In this edition of Ask the Expert, Angela Wilson, a senior Kripalu faculty member and Project Leader for the Institute for Extraordinary Living’s Frontline Providers program, answers questions about the health benefits of meditation, the best time to meditate, and more.
Does meditation have any actual health benefits? What does meditating do for my parasympathetic nervous system?
One of the biggest health benefits of meditation is increasing the relaxation response, or activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system that allows us to “rest and digest.” There’s a whole host of good things associated with the relaxation response, including boosting the immune system, improving digestion, improving sleep, even increasing cognitive function—when I meditate more, my thinking is clearer. Studies have shown that daily meditation over the course of eight weeks can reduce the “fight or flight” response that’s controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. In just eight weeks, you can actually change your brain.
So will meditating help me relax in everyday life?
Yes. When you meditate, you balance the nervous system so that the “fight or flight” response is activated less frequently. As a result you become less likely to act out maladaptive behavior in response to stress. So you might stop overeating or drinking to soothe yourself. Meditation provides a buffer against stress and that has a ripple effect that you experience throughout the day.
What tips can you share for getting kids or other family members to meditate, too?
It’s helpful to understand your intention for wanting to offer them meditation—is it for them because they’re really interested, or is it for you because you want them to be interested? If they’re interested, the rest is pretty easy. If they’re hesitant, there are gentle ways to introduce mindfulness to your loved ones. If you’re out walking, suggest taking a moment to pause and take in the scenery. For kids, you can create a bedtime ritual that includes taking a few conscious breaths together.
Do you believe in movement as a form of meditating? I have a hard time slowing down, but when I’m swimming, running, or cross-country skiing, I feel as though I’m in a meditative state. Is this just cheating?
Yes and no. I have a friend whose meditation is biking in a mindful way, being aware of body and breath. Being in the present moment can be a meditation practice. If that feels like a good place to start, start there. But there’s something very juicy and beneficial about sitting still in meditation. There’s a different challenge that comes with stillness, and beginning to watch the activity of the brain. It’s an opportunity to investigate the mind itself. Anytime you sit with the intention and willingness to be mindful, transformation will naturally happen. And remember, there is no bad meditation! People can get caught up in the outcome, or think they’re doing it wrong. Meditation can lead to a quiet mind or a sense of selflessness or unity with the whole, but you can’t go into it grasping for that. You want to first bring stability to the mind, perhaps by focusing on one thing, such as the breath, and then eventually expand the field of awareness to encompass bodily sensations and thoughts. Typically the first insight meditators have is, Holy crap! I think all the time! Through practice, you start to observe the way your thoughts move and change, and develop a more subtle awareness of your experience.
What is the best time of day to meditate?
From the Ayurvedic perspective, the most fruitful time of day to meditate or do any spiritual practice is the vata time of day, when the ether and air elements are most dominant. Ether and air create an alert but quiet time of day, a great time to meditate or do yoga. That’s between 2 and 6 am or 2 and 6 pm, the transitional times before sunrise or before sunset. One benefit of meditating at the same time every day is that the body starts to acclimate to that time, and a kind of behavior conditioning happens. Students often find that when they practice at the same time every day, they can go deeper more quickly.
From the Buddhist perspective, it isn’t so much the time of day that matters as much as making the time, incorporating meditation into your daily routine, even if it’s just for five minutes each day. Set your timer and commit to sitting through the entire time. Though any amount of meditation is beneficial, a little bit of time each day is much more beneficial than a lot of time twice a week, say.
Also, although there’s something powerful about sitting meditation, there are other ways to bring meditative moments into your day—for example, use the time when you’re walking to your car after work or sitting at a stoplight to check in with yourself and mindfully observe what’s happening around you.