The most powerful practice I have discovered in my healing journey, is meditation...
I used to be the person who was fearful of quiet time and being alone with my thoughts - I would leave before the ‘relaxation’ at the end of a yoga class because I thought I had to clear my mind and the prospect stressed me out.
My meditation journey really began when I joined a yoga class around 4 years ago and the teacher taught me to focus on my breath. I was a very anxious person and so my breathing was short and erratic - she taught me a way to focus on the breath without me over-dwelling on it, and therefore the relaxation periods were easier to endure.
I didn’t introduce my own meditative practice into my life until I began to have the courage to walk for long periods on my own. I would take time to notice, contemplate and focus on the sounds around me, my breath and my footsteps. I didn’t even realise I was entering a meditative state but this space allowed me to pay attention to the moment I was in instead of the whir of activity in my busy life.
I discovered that during these walks, or after, I would have immense clarity and would often feel at my most creative, I would return to my work in a completely different state with renewed and replenished energy.
I began to enjoy Savasana at the end of a yoga class for the time it gave me to reflect and then I listened to a podcast by David Ji who talked about the power of 16 seconds. Breathing in for four, holding for four, breathing out for four, holding for four. He explained that if you could do just 16 seconds - you would feel benefits, then gradually you could add more and more rounds of breath. It simplified meditation enough for me to have the confidence to start dabbling with guided meditations. Suddenly it didn’t feel like this ‘far out’ practice that was not available to me.
When I did my yoga teacher training in 2016 I had my first taste of ‘holding space’ for others during a meditation when we were asked to spontaneously lead a small group meditation for our fellow students. Far from perfect in terms of the ‘on the spot’ script - I was absolutely blown away by the magic of being able to create a space for people to close their eyes and go on a gentle journey to relax and replenish themselves. I knew then that meditation was something I wanted to explore deeper for myself and then to help others.
I can honestly say that meditation has given me more than anything I could ever have imagined, it is a true gift and so in 2017 I trained with The British School of Meditation to become a certified meditation teacher, in order to introduce some of these techniques to others.
what is meditation?
Meditation for me, is about creating space. Creating the space physically in our schedules to prioritise ourselves by committing to a practice and creating space in what is often a busy and overstimulated mind to come back to our natural relaxed state. It gives us a window of time to let go of the ‘shoulds’ that make up a lot of our days - and connects us with our breath, our body and the present moment. Meditation connects us to ourselves and gives the mind and body the physical rest it needs to replenish and recharge.
meditation is often thought of as a spiritual practice, however what I love about it, is that there is an abundance of scientific research to back up the many claims that it makes.
Meditation has a great many benefits, and while people often come to meditation with a desire to improve just one area of their life, the array of possible health and wellbeing improvements often far extend the original intention. Here are a few of my favourite reasons to meditate...
According to HSE’s 2017 report 526,000 workers in the UK now suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. Stress impacts our lives hugely and can in turn cause many unwanted side effects, such as fertility issues, hormonal upsets and countless emotional and physical imbalances.
We live in a world where stress has become ‘the norm’ and while stress cannot be avoided entirely, there are a number of ways that we can help manage stressful situations and reduce the harmful effects that stress can have on both physical and mental health.
Meditation has been shown to reduce levels of stress dramatically. During the stress response our body finds it hard to relax and come into the rest and digest phase - the hormones cortisol and adrenalin are released and while this is a useful response when faced with a life or death situation (as our ancestors would have faced) - this fight or flight response is not required when facing the kind of work or life related stress we generally face in the Western world (think traffic jam or work deadline). If we cannot learn to reduce these responses, our body is constantly in this ‘high alert’ state and this can affect our health in a number of ways.
Meditation has been scientifically proven to help manage the stress response. Dr Herbert Benson’s study in the 1970s identified the ‘relaxation response’ which is a mechanism of the body that can neutralise the fight or flight response. Studies showed that this mechanism could be triggered through meditation and that when it was activated, the relaxation response helped to reduce the body’s heart and breathing rates, blood pressure and muscle tension.
When the body is under stress and in the fight or flight mode - digestion becomes less of a priority. Unfortunately many people now spend a lot of time eating ‘on the go’, at speed, or in a stressed state - which means our digestive systems are under additional strain.
This stressed state and lack of attention to the breath and the present moment during meal times, can lead to poor absorption of food, weight concerns, cravings and digestive discomfort such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, flatulence and irregular bowel movements.
By implementing a regular meditation practice and eating in a more relaxed state, our body can process our food more effectively. In fact, a study in 2001 found that people with IBS found significant relief from pain, bloating and diarrhea using the Relaxation Response as discovered by Dr Herbert Benson.
Another factor of ill-health in the modern lifestyle is poor sleep patterns. The NHS state that it is thought that one in three people suffer from insomnia and according to the Royal Society for Public Health’s poll, published in The Independent in 2016, the average person in the UK is undersleeping by an hour each night. The same poll discovered that this lack of sleep resulted in a third of people feeling depressed, and more than half getting more stressed as a result of it.
Meditation has accumulative effects and can impact overall stress levels, which will undoubtedly have an effect on sleep quality because when we meditate our brain waves are altered, leading to a more relaxed state.
However, according to a study in 2015, Dr Herbert Benson found that when a group of middle-aged adults who all had trouble sleeping undertook a mindfulness program that taught them meditation, they had less insomnia than another group who completed a simple sleep education class. In addition to less insomnia, the group who practice mindfulness had less fatigue and depression after six sessions.
Dr Herbert suggests that 20 minutes of meditation during the day helps to evoke the Relaxation Response, in order to have easier access to this response when sleep is being elusive. Another reason why a regular, daily practice can have a multitude of health and wellbeing benefits.
Improves positive emotions...
There is a lot of unrest, unhappiness and negativity surrounding our modern world and for many people joy, positivity and happiness are emotions that feel more and more elusive. However, despite old belief systems suggesting that happiness cannot be improved and people are born with a capacity for happiness, many studies show that meditation has been proven to increase positive emotional responses when practised over a period of time.
One particular study involved a group of adults practising a Loving Kindness meditation daily. This meditation helps to increase feelings of compassion and care for both the self and others, and results showed that over a seven week study, with participants meditating for 15 - 20 minutes at least five times a week, there was an increase of positive emotions which, in turn, produced increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support and decreased illness symptoms.
However, even if a shorter amount of time is dedicated to it, Shawn Achor suggests that just two minutes a day, for 21 days, can rewire your brain to allow more optimism. Shawn’s research shows that when a person is happier they will be 23% less stressed, in 39% better health and 31% more productive.
Why wouldn’t you meditate?
From a physiological point of view, meditation has been seen to help lower oxygen consumption, decrease respiratory rate and increase blood flow while slowing the heart rate. It is particularly beneficial for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and those with chronic diseases and pain. Having said that - it provides benefits to all participants even those who are not currently experiencing specific physical health problems.
Psychologically, meditation is said to help improve confidence, increase serotonin (the ‘good-mood’ hormone), allow for greater creativity and mental focus, assist in social interaction, help reduce aggressive behaviour, helps establish listening and communication skills and decreases restless thinking and the tendency to worry.
On a spiritual level, meditation helps a person to evolve their intuition, provides peace of mind, clarity in purpose, connects the mind, body and spirit, aids in the practice of forgiveness and compassion, as well as helping the practitioner to become more present and enlightened.
These are just a handful of the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits meditation can have on a person when regular practice is integrated. As more and more research is unveiled and more people are beginning to create a meditative practice…