PDAs. iPods. Satellite radio. The Inter-net. Cable television. The information age — the technology age, really — has forced upon us a 24-hour-a-day, minute-to-minute news cycle and to-do list. Amid such a maelstrom of messages and media, how can one — body and mind — get away? The answer seems somehow old-school: meditation.
Sitting on a floor cushion, my legs crossed, hands on my knees. Using my breath as an "anchor" for my thoughts, I've begun my first meditation session. Merely 10 minutes, but they could change my life .
Various studies have confirmed that meditation affects brain patterns, but what doesn't? The most active part of the human body, the brain is conditioned to adjust to stimuli large and small, and around the clock, whether we're sleeping or awake. Whether or not regular meditation actually strengthens the cortical regions of your brain, the practice of relaxing your mind is a virtually foolproof way to lift your spirit, ease stress, and yes, improve your health.
Leah Nichols is the owner of Evergreen Yoga and has been teaching meditation — as an element of yoga — for seven years. She'd be the first to tell you "meditation expert" is somewhat of a misnomer, considering the diverse range of styles and practices. And she emphasizes different benefits for different people.
"It's always interesting for a [stressed-out] person to hear, 'It's all in my head,' "notes Nichols. "Well, if it's all in my head, I should be able to tell my body not to do this or that. But you have to have some tools."
The first "tool" is actually wanting to meditate. Skepticism abounds when it comes to doing "that thing monks do," but once a person commits to the possibilities of relaxing the mind as physical therapy, there's no limit to the benefits. Meditation can help regulate blood pressure and can teach a person to breathe differently, healthier even. (Nichols has a student with asthma who has benefited from the practice.) Meditation can also be a tool for dealing with pain or fear, eliminating the resistance to discomfort that often exacerbates the problem.
My eyes are closed, but not tightly. Not only am I focusing on my breath, I'm paying attention to it. Warm? Cool? Deep? After a breath enters my nose, then lungs, does it stretch down to my abdomen?
There are hundreds — maybe thousands — of meditation approaches, styles, and theories. It's critical to find a method that feels harmonious with your lifestyle and needs. "The meditation I teach is about working with your thoughts," explains Nichols, "not closing them off. It's a subtle distinction, but important. I tried various methods until I found one that felt right to me. It didn't matter if it was rooted in Christianity, Buddhism, Native American medicine, or yoga. It was finding something that fit me. These practices meet people where they are."
Nichols defines yoga as "meditation in action." The physical requirements of yoga serve as a "laboratory" in which the mind can experiment with its own techniques for realizing harmony and comfort. "A lot of people come here because they want to get stronger, build endurance, or lose weight," says Nichols, "but I keep bringing people back to the mind."
Says Dana Kamp, one of Nichols' students: "I don't need to sit on a cushion or chant a mantra – I just sit comfortably and focus on my breath. A couple of minutes of this works wonders to calm the mind and deal with stress. I also find this helps when I have a frustrating thing I'm dealing with. I find meditation fosters creativity."
There is no meditation demographic, though Nichols warns against trying the practice with a young child. She suggests that benefits maximize when we reach an age when we can enjoy being still. And no window of time is too small. (Nichols admits meditating at traffic lights, though with her eyes open.) A 30-minute session is fairly standard.
"[Meditation is] less scientific than we'd like it to be," says Nichols. "It's what you want, what you need."
Any outside thoughts are to be labeled "thinking." To this point, the only outside thought I've had is, "quietest 10 minutes of my adult life." Still breathing, still anchored.