I have struggled with meditation. Stilling my mind as a regular part of my health and wellness practice has been a challenge. And I am not alone in my tendency to cringe at the thought of meditation. Many otherwise healthy individuals simply cannot fathom the idea of sitting quietly in deep contemplation. We are nutritionally conscience, we exercise, and we may even use alternative remedies. But the thought of meditation brings feelings of resistance. We need to ask ourselves, “What are we afraid of?”
Historically, meditation has been mainly associated with religion and spirituality. Over the past few decades, however, this self-directed practice has started to be used as a tool to help decrease stress and improve health and wellness. While there are many different approaches to meditation, they all have the common objective of stilling the restlessness of the mind so that the focus can be directed inward.1 Both traditional and complementary and alternative medical practitioners alike are touting its benefits for relaxing and soothing the mind, body, and spirit.
This support has encouraged the public to be more open and accepting of meditation practice, which has significantly increased in the United States. In fact, according to a 2007 national government survey, 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months.2 It’s no wonder, really. We are a nation under stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2011 Stress in America Survey, 39 percent of sampled adults said their stress had increased over the past year and 44 percent said that their stress had increased over the past 5 years.3 Research has shown that stress not only affects the physical body (e.g., chest pain, fatigue, sleeping disorders), but the mind (e.g., restlessness, anger, anxiety) and behavior (e.g., overeating, drug or alcohol abuse) as well.4
Addressing stress and the many issues that result from it is only the start of the benefits that meditation has to offer, however. Some research has also shown that meditation may ease depression, allergies, asthma, cancer, high blood pressure, and pain.4 It is clear that overcoming your resistance to meditation and starting a regular practice may result in greater overall health and wellness.
Meditation works by helping us to cultivate awareness by focusing on the present moment. This is not easy, as our fast-paced world values productivity even to the point of exhaustion. It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for increasing heartbeat, breathing, and restricting blood flow when under stress), and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (which decreases the heart and breathing rate, and increases digestive juices).6
As Claudia Cummins, a frequent contributor to Yoga Journal states, “While meditation may be simple, it is certainly not easy.”7 It is also not something to be afraid of. Below you will find some tips to help you get your own meditation practice started.
1. Where and When? The easiest way to get started with your own meditation practice is to first determine a time and place where it will take place in order to establish consistency. Choose a spot where you will be undisturbed, and a time of day that works best for your schedule. Start with a manageable amount of time, even 30 seconds, and then slowly increase the time spent in meditation.
2. Be comfortable. While the image of a yogi sitting in lotus position might pop up in your head when you think of meditation, it is just one of many positions that you may choose. Find a comfortable posture. This could be sitting on the floor, in a chair, lying down, or even walking. Whatever position you choose, be sure to lengthen through the spine to maintain good posture, and rest your hands comfortably on your thighs or by your sides.
3. Focus. This can be the hardest aspect of meditation. Start simple. You can use one of the techniques below, or make up your own. Try sticking to your focus for the duration of your practice. If it doesn’t work for you, try something different. No judgment.
There are numerous ways to practice. Sound, imagery, gazing, breathing, and even physical sensation can be useful tools for meditation. Longtime instructor and author Mara Carrico8 suggests the following exercises to get you on your way:
Sound: Create your own mantra, silently or audibly repeating a word or phrase that is calming to you, such as "peace," "love," or "joy."
Affirmations: Say or think , "I am relaxed" or "I am calm and alert" as you breathe out. Using a CD of chants or listening to a relaxing piece of music are also options.
Imagery: Visualize your favorite spot in nature with your eyes closed, or gaze upon an object placed in front of you: a lit candle, a flower, or a picture of your favorite deity.
Breathe: One way to observe the breath is to count it. Breathe in for 3 to 7 counts and breathe out for the same length of time. Then shift to simply observing the breath, noticing its own natural rhythm and its movement in your torso.
Once you feel comfortable meditating, you can begin to experiment with the many forms that it might take: loving kindness meditations, Vipassana, Transcendental, Vendantic —the possibilities are limitless. There are many great resources out there to guide you. Check out Kaplan University’s Center for Health and Wellness resource page at www.healthandwellness.kaplan.edu/about.html for more details.
Stilling the mind enough to just be in the moment can be deeply joyful, as we see the interconnectedness of everything. Still the resistance, fight the fear. Take the time to nourish your mind, body, and spirit and reap the vast benefits that meditation has to offer.
Kristin Henningsen, M.S., R.Y.T.
Kristin Henningsen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition. Ms. Henningsen has deep roots in the fields of ethnobotanyand herbal medicine. After receiving both her Bachelor of Science in Botany and Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Henningsen went on to complete her Master of Science in Biology at Northern Arizona University where she studied the medicinal plants of the area, focusing on their traditional uses by the 13 Native American tribes in the region. She has also worked as a research assistant with the nonprofit organization the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, completing a field guide to the native plants of Arizona amongst other projects.
Ms. Henningsen has extended this work into the field of complementary and alternative medicine. She is a certified and practicing consulting herbalist, and is the proprietor of an herbal health and healing company. She has been researching, using, and teaching about medicinal plants for more than 10 years. Ms. Henningsen is also a certified yoga instructor and utilizes yoga therapy as an alternative healing technique.