Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and retire later than anyone in the industrialized world. It is no wonder we are among the most stressed-out people on the planet. We also have a bad habit of dealing with the pressure and anxiety we encounter in unhealthy ways. We eat too much and drink too much and pretend we’re in control. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In an effort to deal with agitation and unease, more and more Americans are turning to prescription pills. Brands like Zoloft, Paxil, and Cymbalta have become household names, with Americans spending tens of billions of dollars each year on drugs designed to treat anxiety and depression. But like all prescription medications, these powerful mood-altering drugs have a laundry list of unpleasant side effects, from nausea and insomnia to fatigue and sexual dysfunction. There must be a better way…
The one silver lining in an otherwise ominous sky is the recent rediscovery of an ancient form of stress relief. Whether used for spiritual enlightenment or emotional healing, meditation has been a part of human history for thousands of years. Although it originated in Asia, meditation is now universal, appearing in cultures the world over. With that said, the practice is less popular in the Western world, where it has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance… Until recently, that is.
According to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau Survey, nearly 10 percent of the adult population practices some form of meditation, up from only 8 percent in 2002. As a result, a growing number of yoga schools and medical centers are opening their doors to the 20-plus million Americans who use meditation on a regular basis.
Although Western medicine has long questioned the benefits of meditation, it has been forced to reevaluate its position in recent years as scientific evidence of meditation’s healthfulness has come to light. In one study completed at Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that meditation helped relieve anxiety, pain, and moderate depression in some patients. Another study found a 10 to 20 percent improvement in symptoms of depression for subjects who meditated regularly. Those numbers are similar to the positive effects of antidepressants, with far fewer side effects!
What is meditation?
Most Westerners have only a vague idea of what meditation is and how it works. They might know, for instance, that it involves concentrated focus upon a sound, object, movement, etc. in order to increase awareness of the present moment. While others believe that meditation consists of simply clearing the mind and shutting the world out. And the truth is that both of those opinions are correct. Meditation can involve deep thinking or almost no thinking at all. Some of the most common ways to meditate include:
· Guided meditation: Also known as visualization or guided imagery, this popular method of meditation involves relaxing mental images of places and situations. Practitioners are instructed to incorporate as many of their senses as possible, including sights, smells, sounds, and textures of soothing objects and environments. Because it takes time to paint a comforting mental picture, newcomers may benefit from expert instruction by a teacher or guide.
· Mindfulness meditation: Rather than trying to escape from ourselves or our current predicament, this type of meditation helps us increase our awareness by living in the moment. How? During a mindfulness meditation session, you focus on what you experience, such as your breathing, passing thoughts, or emotions. However, you do not linger on the details of any of them, but rather let them pass without judgment.
· Mantra meditation: Popular in the Buddhist faith, when used for relaxation purposes mantra meditation consists of simply repeating a calming word or phrase to keep distracting thoughts at bay. Although this simple technique can be practiced anytime, anywhere, it can take many months of practice to stop your mind from wandering during mantra recitations. Beginners are instructed to focus intently on the sound of their own voices in order to block out everything else.
· Transcendent meditation: One of the most widely practiced forms of meditation, the transcendent variety also involves mantras. What distinguishes it from the aforementioned technique is that the mantra recitations are not used to block everything out, but rather to slow mental functioning to relaxing levels. At last count, more than 10 million people practiced transcendent meditation around the world.
· Heart rhythm meditation: With a focus on controlled breathing, this method seeks to coordinate the breath and the heartbeat to reduce anxiety and stress. Practitioners utilize several different rhythmic breathing patterns where inhalations and exhalations are made at equal intervals and beats. For example, the « swinging breath » method features 8 beats in and 8 beats out. Use of full lung capacity is imperative, as is concentration on the heartbeat, which should slow with breathing into more consistent patterns.
Yoga: Although it is not the focus of the discipline, meditation is involved in most yoga exercises and techniques. From breathing exercises to stretches and poses, yogis and their students use meditation to develop more flexible bodies and calm minds. Balance and concentration is achieved by focusing on the moment and shutting out the world for awhile. Those who are able to master basic meditation techniques generally progress more rapidly in yoga training for those very reasons.
Tai chi: Probably the most active way to achieve relaxation through meditation, tai chi is a gentle Chinese martial art that consists of a series of slow, graceful movements that are performed while practicing deep breathing. Commonly referred to as moving meditation, tai chi promotes both physical and mental relaxation. The popular Chinese pastime has also be shown to increase concentration and focus in those who suffer from anxiety disorders.
Generally speaking, meditation is an umbrella term that describes any type of focused activity that helps produce a state of deep relaxation. So while there may be different ways of getting there, all types of meditation share the following features:
· Focused attention: A fundamental component of meditation, focusing your attention on a sound, image, or activity helps clear the mind, which can produce a state of profound relaxation.
· Deep breathing: One of the simplest and most effective ways to relax is to simply take deep, slow breaths from the abdomen. This helps reduce the movement of the neck, shoulder, and upper chest by shifting it to the diaphragm, where it belongs. It also helps the lungs take in more oxygen, which has a calming effect on the body and mind.
· A quiet environment. If your goal is to quiet your mind, it helps to be in a silent setting with few distractions. For obvious reasons, we strongly suggest that you keep cell phones, computers, TVs, and other electronics out of these areas.
· A comfortable position. Some types of meditation are quite strict about body positioning, while others are far less formal. When practicing on your own, use a comfortable position that helps you get the most out of your meditation.
As different as they may be, all of the aforementioned techniques can help you achieve inner peace. This state of calm and repose has salubrious effects that go far beyond stress reduction and anxiety relief. When practiced on a regular basis, people who meditate report the following health benefits:
· Lower blood pressure
· Reduction of negative emotions
· Less fear and anxiety
· Better stress management skills
· Improved mental concentration and focus
· Better sleep
· Decreased muscle tension
· More energy
· Better memory
· Fewer colds and minor illnesses
One of the most appealing aspects of meditation is that it can be practiced wherever you are – whether at home, at work, or on the road. But to get the maximum possible benefits of meditation, we recommend daily sessions for improved physical and emotional wellbeing. With that in mind, here are a few simple ways you can practice meditation on your own.
Breathing. Whether it lasts ten minutes or two hours, breathing in and out in a slow, controlled way can help relieve stress and anxiety and promote healthy sleep.
Progressive muscle relaxation. A slightly more advanced technique, progressive relaxation involves focusing your attention on certain parts of your body, particularly on sore or tense areas such as the hands or feet, to provide relief. When combined with deep breathing, it has an impressive track record.
Repeat a mantra. Focusing on the sound your own voice as you repeat a certain word or phrase to relax is a time-test technique that crosses many different cultures, religions, and healing disciplines. You are free to create your own mantra or to pick a popular one from an established form of mantra meditation, such as transcendent meditation.
Walk and meditate. A healthy and efficient way to unwind, combining walking with meditation helps clear the mind and cleanse the body at the same time. One easy way to accomplish this is to focus on your body’s movements instead of on the destination. Slow the pace a bit and breathe deeply as you step to get the most out of your daily constitutional.
If you take only one thing away from our short synopsis, let it be that meditation is infinitely adaptable. No single style, form, or system is set in stone, but rather can be altered to meet your needs. Always remember that there is no right or wrong way to meditate. What matters most is that the techniques you use work for you – which is why we encourage you to experiment early and often.
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