Frank Jude Boccio, whose Zen dharma name is Poep Sa, is a yoga teacher and a teacher of Zen Buddhism ordained by Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim. He is also an interfaith minister and long-time student of Thich Nhat Hanh. Here he shares a few simple yet powerful ways to integrate mindfulness practices into your daily life—when driving, working, or even drinking your morning coffee.
Discover ways that meditation allows you to stop, breathe, and pay attention to both your inner world and your active mind.
Tim Olmsted has been a student of meditation for 35 years. For 12 of those years, he lived in Nepal, working as a psychotherapist and studying with many of the greatest Buddhist teachers of our time. After returning to the United States, Tim served for three years as the director of Gampo Abbey, the largest residential Buddhist monastery in North America. He now travels internationally, and is the president of the Pema Chödrön Foundation.
Q Describe what you do in 15 words or less.
A When not on the road teaching meditation for Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, I watch over the Pema Chödrön Foundation.
Q Tell us about a turning point in your life.
Sometimes in our yoga practice we strive so hard to “get it right”—mastering our alignment, coordinating our breath, focusing our attention—that we stifle our inner energy (prana). Meditation in motion, or, spontaneous posture flow, is a hallmark of the Kripalu Yoga approach. In this practice, the inner wisdom of prana is allowed to guide the body, as opposed to the will of the mind. By surrendering rather than striving, prana can flow freely throughout the body, allowing movement to become spontaneous and un-choreographed. Ready to try it on your own?
At the end of your next yoga practice, close your eyes for a minute. Take some long, slow, deep breaths to get in touch with prana. Then respond to what your body is asking you to do. Allow your mind to step aside so the breath can orchestrate the movement of your body. As prana begins to move, your mind can relax into witnessing and your movement may evolve into meditation in motion.
Aging Gracefully Through Meditation
Meditation has long been believed to be a win-win proposition, carrying certain psychological benefits with zero risk or cost. People who meditate regularly report lower levels of stress, improvements in concentration and memory, and slower reactivity (no more road rage!). The mental relaxation produced by meditation can have physiological benefits, too, in the same way we know that a calmer emotional state is good for our physical body. But a few new studies reveal that the practice may have profound effects on actual brain development—something traditionally believed to peak in our 20s and then begin to decline.
Researchers at the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at UCLA have spent years studying how meditation may affect neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to make physiological changes. In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the lab reported finding that long-term meditators had brain function that not only did not decline as they aged, but improved, thanks to an increase in brain gyrification—activity that happens in the cerebral cortex, or the outermost part of the brain. The lab also determined that the brains of dedicated meditators have more gray matter, which affects the brain’s ability to process information, and white matter, which helps a person communicate clearly.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. –John Burroughs
This is a wonderful practice for spring! Remain receptive as you allow your senses to blossom.
Receive sound. Go outside. Stand or sit, and close your eyes. Touch your ears: feel the wrinkles and folds of the ears, lobes. Become aware of the ear canals, inner ears. Let sounds come to you. Allow your hearing to be soft, spacious, and open. Not needing to identify any sounds, let them make their way into your awareness as they will. Birds, insects, automobiles, an airplane high above, rustling grass, people talking. Welcome everything in.
Receive sight. Touch your eyes: feel your eyelids, eyelashes, surface of the eyes, centers of the eyes, eye sockets. Allow your eyes to open and remain soft. View the world with your peripheral vision. Like a deer or a butterfly, remain sensitive and open to the world around you, taking in all the colors, light, and shadow, form and texture. Not focusing on any particular thing, allow the world to seep into your eyes.
Flow with your rhythm. Begin to walk. Stroll aimlessly, following an inner rhythm without trying to get anywhere.
Receive fragrance. Begin to notice scent in the air, the fragrances surrounding you. Without needing to identify scents, and without needing to label them as “good” or “bad”, “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, be guided by your nose. Imagine you are a dog with a large nose who is guided only by scent. You may like to get closer to things to receive their fragrance more fully.
