What is meditation?
For many of us the practice of meditation may conjure up images of the Buddha or a guru sitting in silence for hours on end.
We imagine it to be extremely difficult, and far beyond our capacity. And we question how we can possibly fit this into our busy schedules with family, children, relationships, demanding careers, mental load and managing finances?
Meditation, however, can be an accessible antidote to our modern lifestyle.
Having a mile-long to-do list doesn’t make us too busy for meditation, as the only prerequisite is being human and a willingness to learn techniques we can take into our everyday lives. The gifts of a regular meditation practice stretch far; from relaxation and clearer thinking, to improved immunity and even reduced inflammation and pain.
Here are some of the reasons why we love meditation at Living Flow:
Enjoy a more positive outlook and optimistic mood from disrupting your train of negative thought. For many of us we have a tendency to imagine worst case scenarios. As if by experiencing them in our imagination, we are prepared for them in our reality. What we are now coming to understand is that this doesn’t prevent us from suffering, but rather guarantees it. Meditation disrupts this process and returns our thoughts to ones of positivity, hopefulness, wonderment, appreciation, acceptance and truth. By pressing pause on the constant stream of suggestions and scenarios that our mind conjures up, we allow space for the truth to arise, our mood to improve, and to return to our natural, peaceful state.
Experience relief from challenging emotions, even depression and anxiety, in the same way that we improve our mood and mindset by interrupting habits of unhelpful thinking. Negative emotions are often the flow-on effect of negative thoughts, and so by addressing and resolving the cause, we experience genuine relief from the symptoms. It is said that anxiety is the result of living in the future, and depression of living in the past. Though we acknowledge and would never diminish the seriousness of either of these conditions, research is now providing much insight into how the practice of meditation can strengthen the parts of our brain that regulate emotion, and allow us to more easily experience a sense of calm. The other way that meditation can be medicine to our heavy or frantic emotions, is by providing creative solutions to problems that we would otherwise perceive as unresolvable and that could otherwise leave us feeling hopeless. Many regular practitioners of meditation describe this experience as a ‘shift in perception,’ where their thinking is redirected to an outcome they would have never otherwise have considered, but that provides a perfect win-win outcome.
Heightened attention, focus and productivity. Just as our body functions better and more efficiently when it is free of toxins, so too does our brain when it is free of toxic thoughts. Because our brain’s natural inclination is towards negativity bias, we do need to consciously redirect it if we want to experience more positive, constructive thinking. When we take time to practice meditation, our mind becomes freer of heavy, congested thoughts and there is both space and energy for focus, creativity and productivity. On the tangible, more physical level, meditation is shown to increase activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the angular cingulate cortex, the areas of the brain responsible for memory and focus.
Slower cognitive decline from thickening of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is one of the benefits of meditation that is amplified with time and consistency, but studies show that only a few months practice will increase neuroplasticity; our brain’s ability to regenerate and create new neural pathways. All of us will naturally experience a degeneration of cognitive function over time (cognitive decline), but by thickening the prefrontal cortex through meditation, we ensure this happens slower and that we enjoy a fitter brain for longer.
Strengthened immunity in just one session. Many of us unknowingly live our lives in a state of constant, low-level panic. Modern stressors can lead to a consistently anxious, worried mind, which creates a constant dump of cortisol into our system. This means we operate from our sympathetic nervous systems and our immunity is severely weakened. Interrupting a negative thought flow with even a short meditation, will interrupt our cortisol dump, switch us back into a “rest and digest” state, and give our body the chance to relax and redirect resources to both our digestive and immune systems.
Less inflammation and pain from the overall calming qualities of a regular meditation practice. Acute inflammation is necessary for protecting against injury and infection, but when our body’s inflammatory response is constantly triggered, we become sick and can experience conditions like autoimmune disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Just as stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system allows us to better rest, digest, and protect against disease, it too allows our body to switch off this response, healing chronic, low-level inflammation, and hence reducing pain.
Whether or not we are aware of it, if we have a yoga practice, we most likely have a meditation practice! Think back to moments in class when your mind has wandered, perhaps to thoughts of “what should I cook for dinner” or “don’t forget to email so and so.”
When we notice how these thoughts create tension in our body, and then redirect our focus back to physical sensations and the rhythm of our breath, we are practicing meditation. We are afforded peace by purposely and positively steering our mind. This is how yoga and meditation deliver us to the present moment and free us from our neurosis.
The most common misconception is that meditation means stopping all thoughts and experiencing nothingness. In truth, this is nearly impossible, and unnecessary for reaping the healing benefits of the practice. All that is needed is to focus our attention, whether that be on the rhythm of our breath, a particular image, a mantra, a positive thought, or a physical sensation, and then gently and continuously guide it back when we become distracted. The truth is that our mind will almost always stray from this single object of our awareness, but our practice is to continuously, and without drama or judgement, bring it back.
Whether we consider ourselves to be a seasoned meditator or complete beginner, our practice can always deepen and benefit from some expert guidance. If you’d like to explore how this practice can transform your mind and body, join our wonderful Jamie for her 4-week workshop series, ‘Learn to Meditate’ beginning Sunday 14 October. This course is open to everyone, regardless of experience or understanding. Chat to us in the studio if you’d like more information or to book.
Lovingly written for Living Flow Yoga by Erin Dooley, yoga teacher, traveller and copywriter.