It’s a familiar scene for many… the alarm on the smart phone goes off at the crack of dawn. Once the imposing chime is silenced a rush of texts, emails, social media messages begin to flood in. Operating on autopilot the lowly homo sapiens browse, searching for any message that might be of vital importance – a client cancelling, change of social plans, messages from friends, traffic updates, … it even replies to a couple. Already in these early waking hours it’s brain is revving up for another day in the concrete jungle… a day where the homo sapien’s senses will be bombarded with information. The daily gauntlet beckons… a man- eating tiger could pounce at any point between leaving the house, the school run, braving the traffic on public transport or roads, getting to work (or a yoga class!) on time, struggling with an over bearing boss and/or work load. This homo sapien’s energy is zapped on daily basis by challenges with family, relationships, work, and finances.
Life is about survival in the twenty fast century … and today is no different from any other.
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Most of us want to feel better, physically, emotionally and live a happier, healthier life. Thousands of years ago, the sage Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras (c.400-200 B.C), declared that meditation could eliminate the suffering caused by an untamed mind. The media constantly tells us that meditation is the key to a healthy existence. Now western scientists are discovering how and why meditation works. Apart from helping you become more centred, reduce feelings of overwhelm/anxiety, let go of negative, stuck behaviour patterns, science agrees it sharpens your focus, memory, learning and physical performance.
WHAT exactly is Meditation….?
In essence, it’s taking time to be still and become more aware of what you are thinking.
Dr Philippe Goldin, director of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience project at Stanford University, described meditation as a way to become more aware of your thoughts and
emotions and learn to move through them without getting stuck. By meditating you are observing the pattern of your mind. You begin to notice when you are either: projecting to future events which have not yet happened or lassoed back to previous situations in your day, week, month, year, earlier life. With regular practice you learn to centre your focus and quieten your mind.
Alan Finger, (a wonderful yogi and meditation teacher who inspired me to sit every day) describes meditation as “the gateway” to all the IN- things: “In-spiration, in-tuition, in-sight” as well as “well-being, and regeneration”.
Antoine Lutz (PHD) proved that focused meditation – using mantra, visualisation etc., activates regions of the brain that are critical for controlling attention. This is true even for novice meditators. It is through regular meditation (and note regular) that we become less reactive to situations outside and acquire greater focus, clarity and calm. We also (as science has found) improve our overall physical and mental health.
“I don’t have time to meditate…especially not regularly. My life and mind are far too busy”!
Many people (myself included at one time!) have declared this. Well… surprise surprise… that’s especially why we need to do it!
You learn to train the mind. With regular practice it becomes easier. Alan (Finger) compared the mind to a puppy: … “you can’t ask a puppy to sit and expect it to know what you mean first time”. You need to train it. Regularly.
Eileen Luders (assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging) finds that regular meditators have increased grey matter in their brains. This makes the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information, lengthening attention spans, managing emotions and making mindful choices. Regular meditation continues to strengthen these abilities. If you stop meditating, the brain will eventually go back to its old reactive/less focused patterns.
HOW can meditation help me?
I’m no neuroscientist/physiologist so brace yourself for my science interpretation:
We all need a degree of healthy stress in order to function in the world. We also need to create stress in an emergency situation e.g: you see a child running out in to the road with an oncoming car careering towards it, or a tiger in the wild about to attack you. When these types of sudden situations happen our Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) sparks up and immediately the following happens:
Heart rate and blood pressure elevate
• There is increased production of cortisol (increased glucose in the blood; depression, insomnia, memory loss, increased fat storage)
• Increased adrenaline (charges you with energy)
• Muscles contract and tighten
• Fertility and growth are inhibited
• Digestion and elimination are inhibited
The SNS allows you to run and save the child or flee/wrestle with the tiger. It’s an appropriate response for the situation.
The SNS is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is our body’s main control and communication centre. The ANS “talks” to our whole body and strives to keep homeostasis. The ANS is fed information from the sensory cortex part of our brain. A tiny primitive part of our brain called the amygdala controls our fear responses, the secretion of hormones, arousal and the formation of emotional memories. If the amygdala detects a seemingly “fearful” situation it activates the SNS which revs up our “fight or flight” response. A stressor is anything that throws our body out of balance. It can be physical, chemical/environmental, or psychological/ emotional.
BURN BABY BURN!
Stressors (or ferocious tigers about to attack) are today are identified by the body/brain as: long term work pressures, regular travel, relationship issues, financial insecurity.
The above “fired up” adrenaline state has become a normal way of operating for many people in daily life. These people likely describe themselves as “extremely busy” as opposed to “stressful” people. Living like this for a long period of time creates degeneration in the immune system and contributes to the growing “BURN OUT” syndrome. Running on a continual SNS response (some like to call adrenaline kick) takes it’s toll on the body and mind. Chronic stress breaks down the body and profoundly affects the brain. It creates (to name a few): physical tensions, lack of nutrients in the muscles and tissue, joint and muscle inflammation, rise in BP, migraines, chronic digestive issues (IBS, leaky gut etc) and fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety… the list goes on…
Most diseases are due to or are exacerbated in some part to stress.
What’s the scientific solution?… R&R to the Rescue!
Just as our body has learned to function on the stress response, it can learn to do the opposite. A leading Harvard scientist Dr Herbert Benson realised the way to actively counteract stress (the affects of long term fight or flight syndrome) is to engage the Relaxation Response in the body. By getting the body to relax and slow down the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) began to function. I think of the PNS as the “earth mama” of the nervous system. It delivers:
• Healthy digestion of food and thoughts,
• Elimination of toxins and waste,
• Healthy function of hormones,
• Healthy supply of blood to the body Repair of cells, tissues, organs
And HOW do we engage the Relaxation Response?
Dr Benson’s findings described several components required for engaging the relaxation response. The key 3 ones are as follows:
• Abdominal breath
• Visualisation and serene scene or visualisation
• Use of Repetitive sounds, word
Sound familiar?… ring any meditation bells/gongs? The various stages of meditation encompasses all 3 things. The result is a calmer, clearer more focused mind… transformed with practice. This is what the yogis had been doing thousands of years ago.
What were the Yogis doing?
In contrast to all of this- the Yogis weren’t looking to escape the affects of the iPhone, the school run or deadline for work projects. They were scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and spiritual figures fascinated by the power of the mind. It is believed that forms of meditation were being practiced from at least 5000B.C. The Yogis realised that the mind was an incredibly powerful and healing tool that could ease suffering and drive one forward towards one’s goals. It needed to be harnessed through a focusing of concentration/meditation. They knew if it was left to its own devices would continue to cause pain and strife.
They wanted to know what was beyond the breath, when the mind was quiet. They sought to explore the secrets of the different layers of consciousness and our connection to a greater consciousness.
And finally… What’s your desire?
Whether you want to ease stress levels, improve overall health, strengthen your ability to focus and learn or delve deeper in to the ancient practices of yoga- meditation is a powerful healing tool to use in life. Just 5 minutes a day will make a difference. So no more excuses… start your practice today!
GET STARTED: Meditation courses at The Life Centre
Curious to try meditation and not sure where to begin? Or maybe you want to create your own home routine and feel comfortable meditating in groups… come and join me:
Also, for those Beyond Beginners: A 4 new week meditation adventure exploring the Chakras.
Thursdays from 19 March 2015, 19:45-21:00
Cleanse and realign as we transition in to Spring.
Kristin Leal “Meta Anatomy: Anatomy of a Yogi”
ISHTA Teacher Training manual
View Emily’s .