Student Perspective: Truth Doesn’t Always Hurt

I was watching one of my favorite films, Love Actually, and I was struck by one of the lines in the opening scene: “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love.”

I wondered: If I were in that situation, what would I say?

Then: Why wait?

The second Yama is satya, or truthfulness. The truth doesn’t always hurt. Sometimes we forget to tell our friends or loved ones how much we appreciate them. It’s too easy to let “thank you” or “I love you” become a habitual statement.

This led me to think about mindfulness, and how yoga cultivates it. In class, the world becomes smaller and more focused: the mat under your foot, the sweat trickling down your face, the breath expanding your lungs. Being present in day-to-day life makes it easier to appreciate the simple joys of another person’s company. Sincerely expressing this is another way of bringing your yoga practice off the mat.

Here’s a little more food for thought. If you were on the receiving end of that phone call, what would you want to hear? That you have an impressive bank account, and that you have a lot of nice stuff? Or do you want to hear that you’ve made a difference in your lifetime – that you matter – that you’re strong and loved?

If you haven’t said that to yourself… why wait? And if you want to change what you might hear, what’s stopping you?

I know what I’ll be hearing pretty soon if I’m not off the computer. “Um… honey? Is everything okay?” It’s time for me to go tell my patient, amused husband how much I appreciate his tolerance for a writer’s quirks and frequent use of the pause button.

~Nikki~

Meditation and your brain

Mindful meditation benefits your mood, memory, and health. You don’t have to take our word for it – numerous studies in the past few years actually measured the changes in the brain. Studies have also compared the effect of mindfulness meditation on memory and mood to basic relaxation or nonmeditating groups.

There is a measurable, scientific explanation for why meditation and mindfulness become effortless over time (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 201). The brain actually changes physically as it learns from experience – it’s called neuroplasticity. Individuals who practice mindfulness meditation consistently show thicker brain regions involving attention, sensory processing, and  sensitivity to internal stimuli, as well as thicker brain stems, which may contribute to the mental, emotional, and immune system benefits (p. 201).

People who practice mindfulness meditation are less reactive to stress. It’s called emotional regulation. Imagine that someone says something sarcastic and insulting to you. There is a split second when your brain processes what they just said and judges whether it was harmful or not – your emotions, or feelings, react to that process. If you judge it as harmful, your adrenal system kicks in, because it doesn’t know the difference between an insult and a physical threat. If your system is consistently flooded with adrenaline that it doesn’t use, then you become very “stressed out.” People with strong emotional regulation have a strong awareness of that processing, judge fewer actions as harmful, and experience less stress reaction.

In another study, the researchers had found that meditation practice reduced the concentration of gray matter (processing neurons) in the amygdala, a region associated with fear, anxiety, and stress—and that this reduction was correlated with lower stress levels (Harvard 2011 17). When compared to other forms of meditation, like mantra meditation, the mindfulness meditators had more stimulation on brain areas associated with self-observation and attention (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 199).

Do you ever feel like you can’t stop picking things apart, and like you just can’t shake a bad mood? Mindfulness meditation also strengthens the middle prefrontal lobe functions like self-insight and fear modulation (p. 201). Evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation reduces rumination, or thinking about negative experiences over and over. Self-observation actually shuts off the automatic pathways that neurons are trained to travel by negativity – meditation trains your neurons to travel on different paths. Brain regions that respond to provocation actually return to baseline faster in meditators (p. 201).

Think about that for a second. By practicing mindfulness meditation, you could actually have better control of your emotions, better control of your reactions, and feel less stress or fear. You can change your brain.

Yet another study showed that individuals who began mindfulness meditation had less cortisol in their systems – cortisol is the stress hormone that inspires tension and hunger.  In cancer patients who did mindfulness meditation, cytokine and “natural killer cell activities” returned towards normal levels. In healthy individuals, meditation resulted in increased antibodies that fight influenza, as well as lowering the stress-incuded interleukin-626 and C-reactive protein (Young 2011, p. 76).

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester used an MRI to study the effect of mindfulness meditation on the brain. In the group who conducted 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, there was more gray matter “around the hippocampus (a deep brain structure important for learning, memory, and the regulation of emotions) and other regions associated with remembering the past and imagining the future, as well as with introspection, empathy, and the ability to acknowledge the viewpoints of others” (Harvard 2011, p. 17). The control
group didn’t have increases in grey matter.

Researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC studied 88 students over 12 weeks. They split the students into 3 groups. One group was trained in mindfulness meditation. The second group did “sham” meditation: they did some breathing and relaxation, but no actual meditation. The third group just stayed in a room together; they weren’t allowed to sleep or do homework, but they were able to chat quietly or move around the room. All three groups were told they were meditating (Zeidan 2010, p. 871).

