Mind Over Matter
When you think of the word meditation, do you conjure up images of relaxed yogis, sitting on the floor, chanting? If you think of meditation simply as a form of relaxation, you might be thinking: "I don't have time for relaxation," or "I'd rather de-stress with a workout, sex or a few glasses of whiskey." Think again.
True meditation has body and brain boosting benefits beyond just chilling out. In fact, meditating—even just for just a few minutes—not only clears your mind, it improves your memory, mood, sleep and athletic ability. And while the discipline comes in many different forms and styles, the basic form is known as mindful meditation. Explained simply, it is a focused concentration on the present. For example, sitting in a chair, eyes closed, focused on nothing but your breathing, and the feeling of the air coming in and out of your lungs. It's simple to describe but surprisingly tough to do.
You see, the human mind is programmed to plan, to worry and reflect on the past. When thoughts start entering your head, as they inevitably will, don't follow them. Recognize the distraction and then refocus back to the breath streaming in and out of your nose. The long-term goal is to become less tethered to the ego and its constant cravings for attention, novelties and vices like sex and whiskey. You don't need incense or an outfit from Lululemon. Just an open mind.
In a University of Wisconsin study (PDF), researcher Richard Davidson found that regular meditation leads to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention. A meditator's ability to release thoughts that pop into one's mind, frees the brain to focus more intently on the matter at hand, learning new things and staying alert. The key here is consistency. Establish a daily meditation for 10 to 15 minutes each morning. Find a relatively quiet place to sit and focus your mind on the point of contact where your body is touching the chair (or floor). Breathe slow, deep breaths through your nose. While still aware of that sensation of contact, concentrate on a single sound, like the traffic outside or the hum of an air conditioner.
"Athlete meditation research has proven that training the mind nearly always helps in training the body by allowing energy to flow more freely through the mind and body," states a report by Project Meditation. Phil Jackson had sports psychologist George Mumford teach the Chicago Bulls meditation during the Jordan years. According to Mumford, meditation leads to "a relaxed concentration and this sense of effortlessness—of being in the flow." And that flow results in a clearheadedness that comes with the added benefits of controlled breathing, greater endurance and alertness. Which means that you'll be able to accomplish more and yeild better benefits whether you're lifting weights, running or building your core.
The Mind Fitness Training Institute developed a program with the University of Miami to study the effects of meditation on the US Marines. They found that those who mediated before bed scored better on mood evaluations and reported relief from anxiety and better sleep. Lying down in bed, curl your toes and flex your feet. Concentrate on the feeling in those muscles and joints. Continue up your leg, rotating your feet at the ankles, stretching your calves, all the while focused only on those particular sensations. Wiggle your fingers and wrists, press your shoulders back, and then stretch and rotate your neck. Keep your concentration on the body and within 15 minutes, you'll be asleep.
The Insight Timer app for iOS devices allows you to customize your meditation time, start and end with traditional bell sounds, track your progress and keep notes or journal thoughts.
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