Mind Full to MindfulExperience Momentum | Attitudes & Beliefs, | August 17, 2017
Contributing writer: Erin Melton, ATC, L/AT, CSCS, RYT
"What are we going to do today, Brain?"
"The same thing we do every day; Try to take over the world!"
It should come as no surprise to you that as healthcare providers and active people, we are a bit partial to the benefits of yoga here at Experience Momentum. But what you may not know is how vast these benefits actually are. Many people know that yoga can be a good workout that can result in healthy, strong muscles, and often the possibility of getting a “yoga body” is what draws many people to class initially. As a sidenote, if you have done yoga- you have a yoga body. Yogis come in all shapes and sizes and concern over what shape and size you are should not ever limit you in trying something new that you may love, especially something that’s good for your health and well being. What many do not know about this moving meditation “workout” is that getting a yoga mind while working your yoga body is a sunny little secret that blossoms after just a short time of practicing and often is part of what bonds people to their yoga practice as a devoted routine.
Yoga emerged 2500 years ago as a meditative practice and the poses were created later as part of a moving meditation, like that of Tai Chi or Qigong. The physical practice both teaches your brain to suppress your fight or flight nervous response in times of stress in favor of your calmer, clearer, parasympathetic state and provides a bridge from the outside world of traffic, errands, and work to a calm state of being on your mat, present with your breath and quiet with your thoughts as they wander in and out. Yoga classes can come in all types like Bikram, traditionally done very hot with the same 26 poses each class, Vinyasa, which flows from pose to pose and centers around strengthening and stretching, as well as more gentle and relaxing types of yoga classes like Yin or Restorative yoga. What’s the one thing that they all have in common? That’s right, everyone’s favorite yoga pose: Savasana, the last post of every class, performed by laying flat or in a comfortable position in full mental and physical relaxation. By pacing each movement with your breath as you inhale and exhale, you begin a moving meditation with the start of your practice and each pose and breath is a step towards the final meditation, where your mind can finally rest in stillness with your body.
So ‘Meditation’, you’ve heard of it, right? Om Chanting, fingers touching, monk stuff, right? Not always, sometimes, and can be; but that’s not quite the whole story. Meditation is simply being mindful and present; a safe moment away from the carousel of thoughts through your mind to find some peace and quiet. We power down our computer when it gets warm and needs a break but we don’t often think of our brain with the same concern. Our culture has become one of progress and productivity, the superman, supermom, the supermarket, and has left little room to just be with the moment as it happens.
Stress has become a $300 billion dollar a year defect for U.S. companies according to the World Health Organization, through burnout and turnover, diluted productivity, and absenteeism. Stress and anxiety have become an overwhelming issue for so many of us and researchers are looking back to the basics for solutions and, much to the surprise of many, coming up with some amazing stuff.
At Harvard Medical School, studies have shown that with 30 minutes of meditation per day, after just 8 weeks, brain cells increased in the hippocampus, the area associated with learning and memory, and in the very important prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of impulse control, personality, and social behavior. They were also surprised to find a decrease in the Amygdala, an almond shaped part of the brain that is associated with anxiety and stress. The news mystified scientists who had, until now, generally resigned to the idea that we are born with a fix amount of brain cells. Don’t have 30 minutes to meditate today? No problem! Researchers at UCLA have proven that a meditation of even just 12 minutes per day for 8 weeks can increase the activity of telomerase, a DNA replicating enzyme that makes sure the DNA in the cells we replicate each day stay the same as they replicate rather than degrading over time, a factor aging of bodily function and appearance.
Successive studies were also able to show a decrease in ADHD symptoms, in adolescents with regular meditation practice, and stronger activation levels in the part of the brain tied to empathy, than in people who did not meditate.
So whether you want to slow the aging process, find a calmer state of mind, feel more warmth and compassion to the people you see in your day, or grow some more brain cells, this should be enough to get you started. Luckily, meditation is a tool that is always in your pocket, any time, any place, and comes in many forms so it is accessible to you whenever and wherever you might want or need it. Meditating is most commonly done as a sitting, standing, walking, or laying practice but there are many options. Many are familiar with the traditional, sitting meditation where you sit comfortably with proud shoulders or lay softly on a mat or the floor. You can also do walking meditation, being mindful of each step, how your body feels with the movement, and how the pavement feels pushing back up at your. You could even meditate standing, like on the beach, gazing at the lapping waves or swimming laps. When you first start out, your mind will wander and thoughts will float in; when this happens, simply notice this, avoid the urge to follow that thought and pull your focus back to the sound of your breath, washing in and out, like your own personal tide. Allow any thoughts that may toddle in to toddle back out just as unceremoniously. It can take practice to be able to turn inward, to fog out the stimulation of the outside world, and quiet your thoughts. Controlling the rambling of your thoughts can feel like herding kittens but the great thing is, any practice is positive growth. The more you find yourself practicing and trying it, the sensation will come more easily. I recommend trying it out with a guided meditation from the internet, an app for your phone like Headspace or Zenify, or trying one in a yoga class if you’re not sure you know how to get started. I also highly recommend searching for some Sound Baths or Yoga Nidra classes in your area to attend for a meditation hour. They are a delicious experience of crystal or metal singing bowls, occasionally a gentle gong, that play deeply relaxing, resonant music while you lay in Savasana on your mat, often in the dark or to candlelight.
Each day is an opportunity to start fresh, to try something new, and to be the best you that you can be. Why not try adding in 5 minutes of peace to your day today? We all want to feel calmer, not so frenetic day in and day out, to feel healthier, to be more filled with gratitude for the pebbles in our day, rather than just hopping rock to rock. Creating permanent change comes in the moments when you least want to do it, after the initial motivation wears off, when you’re debating the snooze button or thinking, I’ll start it tomorrow. When it is the least convenient, but you dig in and do it anyway, that’s when change happens, little by little, moment by moment, each day, until one day you can look back and see the old you in the rearview mirror waving at you and giving you the thumbs up. With so much research standing behind a meditation practice, why not give it a try? Sit or lay comfortably, close your eyes, allow your attention to surf on the sound of your breath as it flows in and out. I always challenge my yoga students to try 3 breaths in a row like this, gently guiding their mind to focus solely on that sound, until finding that place of stillness and quiet is easy, like coming home. Hit the snooze button on life for just a bit, take a brief moment to be still, appreciate each invigorating, life giving breath, and see what positive change you can bring.
"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious behavior." -Henry David Thoreau
Come join us at Experience Momentum and try out your new meditation skills at any of the Restorative Yoga or Yoga for Athletes classes we offer each week. Class schedule can be found online on MindBody.