Meditation Mondays...& Every Other Day

My first exposure to meditation was purely accidental. What I thought was a vinyasa flow yoga class had actually turned out to be an hour-long, instructor-guided meditation class. Having never tried meditation before, I figured I’d give it a whirl.


Like many people starting meditation for the first time, I fell asleep within the first 10 minutes. I remember complaining to my wife afterward that "I had just paid $13 to take a nap."


Thinking back, it would have been a more enjoyable experience had I eased into meditation before jumping right into an hour-long class. Unfortunately, I abandoned the practice too quickly after my first "failed" attempt. Admittedly, not adhering to my own advice of "failing frequently" at that time.


It wasn’t until I watched a TEDx talk by Light Watkins, who debunks the 5 most common myths about meditation in a succinct and comical fashion, where I decided to revisit the practice. From Mr. Light’s guru-esk advice, I realized that I had approached meditation in a less than optimal fashion.


He made it clear that developing a successful meditation practice could be accomplished in 5-10 minutes per day and didn’t involve you seated cross-legged with thumbs touching index fingers chanting “Ohm” on repeat.


He promoted the benefits of meditation including more organized thoughts, higher productivity, and ultimately more inner peace and happiness. I’ll have what he’s having…


But we can’t just take Mr. Light’s word for it. Let’s see what the research shows about meditation:


Reduced O2 Consumption, Respiratory & Heart Rate


The most widely cited paper on meditation is from Scientific American. Their data obtained by monitoring practitioners of transcendental meditation revealed that through meditation, a wakeful, hypometabolic state can be reached.


This means that the body reduces its oxygen consumption and the rate of carbon dioxide elimination. Respiratory and heart rate slows and a decrease in blood-lactate levels is observed. Since a blood lactate level is an indirect sign of cell/tissue oxygenation, this suggests that meditation can lead to a state of healthy tissue blood perfusion and oxygen delivery. (To learn more about breath work for reducing anxiety, check out our post about Breath of Fire.)


Increase in Cerebral Blood Flow, Decreased Emotional Liability


As mentioned in Psychological Bulletin, neuroimaging studies were analyzed which revealed that meditation causes an increase in cerebral blood flow at the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal areas. [1]


The anterior cingulate cortex plays a unique role acting as the connection between our emotional brain, our limbic system, and our higher-level cognitive brain, our prefrontal cortex. This suggests that meditation can affect not only the way we process our emotions but also how we respond to them. [2]


Improvements in Long-Term Memory, Reduction in Anxiety and Depression


EEG monitoring, which is a test used to evaluate the electrical activity of the brain, revealed slowed alpha waves with occasional theta-wave activity while meditating. Interestingly enough, these brain changes are not seen in other relaxed states such as sleep and hypnosis. Increasing one’s alpha waves is linked to improvements in one’s long-term memory as well as a reduction in anxiety and depression. [3-5]


Who Meditates?


The above is a small taste of the health benefits associated with meditation. This list goes on and on and is exactly why a number of high performing individuals have decided to integrate meditation into their daily routine.


Athletes like MJ, Kobe, and the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seatle Seahawks, at the suggestion of their future Hall-of-Fame Coach, Pete Carroll, all meditate. Celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Will Smith practice daily meditation.


All around worldly badasses like Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Z, and Bill Gates meditate. Even Darth Vader makes time for meditation despite the number of obligations that go along with the pursuit of intergalactic domination. And you thought you had a lot on your plate.


How to Meditate


  1. The good news is, you can meditate anywhere! Preferably, you want to find a location with a comfortable chair where you can sit relaxed and undisturbed.

  2. Sit comfortably with your back straight and your feet on the ground. Rest your hands on your legs.

  3. Relax your gaze.

  4. Take several deep breathes, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  5. Gently close your eyes.

  6. Concentrate on your breath. Don’t try and change it. Just listen and feel. Recognize how it fills your lungs. Feel your chest and belly rise and fall. Consider placing your hands on your abdomen to get a better sense of your inhalations and exhalations.

  7. Scan your body from head to toe paying attention to the weight of your body in the chair. Recognize the sensation of groundedness as your feet rest calmly on the floor.

  8. Pay attention to your other senses by acknowledging sounds in the background and different smells.

  9. Thoughts and feelings will inevitably arise. When they do, acknowledge it as a thought or feeling and reorient your attention back to your breath. Avoid harsh self-judgment if your mind continues to wander. This is normal and will become less frequent with practice.

  10. Open your eyes and take a moment to appreciate the feeling.


Resources for Meditation


One of my favorite meditation tools is an app called, Headspace, which offers guided meditations from 1-20 minutes in duration. You can continue to use their beginner’s pack on repeat for free or sign-up for a monthly membership which costs around $12.99 per month.


I enjoy this app because it helped me develop a solid foundation for my meditation practice. Their nighttime pack has also proved beneficial on more than several restless nights where stopping my mind from racing seemed next to impossible. It’s also neat to follow your stats over time-- I’m about to hit the 40-hour mark in my first year of developing this habit!


There is a long list of other apps on meditation including, Calm, Insight Timer, 10% Happier, and Meditation Studio. You can also consider YouTubing sessions on guided meditation or purchasing audio files/CDs on meditation (or better yet, obtaining them from your public library for free). There are also a number of meditation classes that are offered at yoga studios for a nominal fee.


No matter what resource you choose to use, I believe it is important to avoid going at it alone until you develop a solid foundation.


References:


  1. Wallace, R. K., & Benson, H. (1972). The physiology of meditation. Scientific American.

  2. Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 180.

  3. Miller, J. J., Fletcher, K., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General hospital psychiatry, 17(3), 192-200.

  4. Baer RA. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: a conceptual and empirical review. Clin Psychol SCI-PR. 2003;10:125–143.

  5. Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmid S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: a meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res. 2004;57:35–43

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