In our increasingly unhealthy, overstimulated and time-strapped world, taking time to slow down and quiet the mind can feel like an impossible task.
But doing just that might be the way to better health and happiness.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is, essentially, the practice of quieting the mind. Studies have shown meditating a few times a week for even short periods of time can boost the immune system, increase pain tolerance, enhance your ability to focus and reduce your blood pressure and the body’s stress response, which in turn keeps inflammation at bay.
The benefits aren’t just physical. Meditation can also alleviate depression and anxiety, increase your attention span and improve your ability to think creatively.
In fact, one study from UCLA found that after years of practice, meditation actually increases the size of a person’s brain. A follow-up study from the same team showed that people who meditate also have stronger connections in the brain and show less brain aging. That means meditation might even reduce the risks of age-related cognitive disease, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
But how does it work? Neuroscientists have found that meditation physically changes brain wave patterns. By measuring brain activity in meditators and non-meditators, researchers discovered that those who practice shift their brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the more serene left frontal cortex. This makes people calmer, less prone to distractions and happier. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.
How to Practice Meditation
The ancient practice of meditation might conjure up images of Tibetan monks in robes sitting quietly for hours. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. In fact, it can happen anywhere you can find a calm, quiet place.
To practice, sit in a comfortable position, either on a cushion on the floor or on a chair where your feet can rest flat on the floor. Experts suggest the room be quiet and dimly lit. Relax your eyes, but you might not want to close them. (You don’t want to fall asleep.) Rest your hands on your knees. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose and out through your mouth.
Here comes the hard part: focus your mind only on your breath. As thoughts arise—am I doing this right? I should have a healthy dinner; that report for work is late; I wonder how much time has passed?—return your mind to your breathing. Keep patiently doing this until your practice ends.
When to Meditate
If you’re a beginner, start with five minutes of practice daily and work your way up to longer periods. Set a timer so you won’t be tempted to check your watch during your meditation.
When is the best time to practice? Many experts agree that it’s a good idea to meditate first thing in the morning, as it can help keep you calm and focused during the day. But you will still experience positive changes if you practice after work or before bed. You can also try incorporating a few minutes of meditation before you jump on your treadmill or other home exercise equipment.
You should start to notice positive changes — perhaps feeling calmer, or less prone to anger or irritation — fairly quickly. Experts say those who practice regularly will experience positive neurological changes after just eight weeks of daily meditation.
What benefits would you hope to see from taking up meditation? If you already practice, how has it affected you?