find a class in your neighborhood or simply start on your own with a simple breath-based meditation practice.

Challenge Yourself

1. Get comfortable (but not too comfortable). Use pillows, yoga bolsters, and/or a blanket to prop yourself up, with your head above your heart (so you don't fall asleep). Place one hand on your belly and the other on your ribcage. Notice how your belly rises and falls, and your ribcage expands and contracts with each breath.

2. Make time. Set a timer for three minutes. Count each time you inhale and exhale - each breath cycle. For example, after you inhale and exhale label that one. And the next time you inhale and exhale, label that two. If you lose count, bring your attention back to your breath and start again. Schedule time every day to meditate. Set an alarm or mark it on your calendar. Over time, with consistent practice, meditation will become an essential part of your day.

3. Choose your best hour. Depending on your meditation goals, you can practice in the morning or evening. In the morning, meditation focuses your attention to help set you up for a productive day. Before bed, it can calm you and induce sleep. Determine what you’d like to gain from meditation and choose your time accordingly.

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