Tame the Brain: Mindfulness.
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
If good nutrition, proper exercise and sound sleep are the three pillars of good health, mindfulness is the fourth column that keeps your entire temple in balance.
Everyone can benefit from eating well and exercising, but very often, the topic of mindfulness is overlooked in discussions about physical health. You can do a lot of things right like exercise daily, sleep adequately and eat well, but without being in the right state of mind – that is, feeling joyous, stable, and clear-minded – it’s hard to obtain the full benefit of your foods or exercise. Your thoughts and feelings matter.
In this post, I will explain how meditation can enhance your mind, your physique and your sleep.
But what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is another way of saying “to be present.” Being present, though simple sounding, can be quite difficult to do given the distractions of today’s world. But the payoff of being mindful is invaluable. Indeed, one of the most important things a person can learn to do in their lifetime is to quiet their mind, thus allowing the natural well-being that is dominant within them to thrive. To a well-practiced mind, being mindful becomes second nature.
Learning the art of being present can help sharpen your focus. When you learn to focus on something that holds little emotional meaning, such as the hum of a dryer, or your breath, or a word (mantra), then you can stop thoughts that cause angst. Quieting such thoughts for 15-20 minutes every day can yield tremendous benefits, both physical and mental. Once you practice being deliberate in what you choose to pay attention to, you can apply this focus to an array of other areas in your life from your work to your workout.
You can help to develop mindfulness and focus through the practice of meditation. Meditation is nothing new, but it certainly feels like a huge movement has taken place worldwide. More and more people are benefiting from this simple activity. The wonderful thing about meditation is that once you learn which method suits you best, you can meditate anywhere. It’s free, it’s accessible, and it requires no special gadgets. All you need to do is carve out some time in your day and practice it until it becomes a normal part of your life.
Stress and the brain
From the moment we are born we are faced with contrasting experiences that shape who we are. While these stressors are important for our evolution as human beings, today many of us have too much unnecessary stress on a daily basis. Excess stress can lead to a host of problems such as inflammation, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, a weaker immune system, weight gain, weak muscles and poor recovery and countless other maladies. An effective solution to stress and its unwanted by-products, can be meditation.
Scientists are just scratching the surface as they discover how practicing mindfulness can alter areas of the brain that are responsible for a host of essential functions including, body awareness, pain tolerance, complex thinking, introspection, emotional stability, empathy and sense of self. These positive changes in the brain can be seen fairly quickly, after only a few days or weeks of practicing meditation.
A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation was able to create positive changes in areas of the brain associated with stress, empathy, memory and sense of self. For the study, 16 participants had their brains scanned before and after the study was complete. A control group that never meditated before also had images of their brains taken. Those who averaged 27 minutes of meditation per day showed a marked improvement from before they meditated. Participants also reported having less stress which is correlated with having a decrease of grey matter in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. In addition, images showed an increase in grey matter density of the hippocampus which is associated with memory and learning and in other structures associated with self-awareness, kindness and introspection. None of these changes were noted in the control group. This study shows promise for future explorations as research delves deeper into the science behind unconventional, self-care strategies such as meditation.
Although meditation may seem like an inactive practice, you can harness the power of focus and mindfulness and use it as a form of meditation.
Arnold Schwarzenegger says he participated in a form of meditation when he was young called Transcendental Meditation which really helped him gain clarity and focus. But he also uses his workouts as a form of meditation. This makes sense because of the focus that is required in both practices. He mentions that he focuses solely on the muscle he is contracting during a set. This focus enhances his physical capability as well as his ability to remain calm and deliberate during his sessions. In an interview, Schwarzenegger talks about how he uses meditation to workout.
“I also figured out that I could use my workouts as a form of meditation because I concentrate so much on the muscle and I have my mind inside the bicep when I do my curls. I have my mind inside the pectoral muscles when I do my bench press. So, I’m really inside and it’s like I gain a form of meditation because you have no chance of thinking or concentrating on anything else at that time, but just that training that you do. So there (are) many ways of meditation and I benefit from all of those today. I’m much calmer because of that and much more organized and much more tranquil because of that.”
Whether you use meditation in order to apply better focus to your workouts and perform with greater intent or you use your workout as a form of meditation, in the end there is only big gains.
A meta-study published in The Journal of Behavioural Medicine assessed the results of
19 studies (13 randomized controlled trials, 6 observational studies). The meta-study found that, to varying degrees, significant weight loss was documented among participants in mindfulness practices 13 of the 19 (68%) of the publications. Several factors may help explain why mindfulness can help with weight management. As the authors of the meta study observe:
“The ability to modify behavioral patterns is integral to weight loss, and the process of monitoring diet and activity level to decrease calorie consumption and increase caloric expenditure requires substantial self-regulatory capacity. With increased mindfulness, an individual can alter responses rather than continue habitual behavioral patterns that may be inconsistent with an individual’s goals and needs (e.g., recognizing bodily signals of hunger and fullness to prevent overeating in response to negative emotions or social cues)."
Meditation can be of great assistance in the area of slumber. A study done by The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that mindfulness meditation can help with sleep related issues including insomnia and fatigue. One half of the group practiced mindfulness meditation techniques and the other took lessons on how to incorporate better sleeping habits. The mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue and depression than the other group taking the sleep education course. Dr. Benson suggests practicing mindfulness meditation during the daytime, ideally for 20 minutes. This sets the tone for the rest of the day, helping to build a higher tolerance to the challenges of the day with more ease and clarity and in turn help get a better night’s sleep.
Supplements and products that can assist your meditation
Magnesium. Magnesium can help you wind down and relax the muscles which can help prepare you for stillness. Magnesium is also a promoter of a good mood and can promote a goods night's sleep.
Essential oils. Certain well studied essential oils can promote relaxation, calm, and ease.
Malas. Malas are a wonderful way to help your mind focus and settle down at the same time. Malas are a string of prayer beads used in meditation by separating each bead with the thumb and ascribing an affirmation or mantra with each count. You can use a mala to set forth an intention, offer appreciation, or simply count each bead as a way to calm, centre or empty the mind.
Rosewater. Rosewater is revered for its relaxing scent and soothing properties. Rosewater from Heritage Store is 100% natural and pure and can be used anywhere on the face, body and even surfaces such as yoga mats.
Burdock. In Ayurveda, burdock root is considered an adaptogen which helps the body to function well under the stresses of everyday life. This can enhance your ability to settle and calm the mind.
A sample of a basic sitting meditation practice
The word “meditation” congers images of a sedentary yogi sitting on a mat for hours at a time. But meditation can be done by anyone, anywhere, and there are countless styles of meditation you can use to suit your needs. With so many options for medicines and synthetic drugs, many people are seeking simpler, more natural answers to their health questions. More and more studies are beginning to classify mindfulness meditation as an effective treatment for many ailments including depression and insomnia. Meditation allows us to momentarily shut down our stress responses to help us regain emotional stability, clarity and calmness. Sharpening our focus can help us get in the zone and perform better workouts. Mindfulness can even help us get better sleep and handle our days ahead with pizazz. All it takes is an intention to start and to set aside 20 minutes a day.
Below is a simple 6 step meditation practice to help you get started.