Meditation is a mysterious concept to many, often associated with New Age and eastern religions. Perhaps these cultures utilize meditation more than others, but meditation itself is not a mystical process that requires changing your core beliefs. The benefits of meditation are too great to avoid because of preconceived notions.
Meditation is a process of quieting your mind and blocking out external distractions. There are many techniques that can be used to achieve this state of peacefulness. Some of these techniques involve focusing on your breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or visualizing pleasant scenes. Adequate mental downtime is crucial to maintaining a sense of well-being. Meditation is a coping mechanism that many people use to achieve this downtime. Setting aside a specific amount of time each day to focus is extremely beneficial in numerous ways.
More important are the numerous benefits of meditation. There have been many studies documenting both psychological and physiological benefits of meditation such as improved concentration, improved memory retention, lower blood pressure, fewer migraine headaches and more.
Despite the numerous benefits of meditation, it is not easy for everyone to focus their attention long enough to achieve a state of quiet restfulness. There are many ways to meditate. Westernized, non-religious meditation exercises include guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing.
All three of these meditation techniques are a form of mindfulness. By focusing on your body or the visualizations, you step away from the worries of the world and pull yourself into the present.
The process of guided imagery involves placing yourself in the moment and imagining details of the scene. This is more than quickly picturing a Caribbean beach scene from television or your last vacation. This involves using all of your senses to experience the scene. So you would be feeling the warm breeze on your skin, picture the color of the blue water, hearing the sound of the steel drums and perhaps taste the salt in the air.
This process can take some mental discipline, which is especially difficult if you are struggling with racing thoughts or learning to relax. Guided imagery recordings are easily accessible and allow you to sit back and relax while the narrator walks you through a pleasing experience. The narrator may also prompt you to focus on your breathing and your level of muscle tension while you put yourself in the moment.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a meditation technique used to reduce muscle tension. As we hunch over a computer or text on our smart phones we accumulate muscle tension over the course of the day. Often we are not aware of the individual tight muscles, but instead may feel physically fatigued at the end of the day despite a lack of physical exertion.
When your body muscles are tense you may feel pain such as a sore neck or back. However, scalp and facial muscle tension may manifest as headache, anxiety or irritability. This level of tension at the end of the day may interfere with sleep or prevent you from getting the most out of your family time at home.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple process of systematically tensing muscle groups then relaxing them. For example, you could start with your hands by clenching them for a few seconds, then releasing them. You would move to the next muscle group such as your forearms and do the same.
A possible sequence could be – hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, jaw/cheeks, eyes, scalp, chest, abdomen, buttocks, upper thighs, calves and toes.
This technique of progressive muscle relaxation can be done nearly anywhere, however, for the best effect, it is best if you are sitting in a quiet place where you can relax. You can also find progressive muscle relaxation recordings to help you through the process, similar to having a relaxation coach.
Progressive muscle relaxation has been studied as a behavioral therapy to treat anxiety and depression. A group of researchers studied progressive muscle relaxation in women with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. They found that women who underwent progressive muscle relaxation followed by guided visualization produced twice as much breast milk as those who had not participated in either process.
You breathe on autopilot. When you get stressed you tend to breathe shallower and more frequent. Because you’re not taking in as much air with a shallow breath, you have to breathe faster. Some people can huff and puff their way into a panic attack.
The simplest method of breathing is what is called awareness breathing. With this technique, you focus on your breathing pattern. Then you slow your breaths by breathing in and counting to five, then exhaling while you count to five. Deep or belly breathing involves using your diaphragm to inhale and exhale deeply. When you breathe from your belly (as opposed to your chest), you move maximum air in and out of your lungs.
If counting to five is too long, you can also count to three for each inhalation and exhalation. The average breathing rate for someone at rest is 12 – 20 breaths per minute.
By slowing your breaths down to one per six seconds or 10 breaths per minute, you elicit a relaxation response.
When you slow your breaths, you slow your sympathetic response also known as the adrenalin release in your body. Lower adrenaline and cortisol levels mean a slower heart rate and slower mind. When you get a surge of adrenaline, not only does your heart and breaths respond by speeding up, but so does your brain function.
These are three types of meditation that you can use for as little as 5 – 10 minutes per day. You can start with guided solutions and as you become accustomed to it, you will be able to use meditation at any time without the guidance.
Meditation is an excellent tool to relax your mind before bed or even in the middle of the day for a mental reboot. Taking 10 minutes to slow your mind in the middle of a hectic day can increase your stamina and performance for the afternoon.
Challenge – Take 10 minutes and practice your breathing. Pick a busy time of day and use it as a reboot. Download the Awareness Breathing mp3. If you are signed up for the 30-day challenge, you will get the download sent to your email automatically.
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R.J. Davidson, et. al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosom Med 2003 65: 564-570.
O.R. Werner, R.K. Wallace, B. Charles, G. Janssen, T. Stryker, and R.A. Chalmers. Long-term endocrinologic changes in subjects practicing the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program. Psychosom Med 1986 48: 59-66.