The meditation group experienced an 88% drop in negative mood. The sham group experienced a 32% drop, and the control group 34%. The mindfulness meditation and sham meditation both experienced less tension, but mindfulness was more effective. An unexpected benefit was that mindfulness meditation alone reduced depression. (p. 871).

Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affects working memory, which is is the ability to hold and use information in the mind for complex tasks like learning and reasoning. During a very stressful predeployment period, they trained a military group and a civilian group in mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks. They also studied a nonmeditating military group during that time. The military group who didn’t meditate showed a decrease in working memory, and the civilian group was stable. The meditating military group actually showed increased working memory – and the more the individuals meditated, the more in increased. The meditating military group also had better moods and less negative feelings during the stressful time (Davis & Hayes 2011, p. 200).

Believe it or not, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The brain is something we’re only beginnning to understand.  It’s pretty clear, though, that meditation isn’t a bunch of self-help hogwash. Meditation is a time-honored tradition that has only gotten better with age. If you practice mindfulness meditation over time, you can change your brain and have better control of your emotions.

References:

Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198-208.

Mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain. (2011). Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 18(8), 6-7.

Young, S. N. (2011). Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 36(2), 75-77.

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Gordon, N. S., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Effects of Brief and Sham Mindfulness Meditation on Mood and Cardiovascular Variables. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 16(8), 867-873.

Eight Limbs of Yoga: Eighth Limb, Samadhi

The eighth limb of yoga is often called the final step, but
that implies that yoga has an endpoint like a game of checkers. Neither samadhi—nor
any other limb—is merely a box to check off. Every step is important, and
judging one limb as more important than another detracts from the journey.
Samadhi is also not a constant state – it ebbs and flows.

Samadhi is beyond meditation. The body is at rest but the
consciousness is aware. It is a state of merged consciousness –
interconnectedness and union with all living things. It is peace beyond the
illusion of separation. Rather than think of a candle snuffed out, think of a
drop of rain falling into the ocean. Does the rain drop fear the loss of
identity? It falls into the ocean and becomes part of it. Then, water molecules
rise as water vapor, form clouds, and become rain. Samadhi is a state of
enlightenment and union. Though one may experience samadhi and return to
day-to-day activities, the mind and life are transformed.  You cannot experience such a profound
connection and still perceive everything the way you did before.

Striving for enlightenment, unity, and compassion is central
to the path of yoga. Wherever you are on your journey, do not discount your
progress! Stumbling blocks are part of the process. Part of achieving the
insight of oneness is recognizing that all steps of your journey are, indeed,
one – and your journey is one with others’ journeys. Every limb has its beauty.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is also called Vipassana, which means “to see things clearly.” Depression is anguish about the past, and anxiety is anguish about the future.  Mindfulness Meditation extinguishes these feelings by focusing the mind on the present. Though this type of meditation has roots in Buddhism, it is not necessarily a religious practice. Scientists, doctors, and therapists around the world recognize its benefit for clearing the mind of negativity and restoring harmony to the body.

1.  Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Lotus, half-lotus, or sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground is fine. As you practice, you will be able to remains still longer.

 2. Bring your awareness inward. Focus on your breath. Allow your belly to rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. You can watch your belly if you want. The belly houses what is described as the “hara center,” or point of consciousness. Do you know how sometimes you feel something in your gut, or go with your gut instinct? Whether you believe in the subtle body or not, you can still benefit from belly watching. Bringing your attention to your stomach will bring you away from negative thoughts in your mind.

 3. Continue to focus on your breath. You can focus on your belly and its harmony with the breath, how long your breath lasts, the sensation of air in your nostrils, and the sensation of air in your windpipe. Just focus on what is happening right now. Watch the entire breath, as it progresses from your nose to your windpipe, to your lungs, and then back out. You will soon notice a “still point” or gap at the end of each inhalation or exhalation, when there is no breath moving. Your mind is calmest at these points.  Make sure you’re breathing naturally, and not manipulating or changing your breath patterns!

 4. If your mind wanders, simply notice it without judgment and return your attention to your belly. If you judge or work to suppress your thoughts, they will just get stronger. Instead of passing judgment about something that has already happened, return your attention to the present.

 5. When you are ready to conclude your meditation, sit quietly for a moment or two. Continue to observe your breath. Observe the room, and where you are. Notice your feelings, and notice whether you feel different than you did before.

 

 If you observe this practice for 15-20 minutes a day, you will have a calmer and more peaceful mind. You will rid yourself of depression and anxiety, which will make it easier for you to be mindful about the present. This will help you to handle stress or adversity better, because you will see things as they truly are.

