At points in recent history meditation carried with it a stigma that smelled like patchouli oil and came with an ill-fitting dashiki. With the western acceptance and proliferation of yoga, however, meditation is gaining steam, thanks to its inherent health benefits.
What is Meditation?
In its simplest terms, meditation is a practice where you train your mind to induce a mode of consciousness. A better way to understand it is to look at the two broadest forms of mediation: Focused Attention and Open Monitoring.
Focused Attention: Also known as mindful meditation, this is a style of meditation where you place your focus on one specific thing (eyes opened or closed). This can be anything from your breathing to your connection to the ground beneath you, or an object outside of you. The key is that when your mind wanders – and it will – you consistently bring it back to your chosen focal point.
Open Monitoring Meditation: In this from of meditation, you focus your attention on everything that is happening around you, while your eyes are closed – sounds, smells, feelings. You notice *everything* but focus on reacting to *nothing*.
In the end, perhaps the best way to look at meditation is as exercise for your brain. And it has similar effects on your brain as physical exercise does on your body. With practice, those benefits will help you live longer.
Decreased Anxiety: anyone who has dealt with serious anxiety, knows it tends to be all consuming. It takes up space in your brain, making it hard to think about anything else, and manifests itself physically through symptoms such an increased heart rate. Meditation’s ability to help you put your focus somewhere specific, allows you to take that focus away from the source of your anxiety. When you don’t feed anxiety, it becomes something you can overcome.
Increased Gray Matter: This one may seem a little out there, but it may also have one of the greatest positive effects on the aging process. To start, gray matter makes up a large portion of the brain and nervous system. A study done by UCLA in 2012 used MRIs to closely study the brains of meditators and found that the frontal lobe of the brain saw an increase in gray matter. This part of the brain feeds positive emotions and heightened focus. The study also showed that meditation diminished age-related effects and reduced the decline in cognitive functioning.
Cardiovascular Improvement: What meditation can do, according to Richard Stien, professor of medicine and director of the exercise and nutrition program at New York University’s Center for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, is offer you, “a 20- or 30-minute vacation from the stress in your life.” He adds that in turn, “Meditation is a way of allowing you to come to balance in your life. It can also help you sleep better, which is a very important restorative part of physical health.”
This easing of stress can have a huge impact on heart rate and blood pressure because stress can release adrenaline. In fact, a study in 2012 showed that those who routinely practice meditation were 48 per cent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
Clearly, there are benefits to meditation, but how do you get started and how do you decide what form of meditation is right for you?
The best advice for starting is to sit for two minutes a day for a week, and then add time from there. What many people find is that meditation is simple – though not always easy in the beginning. It can be as simple as counting each of your breaths in order to keep your focus on breathing.
After a few days of approaching meditation this way, you will already have begun training your brain to the point that keeping your focus will become increasingly easier. From there, you can experiment with focusing on different things, while doing your best to be cognizant of how each change you make in your routine affects the way you are feeling.
Remember, not all forms of meditation involve sitting alone in a dark room. Taking a walk or listening to music can allow you to focus equally as well, and have the same benefits. Many experts also point out that praying can be a positive form of meditation, too.
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