Forget about enjoying the holidays: More and more, the majority of us just want to make it through. Which is why a meditation practice—proven to counter stress, beat depression and illness, keep energy levels up, and help encourage better sleep—can come in especially handy this time of year. The best part: You don’t need to invest a lot of time or commitment (and, unlike most everything else this season, it’s totally free). Angela Wilson, MA, Manager of Evidence-Based Yoga Curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, offers the following tips for practicing on-the-go mindfulness: no quiet room, dimmed lights, or mat required.
Discover ways that meditation allows you to stop, breathe, and pay attention to both your inner world and your active mind.
The following heart-based meditation comes from the Institute of HeartMath, in Boulder Creek, California, and is a wonderful technique to redirect the mind and replace negative emotions with positive ones.
First, get your body in a comfortable, relaxed position and focus on breathing slowly and rhythmically, so that the length of your inhalations and exhalations are about the same. Find a breath rate that feels sustainable for you. Next, bring your awareness to the center of your chest and imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart center. As you continue to breathe in and out of your heart, remember a time when you felt a positive emotion such as gratitude, joy, or love.
Think about being with loved ones, a beloved pet, appreciation for the good things in your life. This associative memory generates a positive emotion. If you can’t recall such a memory, then simply imagine a positive feeling moving in and out of your heart as you breathe. If your mind wanders, gently return to the positive feeling, allowing the sensations of gratitude, love, or joy to flow with your breath. Continue to circulate this heartfelt feeling for a few breaths, or even for a few minutes. Then pause to notice the effects of the practice.
How meditation can help you be a better friend.
Meditation has long been celebrated for all it can do for us, among the benefits: lower blood pressure, reduce stress, help us sleep, and even possibly help us lose weight. But a recent study also found that meditation might help us be better friends and partners. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta found that many participants who had practiced eight weeks of meditation showed significant improvement in their ability to identify the emotions of people in photos based on their expressions. That is, they were more in tune with the feelings of others.
Do you suffer from anxiety, poor digestion, or lack of focus? When life’s demands overwhelm us, Angela Wilson, Manager of Evidence-Based Yoga Curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, explains in her R&R retreat lecture Cultivating Inner Strength, our nervous system gets out of balance. Through the practices of yoga meditation, and mindfulness, however, we can build resilience in order to be fully aware of all our experiences.
As Angela explains, there are two main branches of the nervous system. There’s the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight-or-flight response in reaction to stressful situations. It’s a hot, reactive state, which increases heart rate and primes the body for action. The other branch is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated when the body is relaxed. The parasympathetic supports a cooling, restful and state. It soothes the system, aids in digestion, and can be fostered through yoga practice.
The benefits of meditation for seniors
In a recent study, nearly 70 percent of people over the age of 60 reported experiencing loneliness, a risk factor for functional decline and early death. But those who took part in an eight-week meditation program reduced those feelings of loneliness—and gave their immune systems a boost as well. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, is published in this month’sissue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Yoga has long been known to help ease depression and loneliness by raising concentrations of gamma-amminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating the nervous system. High levels of GABA have a calming effect. Of course, loneliness isn’t just an emotional issue; it’s a form of stress that can have physical manifestations as well, says Randal Williams, a Kripalu Yoga instructor and teacher trainer, who isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. “When I was a child I used to go to religious services with my grandmother,” says Randal. “This was her way of connecting with others. Whether it is to do yoga or meditate or walk or sit and share tea, getting together with others has a positive impact.”
I’ve been interviewing healers and spiritual teachers for a while now, and when I ask them how to live a healthier and happier life, many offer the same answer: meditate.
I hate that answer. When I was 19, I attended a 10-day meditation retreat that necessitated giving up my worldly possessions for the length of the stay, not talking, not making eye contact with anyone, and sitting in silence from 6:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, with short breaks for meals and meditation lectures. By day two, I was like a prisoner of war planning the Great Escape. One morning after breakfast, when no one was looking, I fled the retreat in a frenzy; I just couldn’t sit in silence for 10 days and do nothing. OK, so maybe “fled” is somewhat of an exaggeration, but the bottom line is I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m just not a fan of meditation. An admirer, yes, but not a fan.
But according to Panache Desai, the spiritual teacher and inspirational visionary who chatted with me during our Kripalu Perspectives podcast, you don’t need to meditate to live a healthier and more joyful life—you just need to incorporate one of the essential elements of meditation into your day.
“Watch your breath,” says Desai, “the inhalation and the exhalation.”