The ancient practice of meditation is gaining popularity as a tool to relax and unwind.
On a cold night 15 years ago, I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, got up to make a cup of tea, laid down, and stared at the ceiling. Desperate, I put on my headphones, grabbed my iPod, and located a meditation album someone suggested I try. I played the track titled “Deep Sleep” and was hooked. The meditation worked, and before I realized, it was the next day. This was my first real experience with meditation.
Fast forward to 2019, where I was leading a guided meditation in front of staff members from Northwestern University. I began with simple instructions: Take a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly. There was an atmosphere of relief and peace in the room replacing the hurried angst of only 20 minutes earlier.
What happened during that 15-year time span? Once I learned of the many gifts of meditation, I was not willing to let them go. Meditation, a practice to create intentional focus and awareness in one’s life, dates back to 5,000 B.C. According to a report from Psychology Today, archaeologists discovered evidence of meditation in cave art in the Indus Valley—drawings of figures sitting in what we would consider typical meditation postures: crossed legs and peaceful faces. Meditation can be practiced at any time, in any position.
Personally, meditation is a gift to help me get out of my head and back into my body. A 2011 study from Yale University found that meditation reduces activity in the default mode network—the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. This is the part of my mind that loves to wander into overthinking and anxiety. When I take the time to meditate, I am training my brain to move out of this anxious mental state and into a more peaceful one.
In a recent study conducted by Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok, researchers tested the cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) levels of 30 medical students ranging in age from 19 to 55 before and after a four-day mindfulness meditation program. Cortisol levels lowered in every participant. Their conclusion? “Mindfulness meditation lowers the cortisol levels in the blood suggesting that it can lower stress and may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress,” the study states. Additional benefits of meditation include greater stress management and immune function and decreased pain, inflammation, and depression. The bottom line? Meditation can change your brain, your body, and your world.
Despite the many benefits, one can still find it challenging to delve into a meditation practice.
Some believe significant changes only occur after 15 minutes, but I disagree. The essential components are breath and intentional focus. The effects of meditation are available to you regardless of how you practice. However you choose to begin your meditation practice, simply start. You deserve to feel the benefits and the gifts. You deserve to feel good.
- Place one hand on your stomach and focus on the rise and fall of your belly while you breathe for one full minute.
- Listen to a piece of music that you love and commit to hearing all the words or nuances of sound.
- Take a walk outside and mindfully watch each of your steps touch the ground before the lift of your next step.
- Breathe deeply and count backwards from 16 to one. Slowly.