 

Eight Limbs of Yoga: Seventh Limb, Dhyana

The sixth limb, dharana, is about training the mind to be calm and focused. Dhyana, the seventh limb, is a state of unbroken concentration in stillness. Different authors describe it as contemplation, meditation, focus, or devotion. It’s a combination of all of them. Because in dhyana, the mind is still with few thoughts, it isn’t a concept we can harness or define with one word.

 Dhanya is a state of quiet-mind, of being aware without focus – yet also contemplation with the goal of separating illusion from reality and of knowing truth. This may seem contradictory, but sometimes the most important truths blossom organically when you just give them time. Think about any sort of relationships in your life – work, friendship, family, love. The truth, for better or worse, always comes out in time.  Dhyana is a state of stillness that allows illusions to fall away from the mind. You may even forget that you’re meditating, but you’ll be aware of being. As Corey says: just be.

 Dhyana is frequently tied to worship or devotion – but you don’t need one specific religion to practice it. Because it is so profound, dhyana will deepen your connection with faith or spirituality. For many people, it’s a way of contemplating the Divine. Atheists and agnostics are not excluded! If anything inspires a sense of wonder and awe – the complexity of the universe, the strength of the human spirit, the elegant principles of math and geometry – then it is a connection to something greater than yourself.

Breathing Meditation

Breathing Meditation is a simple yet effective way of experiencing meditation. You don’t need special music or equipment—just your breath. You always have it with you.

There are several benefits to breathing meditation. You learn to let go of distractions, which will make it easier for you to let go of negative thought-patterns in day-to-day life. Full, deep breaths will increase your body’s oxygen supply, which will give you more energy. It is impossible to be anxious and calm at the same time, so by putting the body into a calm state, you will put your mind into a calm state as well.
How to do Breathing Meditation

Find a quiet place without distraction. Make sure your phone is turned off or in another room.

  1. Get comfortable. You can sit in lotus or half-lotus, sit in a chair with your feet on the ground, or lie in savasana if you won’t fall asleep. Make sure that your spine is straight and you’re not restricting blood supply to any limbs.
  2. Close your eyes. Take long, slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the nose.  
  3. Bring your attention to your breath. You can focus on the rise and fall of your stomach and chest, imagine your lungs filling with fresh air and then expelling old stress, or imagine breathing in blue and exhaling pink or red.
  4. If other thoughts intrude, or if your mind wanders, gently return your focus to your breath.
  5. Repeat this for about 10-15 minutes. Just those few minutes a day can be a major benefit in your mind and life.

 

It’s very jarring to startle yourself out of meditation with an alarm. There are a few methods of gently bringing yourself back to day-to-day life.

 
The Gabriel Method 

  1. Cover your closed eyes with your hands, palms on your cheeks, fingers in front of your eyes, all fingers together.
  2. Open your eyes and look at the tiny slivers of light coming in between your fingers.
  3. Open your fingers slightly. Let your eyes adjust to the light. 
  4. Open your fingers a little more. Let your eyes adjust to the light.
  5. Open your fingers as wide as you can. Let your eyes adjust to the light.
  6. Bring your hands away from your face.

 

The Counting Method

  1. Tell yourself silently that as you count to five, you will gradually wake up. At the count of five, you’ll be relaxed and refreshed, feeling better than before.
  2. Count slowly from one to five. You can add a few words like “waking up” or “feeling good” between numbers.
  3. When you reach five, your eyes will open automatically.

  

Once you’ve practiced breathing meditation for a while, you’ll be able to reduce stress in everyday situations by just bringing attention to your breath.

 

Meditation and its Benefits

Meditation is simpler than you might think.  In June, 2007 the United States National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) published an independent, peer-reviewed study about meditation that found over 20 million people in the United States meditate.  More and more hospitals are involving meditation to help reduce stress-related complications in terminal and chronic illnesses.

In fact, up to 90% of illnesses are caused or exacerbated by stress, including and especially heart disease, diabetes, and the common cold.
Meditating for 10-15 minutes a day has many benefits, including:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced cholesterol
  • Reduced level of cortisol (stress hormone) present in the body
  • Increased oxygen flow to the lungs
  • Increased alertness
  • Reduces depression and anxiety
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Enhanced memory
  • Stronger immune system
  • Better and deeper sleep
  • Better weight control
  • Increased calm in facing day-to-day or major stressors

 Not only is meditation always available to you, it’s also free! We’ll be exploring several different meditation techniques on this blog.

If you’d like to experience raising vibrations together or guided meditation, come to TriBalance on Tuesday or Thursday evenings at 9:30 PM, or Wednesday evenings for open meditation at 10:00 PM.

 

 

 

 

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