October 2015 archive

Basic Breathing Meditation for Beginners

Pick a space with little distraction. Sit comfortably: back straight and gazed fixed. Breathe.

Starting a breathing meditation is as simple as these three steps similar to this beginner’s guide for meditation. Sometimes, the act of beginning a project is the hardest part, and meditation is no exception. However, the following tips to make meditation a habit and achieve its benefits are helpful for an easy transition into a mindful practice.

Setting

Whether you prefer the great outdoors or your cozy indoor living space, where you meditate is up to you. Three elements to keep in mind when choosing a setting include lighting, cleanliness, and quiet. Depending on whether you thrive in natural sunlight or prefer a dim, candle-lit room, pick somewhere that will provide a calming atmosphere. Additionally, since the goal is to clear your mind, it only makes sense to do so in a space that is also clear of unnecessary clutter. Finally, it is best to choose a setting that will shut out as much noisy distraction as possible. Notice that “as much” is not “all.” It is quite unlikely that one can find a space that will be perfectly silent for the desired time to meditate. If any potentially distracting sounds arise during the meditation, be aware that the sounds are present, then let them be. It is best to experience our surroundings as they are and accept the present state without attaching meaning to whatever goes on around us.

Sitting and posture

The position of your body is crucial to creating a comfortable meditation experience. Typically, meditation is done sitting on the floor or in a chair. You can stretch your legs out, sit cross-legged, or even kneel – whatever will make you feel most comfortable is best. Feel free to use extra cushions, pillows, or blankets, too.

Whichever way you sit, mindful.org recommends sitting stable and erect: ‘straighten–but don’t stiffen–your upper body to the spine’s natural curvature. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.’ Keep your upper arms at your sides and let your hands rest in front of you. Then, lower your chin and fix your gaze on a fixed point just below your direct line of vision. From here, you may choose to keep your eyes closed for the meditation if you wish, though it is not necessary.

Breathing

Breathing is the most important part of the mindful meditation practice, as it “trains your brain to stop jumping around and stay focused in the present.”  Focusing on the in-an-out pattern of the breathe brings our attention to the current moment. Beginning a meditation practice, it is likely that your mind will occasionally wander to thoughts surfacing in your head or create scenarios to pair with sounds. This drifting is completely fine and even expected. The important thing is to acknowledge it, then return to the breathe as an anchor of awareness, or a ‘mental focal point to keep your attention on the physical sensation that accompanies each inhale and exhale.’

Keep breaths long and slow. I find it helpful to count each breath to begin my focus. After some cycles of counting to seven for each inhale and seven for each exhale, my focus becomes steadily fixed on the present, and I begin to enter a comfortable state of mindfulness.

One last tip to consider for beginning this breathing meditation is to fix a short time for the practice. It has been proven that ‘meditating for short times can still catalyze beneficial changes in the brain.’  To start, meditate between two and ten minutes. It is best to set a timer or an alarm so your mind isn’t burdened with an extra distraction, or you don’t get so lost in the meditation that you pass more time than you anticipated! Then, make this short period of meditation a daily activity for a few days. According to Psychology Today, ‘beginner meditators who practiced for 11 days were over 90% likely to continue meditation.’ As you feel more comfortable meditating, gradually lengthen the time of the practice, working your way up to as much time as you can make for mindful meditation during your day.

Choosing a clean, quite setting, sitting comfortably and erect, and focusing on a slow pattern of breath are the basics to beginning a successful breathing meditation. For a short time of your day, over the course of a few days, it is likely you will experience the benefits meditation has to offer. More importantly, you will develop a strong sense of mindfulness and awareness of your present surroundings.

Best of luck beginning the breathing meditation, and look forward to the mindfulness that comes with it!

 

Happiness Comes From Within

Recently the Dalai Lama and author Elisha Goldstein, PhD. shared some wisdom through their respective Twitter accounts.

 

Both figures provide a nice reminder that we are the only ones capable of achieving our own happiness. 

The Dalai Lama points out that there is not a thing — money, designer clothes, five star dinners — that can bring a person true happiness. Goldstein mentions that there is a power inside of us that is more powerful than anything the world can provide to us.

What are things, experiences, other people, and places without our interpretation of them? Nothing. It is ourselves who assign meaning to the things of the world, and sometimes we foolishly convince ourselves that these things are what make us happier and overall better people.

What makes us happier and better people is our own ability to be happy in the present. Being mindful of our current situation and finding the good in it is enough to make us as happy as we can possibly be.

That is not to say it is wrong to indulge in the things of the world. Instead, realize that the things of the world are what create our surroundings, and it is our choice to appreciate how they contribute to the good around us.

Let the Dalai Lama’s and Goldstein’s reminder instill in us the confidence that we are our own sources of happiness. Through our mindfulness, we can realize the good and the happiness that is always found somewhere in our surroundings.

 

The Origin Of The Yoga Mat And Its Purpose Today

If a person says they’re heading off to practice yoga, you may automatically picture him or her wearing tight fitting workout gear with a rolled up yoga mat in tow.

Why? Is the mat required by the yoga instructor? Does it help to achieve poses? Who started using yoga mats anyway?

A brief history of the yoga mat in an article by Collin Hall states that the yoga mat was invented to aid a person’s medical condition and happened to catch on.

He credits yoga instructor Angela Farmer as the first to use a yoga mat in 1968 in London, England.

Earlier in her life, Farmer underwent a medical procedure which disabled her from sweating from her hands and feet. Getting a good grip on the floor, therefore, resulted in some difficulty. In an attempt to solve her problem, she purchased a piece of material from a carpet factory she found while working in Munich, Germany.

