The Health Benefits of Meditation

In this article, I will share with you the health benefits associated with a daily meditation practice. I’ll also show you how you can incorporate a “sitting” practice into a daily fitness regimen.
By Michael Ezell

The STRESS of Daily Living

So, Why Meditate? In order to talk in-depth about meditation, we first need to talk about stress. In today’s world, we’re constantly having our attention pulled in different directions by family, work, this commitment, that engagement, the other dance recital or soccer game. And for those of us who’ve added the commitment to live a healthy and fit lifestyle to the mix, the demand only compounds. I mean, it’s not like modern culture is encouraging us to eat right and exercise. We have to Intentionally make wellness a part of our day-to-day lives. All these commitments  weigh upon us over time, often causing us STRESS. Some consider stress to be hands down the #1 killer of mankind today, and experts believe that many of our diseases have their roots firmly planted in it’s deep toxic soil.

What makes stress so dangerous is how our body naturally responds to it.Under intense emotional, physical or psychological pressure, our bodies release a corticosteroidhormone called cortisol. At high levels this hormone causes, high blood pressure and blood sugar, a lowered immune system, hair loss, weight gain, heart disease… shall I continue? The point is simple: Stress bad, very bad!

The good news is stress can be, if not totally removed from our lives, at least managed to the degree that your day can be defined by the good that you’ve experienced in it rather than the things that stressed you out. dealing with stress is a skill that must be learned however. We humans don’t do it naturally. Animals like the zebra don’t go around in the Serengeti with high blood pressure and receding hairlines, because… well for one, they don’t actually have hairlines, but more importantly because their brains only have two responses as it relates to stress: on and off. So, right after a pride of lions has finished runningroughshod all over a zebra heard, the zebra can be seen placidly grazing and even playing and mating with each other. We, on the other hand, thanks to the neocortex, or new brain, (that outer layer that sits atop our reptilian brain), have gradations of stress depending on the situation. We can be a little stressed, moderately stressed, very stressed or “SOMEBODY GIVE ME A GUN!!” stressed. As a result, we can go through an entire twenty-four hour period or more in complete nail-biting mode, not because of a lion attack, but because Sarah told us to get lost, or Jimmy took credit for our work on the job.

Enter Meditation

So, what is meditation and how can it help to reduce stress? Simply put,meditation is the act of returning the attention again and again to a singular point of focus. This may seem overly simplistic, particularly when I suggest that it can virtually eliminate the negative stress response, but I assure you, both as a seven year practitioner and based on the empirical evidence, meditation is the real deal!

There have been literally thousands of scientific studies on the various forms of meditation over the past 40 years that have yielded some interesting findings. Meditation is not the same as deep rest or sleep or daydreaming. It has its own physiological marker and is characterized by high levels of mental alertness, coupled with very low levels of physiological arousal… which means your body is at complete rest, while simultaneously your mind is completely alert. It’s important to get out of your mind the idea that you have to “space out”, or go into a trance in order to meditate properly. However, the mind will naturally descend into alpha, theta and sometimes even delta brain states. Alpha is the mental state we’re in when, say reading a book or studying. Theta is the state our brains are in when we’re asleep and Delta is when we’re in that deep, dreamless sleep state.

We also use less oxygen when meditating, in fact, in a whole night’s sleep our oxygen levels never go down as much as they do within 2 minutes of meditation. This causes more blood to flow to our extremities. The point is that Meditation is a physiologically unique state when compared to sleep or waking states and thus carries with it it’s own unique benefits.

Traits Associated With Meditation

Let’s talk a little about meditation and the biomarkers of aging. Studies have found that the contrasting physiological markers of aging between meditators and non meditators are stark. For example, it’s been found that the “real age” (or the actual physiological age of the body) of a meditator is 5 to 12 years younger than that of a non meditator. Other studies have shown improved vision and hearing and lower levels of cancer and heart disease. Also Lowered blood pressure and elevated levels of melatonin characterize the regular practitioner. Essentially, with meditation, you just have less stress and a younger physiology, and really that alone is enough of a reason to begin a daily meditation practice.

How to Meditate

Okay, Okay I can hear you saying, “Enough of the technical speak. How exactly do you meditate?”  So, there are two types of meditation practice for you to choose from:
1. Meditation with form
2. Formless meditation

Meditating with form simply means that you choose an object to focus on during your session. You can use an object, such as a candle or maybe an appealing vase. But the “form” isn’t limited to a physical object. The form can be your breath or an emotion like love or compassion. you can focus your attention on your heart. Even thinking on a loved one is okay. The idea here is to find a point of focus be it physical or conceptual.
Formless meditation is actually the opposite of meditation with form. It’s the dissolution of attention, the cessation of thought. This is the more difficult type of meditation and should be practiced after you’ve gotten comfortable with focusing, because that open mental space that characterizes Formless meditation is in itself a form to focus upon and if you can’t focus onsomething, you’ll be unable to focus on nothing.

