The Power of Meditation

You exercise your body, but what about your mind? Check out the range of benefits meditating can have on your body and your brain.

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Your body is a temple and you treat it as such — fueling it with nutrition, keeping it strong and agile with exercise, and nurturing it with rest and serenity when it’s time to recharge. But what are you doing to reduce stress, enhance focus, or deal with emotional issues like depression and pain? Meditation can do that and more.

“Many people think meditation is a practice used solely to still the mind,” says Joey Klein, martial arts champion, personal development expert and author of The Inner Matrix: A Guide to Transforming Your Life and Awakening Your Spirit (Balboa Press, 2014). “A better way to think of it is as exercise for the mind, body, emotions and nervous system. My philosophy of meditation is more akin to the way I think of diet and exercise — it’s a training system to optimize mind, emotion and body.”

Many Meditation Methods

Just as not all CrossFit or yoga classes are the same, not all meditation practices are equal. In fact, there are many types of meditation that offer different benefits. The key is to pick the form of meditation that creates the results you seek.

Some forms can significantly decrease stress and anxiety, while others help create emotional stability. “There are meditation practices that are great for moving from a fear-based emotional state to a love-based state like love, joy or compassion, anchoring love-based experiences so they are more prevalent in your day-to-day life,” Klein says. “Other meditation practices have been shown to have a physical, epigenetic benefit by turning on the genes for disease prevention and turning off the genes for disease causation. Some meditation practices have even been shown to reduce symptoms of breathing disorders such as asthma and shortness of breath.

“There are also benefits that almost all forms of meditation share. Primary are the neurological effects on the brain: Meditation transforms how the brain works, activating the prefrontal cortex and reducing the size of the part of the brain responsible for activating fear-based emotions.”

Meditation can be categorized in five ways: mindfulness, mantra, breathing, awareness and moving meditation. Mindfulness meditation techniques are used to train the mind and emotion to work on your behalf. Mantra meditation — in which you recite a phrase over and over to help still and focus the mind — also can be effective in activating or inducing higher states of experience such as a deep sense of peace or relaxation.

There are a family of breathing techniques that can produce shifts in the body, oxygenate the system, and diminish or eliminate disorders tied to stress and anxiety. Awareness meditation is a form of meditation in which a practitioner will engage in different mental focus techniques or other strategies designed to create greater personal awareness — how their mind works, what they are feeling in their emotions, or awareness of how they are reacting and responding to the world. Moving meditation techniques include practices such as qigong and tai chi in which you combine movement and breathing in a specific way to train the nervous system, relax the body and induce a state of well-being.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re new to meditation, a great way to get started is to sit on a cushion cross-legged or in a chair, remove all distractions and focus on the breath. Begin by sitting down, closing your eyes and relaxing your body from your head to your toes. Inhale through your nose for four seconds. Pause gently at the top of the inhale. Exhale through your nose for four seconds. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhale. If your mind becomes distracted (and it will!), gently bring the focus back to the breath. Then repeat this breath pattern for five minutes (working your way to 20 minutes over time).

Once this becomes easier, you also can take your meditation off the cushion and into your day-to-day life. For example, you can do a quick few rounds of the four-sided breath to center yourself before an important meeting or athletic competition. Parents can use breathing practices to stay centered during challenging moments with their kids.

“Think of a meditation practice as though you were going to start an eating plan or exercise regimen,” Klein says. “Consistency is key, but if you miss a session, just pick it back up without being hard on yourself. If you do it at the same time and in the same place every day, the nervous system actually activates in anticipation and facilitates a deeper mediation. Similarly, if you go to the gym on a consistent basis, your body and mind prepares themselves in response to being in the gym.”