Tame the Brain

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées

If good nutrition, proper exercise and sound sleep are the three pillars of good health, then mindfulness is the fourth column that keeps your entire temple in balance. Everyone can benefit from eating well and exercising, but very often, the topic of mindfulness is overlooked in discussions about physical health. You can do a lot of things right like exercise daily, sleep adequately and eat well, but without being in the right state of mind – that is, feeling joyous, stable, and clear-minded – it’s hard to obtain the full benefit of your foods or exercise. Your thoughts and feelings matter.  In this post, I will explain how meditation can enhance your mind, your physique and your sleep.

But what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is another way of saying “to be present.” Being present, though simple sounding, can be quite difficult to do given the distractions of today’s world. But the payoff of being mindful is invaluable. Indeed, one of the most important things a person can learn to do in their lifetime is to quiet their mind and allow the natural well-being that is dominant within them to thrive. To a well-practiced mind, being mindful becomes second nature.

Learning the art of being present can help sharpen your focus. When you learn to focus on something that holds little emotional meaning, such as the hum of a dryer, or your breath, or a word (mantra), then you can stop negative thoughts. Quieting such thoughts for 15-20 minutes every day can yield tremendous benefits, both physical and mental. Once you practice being deliberate in what you pay attention to, you can apply this focus to other areas in your life from your work to your workout.

You can help develop mindfulness and focus through the practice of meditation. Meditation is nothing new, but it certainly feels like a huge movement has taken place worldwide. More and more people are benefiting from this simple activity. The wonderful thing about meditation is that once you learn which method suits you best, you can do it anywhere. It’s free, it’s accessible, and it requires no special gadgets.  All you need to do is carve out some time in your day and practice it until it becomes a normal part of your life.

Stress and the brain

From the moment we are born we are faced with contrasting experiences that shape who we are. While some stress can help us evolve, today many of us have too much unnecessary stress on a daily basis. Excess stress can lead to a host of problems such as inflammation, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, a weaker immune system, weight gain, weak muscles and poor recovery and countless other maladies. An effective solution to stress and its unwanted by-products can be meditation.

Scientists are just scratching the surface as they discover how practicing mindfulness can alter areas of the brain that are responsible for a host of essential functions including, body awareness, pain tolerance, complex thinking, introspection, emotional stability, empathy and sense of self. These positive changes in the brain can be seen fairly quickly, after only a few days or weeks of practicing meditation.

A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation was able to create positive changes in areas of the brain associated with stress, empathy, memory and sense of self. For the study, 16 participants had their brains scanned before and after the study was complete. A control group that never meditated before also had images of their brains taken. Those who averaged 27 minutes of meditation per day showed a marked improvement from before they meditated. Participants also reported having less stress, which is correlated with having a decrease of grey matter in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. In addition, images showed an increase in grey matter density of the hippocampus which is associated with memory and learning and in other structures associated with self-awareness, kindness and introspection. None of these changes were noted in the control group. This study shows promise for future explorations as research delves deeper into the science behind unconventional, self-care strategies such as meditation.

Mindful muscle

Although meditation may seem inactive, it can help you harness the power of focus in physical activity.

In an interview, Arnold Schwarzenegger practices Transcendental Meditation, which said helped him with his workouts. He described focusing solely on the muscle he is contracting during a set. This focus enhances his physical capability as well as his ability to remain calm and deliberate during his sessions. In his words,

“. . . I could use my workouts as a form of meditation because I concentrate so much on the muscle and I have my mind inside the bicep when I do my curls. I have my mind inside the pectoral muscles when I do my bench press. So, I’m really inside and it’s like I gain a form of meditation because you have no chance of thinking or concentrating on anything else at that time, but just that training that you do. So there (are) many ways of meditation and I benefit from all of those today. I’m much calmer because of that and much more organized and much more tranquil because of that.”

Whether you use meditation in order to apply better focus to your workouts and perform with greater intent or you use your workout as a form of meditation, in the end there are only big gains.

Weight Loss

It takes a lot of effort to monitor how much to eat and exercise in order to change your body. Meditation can offer more ease in the arena of weight loss by helping you become better aligned with your goals and more in tune and connected with your body. Being in tune with your body means you’re more likely to make decisions from a place of intuition and clarity so that your food and activity choices are healthful and beneficial to you.

A meta-study published in The Journal of Behavioural Medicine assessed the results of 13 randomized controlled trials and 6 observational studies. It found that significant weight loss was documented among participants in the mindfulness intervention group in 13 of the 19 (68%) of the studies. Several considerations help explain why mindfulness can help with weight management. As the authors of the meta-study observe:

“The ability to modify behavioural patterns is integral to weight loss, and the process of monitoring diet and activity level to decrease calorie consumption and increase caloric expenditure requires substantial self-regulatory capacity. With increased mindfulness, an individual can alter responses rather than continue habitual behavioural patterns that may be inconsistent with an individual’s goals and needs (e.g., recognizing bodily signals of hunger and fullness to prevent overeating in response to negative emotions or social cues).”

Sleep

People seem to be busier than ever, and this may be taking a toll on our precious slumber. We often unknowingly treat our beds like the psychologist’s proverbial black long-chair; laying there, starring at the ceiling at night thinking about all the things we should have done or could have said or need to do. It can be challenging to get to sleep with such a flustered mind. Fortunately, meditation can help.

A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that mindfulness meditation can assist with sleep related issues including insomnia and fatigue. One half of the study group practiced mindfulness meditation techniques and the other took lessons on how to incorporate better sleeping habits. The mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue and depression than the group taking the sleep education course.

On a physical level, we can change the chemistry in our bodies when we have stress. Stress can increase cortisol levels (the stress hormone) or drain the adrenal glands, making it hard to sleep. Mindfulness meditation can help calm the mind which in turn can help relax the body. The more time we practice being calm in the daytime through meditation, the more likely we will default to a relaxed state when we need it, such as at night before bed.

Conclusion

The word “meditation” may conger images of a sedentary yogi sitting on a mat for hours at a time. But meditation can be done by anyone, anywhere, and there are countless styles you can use to suit your needs. With so many options for medicines and synthetic drugs, many people are seeking simpler, more natural answers to their health questions.

A growing number of studies are recognizing mindfulness meditation as an effective treatment for many ailments including depression and insomnia. Meditation allows us to momentarily shut down our stress responses to help us regain emotional stability, clarity and calmness. Sharpening our focus can help us get in the zone and perform better workouts. Mindfulness can even help us get better sleep and handle our days with pizzazz. All it takes is an intention to start and to set aside 20 minutes a day.

In the next post, I will present a quick guide of the steps I take to meditate.

Namaste!

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