A Basic Practice

It’s important to wear comfortable clothing so that blood can freely flow and to avoid being distracted by discomfort. choose a quiet place in your home. Ideally you should designate this place as your place to practice. If you do, with time, you will automatically begin to enter into a meditative sate as soon as you go to that place. You may want to purchase a meditation mat and cushion (I got mine fromdharmacrafts.com and after six years, it’s still in great condition). If not, a comfortable chair is just fine.
Sit erect in your chair so that your back isn’t touching the chair. Resting back on the chair will cause you to go to sleep because your back muscles will not be engaged. rest your hands, palms up or down, on your lap. Sit up straight. Your spine should be erect and head tilted slightly downward. Ensure that the tip of your tongue is on the roof of your mouth, just behind your buckteeth. You may either close your eyes, or leave them open, holding a “soft” gaze upon the floor a couple of feet in front of you. Now make yourself yawn at least three times. Yawning triggers a relax and focusing response in your brain, getting you in the state of meditation. It’s actually one of the best thing you can do for your brain (For more on this, I recommend the book, “How God Changes Your Brain” by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman).
Next, inhale slowly through the nose. As you do, notice how the air cools your nostrils as it passes through your nose and travels down the windpipe. Follow the journey your breath takes down to your stomach. Avoid allowing your chest to expand too much. Instead, you want your belly to rise as you breath in. Imagine that the air is filling your stomach and not your lungs. Mentally count this breath as “one”.
Next, gently release your breath into a full exhale, expelling all of the air. exhale until your diaphragm tightens a bit. count this as “two”. Continue the cycle up to ten breaths and then count back to one.
When you get distracted  (and you will), start over at one. This is meant to develop your concentration muscles. Once you’re able to count from one ten then back one for two cycles without having to stop, your ready to inquire into more advance forms of meditation.
There are numerous meditation courses that are available today, but if you want to teach yourself to go beyond the basics then I highly recommend purchasing a program called the Integral Life Practice Starter Kit, available at amazon.com.

My Technique

I now use a technique that is similar to TM (Transcendental Meditation). Thisis a very basic, yet extremely powerful method where you simply pick a mantra (a word that feels good to speak repeatedly), it could be Om (pronounced Aum) or “I Am”, or “Peace”,” Calm”, whatever. It just needs to signal your body/mind to relax. While seated, begin to repeat the word aloud for a minute or two. Next, begin to repeat the word more quietly than before. Continue to turn the volume down until you are completely silent, but are “thinking” the word only in repetition. Do this for about 20 minutes once or twice a day and see if you don’t begin to feel an effect within a week!

A Few Tips About Meditating

As a seven year practitioner, I’ve been meditating for about as long as I’ve been working out, so I learned a long time ago to incorporate them both into a single practice, both for efficiency and for efficacy. As soon as I complete my workout, I immediately down my recovery drink and head for my meditation mat. Studies have found that working out and meditating together has a cross-developmental effect, which simply means that each practice is enhanced by the other (go to integrallife.com for more info on the cross-developmental effects of meditation and weight training).

Don’t feel as though you have to sit for an hour like some enlightened master. Studies show that the health benefits of a daily meditation practice can be realized in as little as 5 to ten minutes. I sit for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The sitting time isn’t as important as committing to sitting daily. Sitting everyday for five minutes is much better than sitting once a week for 35 minutes. However, if you get off track, don’t feel guilty, just begin again. It’s not a contest, it’s a life long journey.

It’s important not to beat yourself up over losing focus during meditation. In meditation circles these mental distractions are called “the monkey mind” because your thoughts are constantly popping in and out and back into your head, distracting you from your point of focus. When you allow yourself to become frustrated during your sitting practice, you’re actually sabotaging your efforts. What I do as soon as I become aware that I’m ruminating on unwanted, distracting thoughts (and after six years it still happens all the time) is imagine those thoughts as leaves floating on the surface of a stream. I watch them come and then allow them to gently go, then I return my attention back to my heart, or my breath or an emotion, whatever my point of focus is that day.

When outer distractions occur, like your kid coming in your room looking for something, or your spouse starting the vacuum cleaner just outside your door, or the yard guy whacking weeds outside your window (can you tell that I’ve been there?), you don’t have to let it shut down your session. Remember that you can notice a distraction without being distracted. just patiently wait for the distraction to end and even get excited when they occur because they are wonderful opportunities for you to exercise patience and focus.

The immediate effects of meditation, (e.g. feelings of peace and relaxation) are all well and good, but the “golden” effects of a daily sitting practice are realized over the span of time. The most important benefit that I’ve acquired over time was an elevated level of tolerance to things that , five years ago would have sent me reeling. My threshold for BS has dramatically increased. I liken it to a wall of protection. A levee even. Years ago, my wall was pretty low, so that when stress came along like a raging river it would breach my levees, causing me to flip out. Now, my levees are much higher so that I’m emotionally protected against even a Katrina-sized stressor.

I was pretty excited, when encouraged by a couple of coaches to write this article, because my meditation practice is very important to me. It is, like working out, a practice that I can point to and be able to say without controversy that it changed my life for the better. And I’m confident that it can do the same for you!
~Michael Ezell

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