Since antiquity, the great sages and spiritual teachers have encouraged us, in some way or another, to practice meditation for peace and relaxation. A few decades of scientific evidence later, and we now know that they were definitely on to something. Let's take a look at the mind-body benefits of meditation and dive into a few mindful, practical exercises that will help you relax.
The science behind meditation.
Your brain is a powerful thing. Powerful enough, in fact, to affect your physical and mental well-being. As you learn to control your mind through high-stress times, instead of letting it control you, you gain the ability to positively affect your health on many levels.
Maybe your stress response is activated when you're facing a work deadline, sitting in traffic, or suffering through a restless night. Regardless, when you are faced with an actual or perceived threat, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system, or fight-or-flight response, giving you the instant extra energy needed to address it. One way in which it does this is by releasing natural stress hormones like cortisol into your bloodstream. But this comes at a cost: Prolonged exposure to cortisol is detrimental to your mental and physical health, and it can lead to everything from weight gain to depression.
Studies show that deep breathing and practicing meditation actually turns on your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for lowering your heart rate and relaxing certain muscles in the body. Meditation encourages your body to stop releasing cortisol hormones. Here are some more whole-body benefits of the practice:
- Reducing stress
- Improving focus
- Boosting working memory
- Less emotional reactivity
- Reducing rumination
- Lower heart rate
- Improved immune response
- Reduced pain
- Slowing of the aging process
- Improved sleep
What you need to practice meditation.
Convinced to give meditation a go the next time you're feeling stressed? Awesome. The beauty of the practice is that you can meditate anytime, anywhere, and you don't need much to get started. Here are a few resources to help you make meditation second nature:
One of the best ways to learn is to surround yourself with other people who are more experienced. Group classes allow you to share your experience, get feedback, ask questions, and overcome pitfalls standing in your way. These days, group classes are popping up across the country, and not just in big cities like New York and Los Angeles. Try a Google search for meditations around you; you'll probably be pleasantly surprised!
Meditation apps can be another great tool for honing a steady practice. Apps are helpful because they provide step-by-step guidance, and they can grow with you as you become more comfortable and confident with the process. Plus, you can access them whenever, wherever you need. I really love EvenFlow, but Headspace, Calm, and Insight are great options too.
How it's done.
So, how do you relax using meditation? Here are two simple practices you can use to Zen out. The first one is a more formal practice, while the second can be done on the go.
Seated meditation practice.
To start, find a quiet, comfortable place where you know you will not be distracted. Turn your phone off and perhaps set a timer so you can let go of needing to manage your time.
You can lie on your back or sit in a chair; just make sure your back is straight.
Bring your attention to your breath at your belly. Notice the sensation of breathing. Notice how your belly and lower back move and flow with your breathing. Keep your attention on the sensations of your breath as you experience them in your body from moment to moment. It’s normal for the mind to wander. Each time your mind wanders to a thought, a to-do list, or anything else, gently and slowly bring your attention back to noticing the present moment sensations of your breath. In a way, it’s like slowly and patiently teaching a pet a new trick. Over time, and with practice, it gets easier to keep your attention on your breath for longer periods of time.
If you are a beginner, don't worry about the length of time you practice. You could start out with a few minutes and then over time increase the length to 10 or 20 minutes. Consistency is most important when starting a new habit. Most people struggle with developing a practice because they can’t find the time to do it. It may seem strange that 10 minutes would be too much time, but in reality we all have busy lives, and the most effective way to make sure you take the time to practice is to schedule the time in your daily calendar.
Mindful breathing exercise.
Anytime during your day that you feel stressed or want to relax, bring your attention to your breath. Take a moment to notice the rhythm and pace of your breathing. Whether you breath feels short and tight or long and deep, just notice and give permission for it to be exactly as it is. Your job is to bring awareness to your breathing as it is. Then, after a few moments, gradually and gently slow the pace and the depth of your breath. Continue this, without forcing the process, until your breath feels long and deep in your belly. Do this for at least one minute.
When you gently encourage your breath to deepen, it sends signals to your mind and body to relax. The beauty of this simple mindful practice is you can do it even with your eyes open anytime and anywhere, whether you are in the middle of a conversation or in the car on the way home from work.
Hopefully you are now feeling a bit more confident getting started. Along the way, be patient with yourself and remember that meditation is a practice. It is a skill you continue to develop over time.
Looking for a deeper dive into the world of meditating for relaxation? Check out mbg's course with master meditator Light Watkins on meditation for anxiety and stress relief.