Meditation: Empowering yourself one breath at a time

serene businessman meditating at the office, sitting crossed legsThe word meditation can evoke immediate feelings of dread, eye rolling, or a sense of failure at creating a practice. Many of us have been told to meditate or that meditation can benefit us in nebulous terms. Mediation can, in fact, empower us to improve our health in many ways.

As we move deeper into spring, many of us find ourselves overscheduled, and overcommitted. It becomes important to explore the tools we have to counterbalance the busy, and the hectic.

Why meditation?

Meditation is a powerful tool that helps regulate our autonomic nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system is in charge of our bodily functions that we are not consciously directing, such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. It is divided into two segments; the parasympathetic, also known as the rest and relax nervous system, or the sympathetic, or fight or flight.

Many of the conveniences of our modern lives, such as text messaging, social media, and the rigors of our work lives can create a state of chronic stress that trains our autonomic nervous system to engage the fight or flight nervous system daily in response to frustrating emails, texts, and social media. This develops sympathetic nervous system tone. Instead of saving bursts of adrenaline for when a grizzly bear steps out of the woods in front of us, we get bursts of adrenaline, increases in heart and breath rate, and changes in digestion in response to emails or twitter wars.

Many people in the U.S. live their lives with an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Another gift of sympathetic nervous system tone is feeling harried, hectic, overly scheduled, and without time for ourselves. This is partly due to the biochemicals being released from the sympathetic nervous system.

Meditation is one of the best tools that we have to retrain our autonomic nervous system to overcome sympathetic nervous system tone, and to start spending more of our time in the parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system. Our bodies are meant to spend the majority of our days in the parasympathetic nervous system, so retraining our mind to utilize it, helps to regulate all of our organ systems.

How this works is simple; meditation requires that we set aside as little as 10 minutes a day, to sit either cross-legged on a pillow on the floor, or on the edge of a chair with our feet flat on the ground, and focus on breathing. It is important to sit upright either on the floor, or away from the back of your chair to help you focus.

The simplest type of meditation is to place one hand on your lower abdomen below your belly button, and to feel your belly expand when you inhale slowly, then feel your belly sink as you exhale slowly. Practice counting to a slow count of 3 or 4 when inhaling, pause for a beat, then count to 3 or 4 as you exhale. Pause. Repeat.

When you first start out, it is guaranteed that your mind will wander. It will go through it’s to do list for the day or week, it will wander to plans for vacation or the yard. Simply notice it, then return your focus to counting the breath. Your mind will wander again. Notice it. Go back to counting the breath, and continue until the end of your meditation session.

When you meditate regularly, your mind will eventually stop wandering for longer periods of time, until it stays blank for an entire session. Seasoned meditation practitioners that meditate daily will have an ebb and flow of times when their mind still wanders, and periods of blissfully calm states during meditation. The point is, this practice of drawing the mind back away from the runaway planning, to -do lists, and whatever shiny new thought pops up in the moment, is what trains our body to spend more time in the parasympathetic nervous system. It also means that when something stressful occurs in our day, we will have already trained our body to respond to the stressful event while staying in the parasympathetic nervous system. This makes us more productive, and we feel better during our day because our body is no longer flooding us with unneeded adrenaline and epinephrine.

How to create a successful practice?

  1. Set aside a consistent time 3-5x a week. First thing in the morning before making coffee can be a very successful time and sets the tone for how you’ll respond to the world the rest of the day. Another excellent time is at the end of your work day to clearly separate the mental stress of work from home. Other good times to meditate.
  2. Start with a small amount of time like 10 minutes.
  3. Follow the breathwork routine outlined above.
  4. Do not feel discouraged if you find yourself constantly noticing your mind wandering. It is called a practice for a reason. We truly have to practice it to rewire our brain’s behavior.
  5. Consistency is key. Pick a time of day, and Mon-Thursday, or MWTH, and stick with it for a month. Pick the length of time; 10 minutes and stick with it for a month before increasing time.
  6. Eventually try to build up over a few months to doing 20-25 minutes a day in one sitting. Research studies have shown that 10 minutes a day for 16 weeks increased neural functioning associated with enhanced focus. 20 minutes, three days a week over eight weeks reduced pain sensation. 20 minutes a day for four days a week over eight weeks improved cognitive skills. For more research focused on how long to meditation, click here.
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