Thursday, January 1, 2009
Meditation for the Modern Lifestyle
By Paige Dunn
Once reserved for monastery-clad monks, the 5,000-year old practice of meditation has become mainstream as a way to improve performance and cope with modern-day stresses.
You're an over-achieving multi-tasker, proud that you've managed to not only cope but thrive on the chaos around you. But being in such a frazzled state so often can compromise your mental and physical health if you don't take the reigns and slow it down occasionally. One way to get a grip is through meditation. Once you experience the benefits meditation offers, you'll wonder why everyone isn't doing it.
Although the mention of meditation may make you hear the "OHM's" of cross-legged swamis echoing from mountaintop monasteries, there's nothing mysterious or mystical about why it's so effective. Meditation is simply one of the many techniques that give the mind something simple to do, so your consciousness, which is separate from thought, is freed from identifying with it. Meditation is directed concentration with documented immediate measurable signs of relaxation including lowered blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, decreased heart and respiratory rates and Increased blood flow. Recent research even indicated that those who meditate are better able to concentrate, are more creative, felt less anger and noted improved relationships with others....they just tend to be healthier and happier than those who don't.
The key here is that meditation has a positive affect on stress and although stress seems to be a part of our culture, stress can have a serious impact on our health. When stressed, your body releases hormones that increase your heart rate and breathing consequently provides a burst of energy. Nearly all our body's systems prepare to cope with the perceived danger. Although not all stress is dangerous, our bodies are not always able to handle chronic and consistent stressors. Stress overload negatively affects not only the heart and blood vessels, but the nervous system and immune system.
While meditation will not replace sleep, it seems to stabilize the dream cycle and promote better sleep. It turns out meditation is not about Swamis and mountaintops....meditation is simply a highly effective way to improve not only our health, but our lives.
In fact, many athletes meditate to reduce pre-race anxiety, manage pain better, and improve performance. "With meditation you'll develop a greater sense of self-trust and confidence as you learn to easily tap into your powers of intuition. This translates into choosing the best wave to take off on, the best pitch to swing at, or which gear to use in climbing the next hill," says surfer and yoga instructor Peggy Hall, author of the DVD series Yoga for Surfers.
Ironman triathlon legend Julie Moss, who began meditating after her athletic career, recommends the practice to athletes of any level. "Meditation teaches you to see your spirit separately from your body. Your body feels pain, but you can choose to let your spirit fly beyond the discomfort. If I had learned to make this distinction while I was a professional triathlete, I'd have considerably more hardware collecting dust on my shelves today."
As Simple as Breathing
Meditation is easy to do; that's a big part of why it's so effective. Make it too complicated and you defeat the purpose. The goal is merely to get in a mental and physical state that allows you to relax and recharge. It's valuable time spent with just yourself, without an agenda to follow or expectations to be met.
Anyone can meditate, insists Hall. "Meditation is nothing more than simply breathing and being. Every meditation experience will be different, and that's fine. The magic lies in simply doing it."
There's no "wrong" way of meditating. If the method works for you, it's the right one. But don't expect to hear chanting or sitar music to signal you've reached Nirvana and will live out your days in eternal bliss. The signs of enlightenment will be subtle: feeling less stressed, happier and more peaceful as you go about your daily life. For most of us, this is more than enough to make it all worthwhile.
First, find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Wearing comfortable clothes, sit in a position you can remain in easily the entire time--legs crossed or uncrossed, whatever works for you. Set a timer for five minutes and close your eyes. Start by focusing solely on your breathing. Take in a big, deep breath, and then release it, along with any pent-up tension. Continue to take deep breaths, and notice where the "center" of each breath is. Your chest? Nose? Diaphragm? Concentrate on that.
If you become bombarded with thoughts, simply notice them, let them pass and return the focus to your breathing. Don't try to empty your mind, Hall explains, "Just notice whatever thoughts come up and observe them without opinion, without analysis, without following them to their conclusion." Continue focusing on your breathing until time is up.
Another effective meditation involves focusing on the energy in your body. Follow the same steps above including starting with a series of deep breaths. Once you settle in, try to sense a feeling of energy or awareness in a specific area of your body. Focus on this area. If your attention is drawn to another area of your body, shift your attention there. When your mind starts to wander, simply acknowledge it and when you are ready, return your concentration.
Successful meditation requires motivation and commitment. To reap the full rewards you need to practice it consistently. Choose a method that works for you, and stick with it for two weeks. After two weeks, introduce a new method to your practice. Start with five minutes a day, everyday, and gradually add two minutes every two weeks. Schedule your meditation like you would any other thing in your life, such as a workout or training session, and before long it will become second nature.
For additional insight into meditation techniques and benefits, or to look in to a meditation retreat, check out these resources:
Insight Meditation: A Step-By-Step Course on How to Meditate by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein
Meditation for Dummies by Stephan Bodian, Dean Ornish
CD Guided Meditations for Busy People (Audio CD) by Bodhipaksa
The Athlete's Meditation
Meditation can give you the relaxed and positive state of mind you need to perform at your best. When you're waiting for your next event to start, include this simple meditation and breathing exercise to get you prepared. You will be amazed at how this simple breathing technique will ground you and calm your nerves:
Put one or both hands on your abdomen, close your eyes and relax. (If you are not using both hands, leave one hand relaxed at your side).
Take a series of deep breaths.
Breathe in for two seconds, hold for two seconds, and breathe out for two seconds.
With each breath, imagine a circle being drawn from your abdomen, up through your chest, out your mouth, and then back to your abdomen.
As you repeat your "circle breaths," find a word or phrase that will help you get in a positive state of mind, and say it to yourself with each breath.
About Paige Dunn
Paige counsels and educates athletes on the mental component of athletic experience through her private practice, Xcel Sports. In her practice, Paige teaches various Sport Psychology techniques to enhance performance: goal setting, motivation, imagery, confidence, relaxation, focus & concentration, effective team communication, and more. She currently works with athletes in individual and group sessions. Paige has a great deal of success motivating athletes to perform at their best. Her focus is working with elite endurance athletes. She enjoys lecturing and is currently writing her first book.