Practice Meditation to Take Your Health to the Next Level

by Keri Ashkenazy, Holistic Health Coach

 

Just as we know our bodies need exercise to remain strong and fit, we must recognize that we also need exercises to help keep ourselves mentally and emotionally strong and fit.

 

So many of us get caught up thinking about the past with guilt or regret. We think that we wish we “could have, should have, would have” done something differently. And if we’re not thinking about the past, we're often worrying about the future and how certain things might play out. No wonder we are so stressed out and anxious! The truth is, we can’t change the past and we have no way to predict the future.

 

Mindfulness-based meditations help us train our mind to come back to the present moment, where we can take action now to become the person and create the life we want. A regular meditation practice has been scientifically proven to change the physical structure of the brain; and has been linked to the following benefits:

 

  • Decreased stress and anxiety. Studies have found that mindfulness reduces feelings of stress[1] and improves anxiety and distress when placed in a stressful social situation.[2]

 

  • Enhanced focus. This helps us learn faster, retain more, and take in more information from our external and internal environments, so we can make better decisions. Greater focus also contributes to enhanced performance and increased productivity. Numerous studies show improved attention,[3] including better performance on objective tasks that measure attention.[4]

 

  • Emotional regulation. We learn to respond appropriately to our environment, rather than reacting in ways we might later regret. Mindfulness has also been associated with regulating emotions across a number of studies.[5] Mindfulness creates changes in the brain that correspond to less reactivity,[6] and a better ability to engage in tasks even when emotions are activated.[7]

 

  • Greater compassion. We develop more empathy and become more forgiving of others, which helps us create stronger social connections. We also become more self-forgiving, recognizing that we are all doing the best we can with the life we’ve been dealt. We deserve to be our own best friend and recognize we need to put on our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. Research also shows people randomly assigned to mindfulness training are more likely to help someone in need[8] and have greater self-compassion.[9]

 

These benefits are compelling, but the caveat here is that you have to practice consistently in order to experience the benefits. If you have ever started a new exercise or healthy eating plan, you probably didn’t start seeing results until you were regularly practicing your new habits. It’s the same with meditation.

 

So how do we practice? For a basic mindfulness-based meditation practice, we can simply choose some type of anchor (point of focus) and keep returning our attention back to it. Each time we do this, it’s like we are doing a mental bicep curl and with each rep (of noticing we are thinking and then returning back to the breath), we are training our mind to focus.

 

Here are simple instructions for a beginner’s breath-awareness meditation practice:

 

Posture:

 

  •  Before you begin, you might want to set a timer for your practice. If you are just beginning, it may be helpful to start with a short amount of time, say 5 or 10 minutes. The important thing is just that you practice and do it regularly.

 

  • Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor and your hands either face down or palms open on your thighs.

 

  • Have your spine be upright, but not too uptight. Relax your shoulders down. The purpose of this position is to keep you feeling comfortable and alert.

 

  • Either close your eyes or gaze softly at a spot on the floor in front of you.

 

Practice:

 

  • Bring your attention to the natural sensation of your breath. Don’t try to control or manipulate your breath in any way. You are just going to focus on the natural sensation of your breath, wherever you feel it most strongly. Some people feel it in the rising and falling of their chest or belly. Some feel it as the warm air leaving their nostrils and the cold air entering their nostrils. Just pay attention to your breath, wherever you feel it most.
  • It’s inevitable that thoughts will come up. Just as our lungs were meant to help us breathe, our mind is meant to think and help us solve problems. Thoughts will come up and we are not trying to clear our minds of them. What we are doing is noticing when our mind has wandered – in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes – and simply returning our attention back to our breath. Have no expectations and make no judgments of yourself or the contents of your mind. Just keep doing your mental bicep curls.
  • When your timer signals the end of your practice and you feel ready, gently open your eyes (or lift your gaze). Take a moment to notice how your body feels right now. Notice any lingering thoughts and emotions. Perhaps stretch a bit to gently awaken your body.
  • Meditation is a powerful tool that can help us feel healthier and happier, become more emotionally resilient, focus better, gain clarity, and develop more compassion for ourselves and others. There is no better day to start practicing than today.

 

If you have any questions or would like more information on how to practice, please contact me, Keri Ashkenazy, and/or check out these meditation apps.

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[1] Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-­based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-­analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 593–600.

 

Pbert, L., Madison, J. M., Druker, S., Olendzki, N., Magner, R., Reed, G., … Carmody, J. (2012). Effect of mindfulness training on asthma quality of life and lung function: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax, 67(9), 769–776.

 

[2] Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. A., Morris, L. K., Robinaugh, D. J., … Simon, N. M. (2013). Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 74(8), 786–792.

 

[3]  Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 593–600.

 

Sedlmeier, P., Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., Haarig, F., Jaeger, S., & Kunze, S. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1139.

 

[4] Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109–119.

 

[5] Roemer, L., Williston, S. K., & Rollins, L. G. (2015). Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 52–57.

 

[6] Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.

 

[7] Ortner, C. N., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31(4), 271–283.

 

[8] Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125–2127.

 

[9] Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self-­compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359–371.

 

Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful Self-­Compassion Program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28–44.

 

Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., & Biegel, G. M. (2007). Teaching self-­care to caregivers: effects of mindfulness-­based stress reduction on the mental health of therapists in training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 1(2), 105.