In today's hectic world, the physical manifestations of our stress can be very apparent. Insomnia, short temper or irritability, 'nervous stomach' or stomach pain, anxiety, headaches, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, muscle tension or injury, weak immune system, heart palpitations, asthma, high blood pressure, depression - all of these can result from stress, even the usual day-to-day stress that most of us live with. Meditation, or practicing a relaxation breathing exercise, is the one activity that can positively affect your body in immeasurable ways. It is estimated that 60 - 90 % of doctor office visits are of illnesses resulting from stress.
Why Meditate? In multiple scientific studies done around the world, meditation has been shown to aid in conditions as varied as cancer, sleep disorders, headaches, depression, psoriasis, chronic pain and can control arteriosclerosis. Other examples:
- decreases anxiety
- decreases blood pressure
- decreases PMS
- decreases asthma
- decrease peripheral blood-vessel resistance
- decreases chronic pain
- decreases depression
- decreases muscle tension
- decreases stress hormones
- decreases heart and respiration rates
- increases blood flow to brain
- affects infertility
- faster recovery from stress
- faster reactions and reflexes
- stabilizes nervous system
- increases immunity
- slows the aging process
- increased efficiency of information transfer in brain
- increased concentration, attention, memory and mental performance
Causes of Stress:
Stress can come from some very obvious elements, like your job, or stress in the family, but it can also manifest from some more subtle factors. For instance, driving (or your attitude towards traffic) can increase stress, as can television, radio (excessive amounts of noise), not taking enough time for yourself, not taking enough time off, or not having enough unstructured time. Take a look at your life and see where some of these are true for you.
People tend to think of someone sitting cross-legged in a corner, saying 'Om' when they think of meditation, but that is quite far from the complete picture! Meditation is actually being completely present with whatever you are doing at the time. So, for instance, if you are eating, you are completely present at your meal - you are truly chewing and tasting it; not watching TV, or reading a book or talking. If you are driving, you are not thinking of the fact that you are late, or of your grocery list - you are completely present to feeling the car driving and feeling yourself in the driver's seat. So if you are sitting quietly, you are simply sitting quietly, trying to quiet your mind enough so that you can do that peacefully. There are many different approaches to meditation, each with its own specialized techniques. However, all have a few requirements in common:
* A quiet environment where you won't be disturbed
* A comfortable position, usually sitting in a straight-backed chair
* A point of focus for your mind (in this case, the sound of your breath)
* Abdominal breathing
Meditation can be done anywhere, so if you need to lye down, do so - the key is to focus on your breathing, not on your being uncomfortable! As you get more experienced, you will be able to focus no matter what the circumstances. Start with listening to the sound of your breath, moving in a circle - half the circle is breathing in, half the circle is breathing out. When a thought comes into your mind (about a half-second later!) just bring yourself back to the sound of your breathing in a circle. Some people augment the circle so that when they breathe in, the breath comes up the spine, and when they breathe out, the breath goes down the front of their body, and so makes a circle. In either case, the point is to simply bring yourself back to your breathing when you recognize that you are distracted by your thoughts. If you have to bring yourself back a thousand times, that's OK - it gets easier with more practice.
Start with 5 minutes and work up to 20-30 minutes. Practicing on an empty stomach also helps. Some people meditate once a day and some can do twice, and some simply practice eating mindfully or driving mindfully or fold laundry mindfully in addition to their practice. If you find you fall asleep too easily, try bringing your focus up to your forehead. You may also do better having your eyes slightly open, or focusing on a blank wall. I find that a quiet room, without benefit of 'meditation music' gives me a better practice.
There are many types of meditation, all based on focusing your mind on one thing. The sound of your breathing, using a mantra, visualizations, focusing on a word, focusing on an object (for example, a candle), eyes open, eyes closed - in other words, there are many styles to choose from, but the key is to pick one and stay with it.
A very good book that I often recommend is "Learn To Meditate" by David Fontana, Ph.D. In it he describes the many different types of meditation, some pitfalls and some helpful tips.