The carpet material successfully fixed her issue. Additionally, the students she instructed in London became interested in her new tool. To satisfy the students’ desire for a yoga mat just like their instructor’s, Farmer’s father partnered with the German carpet factory to make more mats. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hall goes on to mention that the grip yoga mats provide average users with can hinder the body’s movement: the relationship between strength and flexibility becomes unbalanced. When hands and feet are placed in a fixed position (strongly reinforced by the yoga mat), there is less movement the body undergoes. This emphasizes the need to be flexible, creating a ‘tendency to wedge oneself into postures.” There is then less of a need to use the body’s strength in order to hold positions.

Yet, the yoga mat, Hall continues, provides a way to show one’s personality. One can choose a solid color or a fun pattern that reflects character. One can make a statement by choosing a mat that was made in an environmentally friendly way. One can choose an expensive brand name yoga mat that markets itself as the best of the best, or the most basic yoga mat that was on sale.

Try practicing yoga without a mat and see for yourself what you prefer.

Having a piece of personality on the floor also builds a personal boundary. One marks their own space, a space that he or she is only allowed to enter. It creates a comfort zone, or it creates a boundary that blocks out others.

Reflecting on my own yoga practice, I can imagine myself not using a mat. I have yet to try it, but I can picture myself feeling liberated from a rectangular space that confines me. I can connect with the floor below me, and focus on my strength rather than my flexibility. However, the mat helps me mark my movements and reminds me to not spread myself out so far while changing my positions. In classes, mostly everyone else uses a yoga mat, and it’s more comfortable to practice on rather than a hard surface.

Reaching a state of mindfulness through yoga can only be done when you feel most comfortable. If you force yourself to take part in an activity that hinders you in anyway, there is no point, for you will be distracted from being mindful.

Try practicing yoga without a mat and see for yourself what you prefer. Mindfully acknowledge your sense of touch as you go about your movements to get the best feel for the method you would like to stick with. Go between the two as many times as you need to discover your partiality.

Whether you choose to always use a mat, never use a mat, or alternate between the two, the choice is ultimately yours. Enjoy the practice of yoga and the mindfulness that follows.

Everyday Single-Tasking

Here is a simple task you can complete in about 30 seconds.

It won’t take much effort, and anyone reading this can participate.

Answer these questions: 1) How many browser tabs do you currently have open? 2) How many of those are you focused on right now?

Currently, I have three open. I am only focused on one. This tab is the one in which I am writing this very blog post. I do not currently need the tab displaying the New York Times article I started to read but never finished. I do not currently need my Twitter feed. Knowing these other tabs are present for me to get distracted by, I am failing to be mindful while writing this post.

Being mindful of the number of browser tabs you have open is number one on Leo Babauta’s tips for single-tasking. His list focuses on single-tasking in front of your screen, whether it be a smart phone, tablet, or computer. The following five tips are suggested to enhance mindfulness in a daily activity in which all people participate.

  • Know why the tab is open: When you enter a website, think about why you are there, and what task you are there to accomplish. Whether messaging a “how are you” to a friend over Facebook or sending some emails, be conscious of the reason you pulled up a website in the first place.
  • Read the whole thing: If I followed Babauta’s tips, that New York Times browser would have been long closed. When you decide to start something, finish it. Do not let distract win in the middle of a reading on the decline of soda sales in the past two decades.
  • One app at a time: The same idea for browser tabs applies to apps. Stay focused on completing the task in one app before moving to another task in a different app.
  • Be mindful of interruptions and switching: Getting distracted online these days is inevitable, if not expected. Whether you are distracted by a notification on a different tab or a person standing next to you, be aware of the situation. Before you divert your attention away from the app or browser you are currently focused on, realize why you are turning away from it. Then, return your focus to get the original task done.
  • Mindfully put away the device: When you are not staring at a screen in front of you, be mindful of that. Recognize the amount of time you will have away from a device, and immerse yourself in the non-technological activity, whatever it may be.

Babauta makes an important statement about the tips at the end of his post: “I will fail at them often.” Babauta is aware that he is not always perfectly mindful. He knows he will let distraction get the best of him, and he knows he will fall into the habit of mulit-tasking. What is important, though, is his effort to be mindful. An important key to reaching mindfulness is practice. Not every practice attempt will be flawless, even in a small, everyday effort such as this, which is why it is crucial to frequently try to achieve mindfulness. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Happy meditating!

Benefits for the Brain

After you meditate, your state of mindfulness will result in a feeling of calm and relaxation of thoughts.

Why?

According to neuroscience Richie Davidson, the brain is always capable of changing throughout its lifetime. In scientific studies such as this one, it has been proven that mindful meditation “is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” In other words, mindful meditation affects the parts of our brains that translate to wellness.

Jennifer Wolkin, Ph D., for mindful.org explains a few examples of where the brain changes after mindful meditation and those parts’ responsibilities related to wellness.

Below, I further break down the certain parts of the brain affected based on Wolkin’s article:

  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Self-regulatory process. Deals with handling conflicts
  • Prefrontal Cortex: Executive functioning. Decisions in planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation
  • Hippocampus: Part of limbic system involved in learning and memory. Susceptible to stress related disorders like depression
  • Amygdala: Base of anxiousness and fear
  • Connections between Amygdala and pre-frontal cortex: Can potentially strengthen awareness
  • Default Mode Network (DMN): The wandering of thoughts in our minds

Mindful meditation can improve the functionings of these parts of the brain. Entering a state of mindfulness can calm our emotions in stressful times to make rational decisions, calm anxious feelings, and ease wild thoughts. More importantly, with the brain’s constant ability to change, it is possible to make habits of mindfulness. Mindful habits can result in a more stable state of each mentioned part of the brain.

Some affects will be felt immediately after entering a state of mindfulness, and with frequent practice, may be present often. Science has proven the positive affects of mindfulness on the brain; why not give mindful meditation a shot?

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