Anxious? Tense? Worried? Meditation is simple tool for self-care that can be done anywhere and anytime to de-stress, and with practice, you can reboot and find inner calm in just a few minutes. A main component of any meditation practice is focusing your attention. By creating a single point of focus, such as the breath, the multitude of distractions that overload your mind and cause stress can be cleared away. Meditation allows your mind to settle and your body to relax, creating a balanced state that benefits overall health and well-being.
Ready to try it? Find a quiet place to practice where you are free of distractions. Get comfortable, whether you’re sitting, lying down, or walking. Begin to breathe deeply through your nostrils, taking slow and even breaths. Focus all of your attention on the flow of your breath. Bring your awareness to the feelings, sensations, and sounds that occur as you inhale and exhale. Continue to breathe deeply and slowly. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breath. Remember, meditation takes practice, so be kind to yourself. It’s natural for your attention to wander. When this happens, simply refocus your awareness on your breath.
A visiting friend riding with me on a New York City subway said, “Wow, I didn’t realize so many people here had a meditation practice.” I looked around and laughed, hard. Indeed, we could have been surrounded by meditating monks using a variety of techniques. Some stared into the middle distance, others had an eyes-shut, chin-down approach, and some riders were fixed on a small gadget, jaws dangling.
Alright, so maybe they were doing the opposite of meditation–checking out so they could be anywhere other than crowded public transportation. Been there. A lot. Eco-friendly as they may be, trains, planes, and buses are simply not where most of us choose to be. Pretty much everyone in transit has a psychic bumper sticker that reads: I’d Rather Be… Absolutely Anywhere Else. This, of course, is what makes these interim spots, these transitional moments, perfect places to practice being present. (Say that six times fast!)
I’ve heard some yoga teachers talk about the importance of these over-looked transitional moments on the mat. Our minds are so focused on lining up the pose just right, breathing with movement, holding, watching our minds, etc. but when it’s time to switch postures we often drop it all—our gaze, our breath, our attuned awareness. That’s why, anecdotally, most yoga injuries happen while we’re shifting from one asana to the next.
Taking charge of your stress means taking a holistic view of your health.
Jane, a 45-year-old holistic health worker from Rhode Island, was having trouble dealing with stress—stress about deadlines, stress about her workload, stress about being newly single after the end of a long-term relationship. She also carried a weightier worry about the innumerable things she felt she couldn’t control. “My sense of not knowing—of not having answers to some of my questions about my future—was especially stressful, because I wasn’t sure how to address something that intangible,” Jane says.
She’s hardly alone. Susan B. Lord, MD, who teaches Kripalu’s popular Healthy Living immersion program called Transforming Stress, sees dozens of men and women who come to her program with concerns about their levels of stress. Some people, like Jane, are looking for ways to free themselves from anxieties, while others are seeking solutions to stress that causes emotional anguish as well as serious physical health concerns.
In this edition of Ask the Expert, meditation teacher and senior Kripalu faculty member Bhavani Lorraine Nelson answers questions from readers like you.
My mind races when I sit. Can mantras help?
The reason I cover five or six different techniques in my Introduction to Meditation program is because not every type of meditation is effective for everyone. Some people thrive on simply sitting with the breath; for others, the breath is very ephemeral, so the mind has free rein to wander. Some concentration practices can be more engaging for the mind and help it to quiet down. Mantra is one of those—it can be helpful for people who find it difficult to sit simply with the breath.
Recent scientific research on mantra practice shows that it is very soothing to the nervous system because of the repetition. Setting an intention when repeating a mantra adds to the power of the practice. There are different mantras for different goals; practitioners can create a “family” of mantras to use at specific times and for specific purposes. It’s important, though, to have a primary mantra, just as you have a primary yoga practice. To find one, you might start with Thomas Ashley-Farrand’s book Healing Mantras. Choose a mantra that you’re drawn to and can imagine wanting to repeat often.
Is it “cheating” to visualize pretty patterns and concentrate on those, to stop “thinking”?