February Health Challenge: Meditate Every Day

Every one of us already has the seed of mindfulness. The practice is to cultivate it. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Introduction

If you joined me for my January Health Challenge to drink enough water, I hope that you noticed some great physical and mental benefits to staying optimally hydrated! Perhaps even enough benefits to inspire you to keep going! For the short and sweet month of February, our health challenge will be to meditate every day, in an effort to cultivate more mindfulness in our lives. It's a chilly month across much of the continent, and a great time to turn inward and cultivate a daily meditation practice. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, physician and proponent of mindfulness meditation, in Coming to Our Senses explains, "There is nothing weird or out of the ordinary about meditating or meditation. It is just about paying attention in your life as if it really mattered. And it might help to keep in mind that, while it is really nothing out of the ordinary, nothing particularly special, mindfulness is at the same time extraordinarily special and utterly transformative in ways that are impossible to imagine [...]" 

Benefits of Meditation

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One of the huge benefits of meditation is to help us learn to re-connect with our attention to live a more mindful life. This means paying attention, moment-to-moment, to our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. It is being non-reactive and non-judgmental. It is being in direct contact with our experience, instead of getting caught up in our thoughts about it. It can help us better handle the ups and downs in our lives, and lower stress. Mindfulness is learning to let go of our desire to rigidly control every aspect of our external situations; it's learning to let it be. There will always be ups and downs that are out of our control, and mindfulness helps us to avoid being sent spinning out of control by them. 

There is increasing research on the health benefits of meditation. Research that looked at brain MRIs before and after an 8 week, 30-minutes a day, mindfulness meditation intervention showed increased gray matter in the brain, in areas associated with emotional regulation, perspective, learning and memory. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce body dissatisfaction in adult women, improve attention, reduce emotional eatingimprove satisfaction in romantic relationshipsreduce anxiety and improve ability to handle stress

Beyond the emotional and mental benefits, there are also physical benefits, including reduced risk for heart attack, lowered blood pressure and reduced pain perception. Mindfulness based interventions could also be helpful for people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and other functional gastrointestinal disorders. There is even research showing alterations in immune function from a regular meditation practice, as well as a lowered inflammatory response, which is huge, considering the role of inflammation in so much chronic disease.

Meditation Resources

There is no "one size fits all" with meditation. Here are a few resources that some of my colleagues and patients have found to be helpful in developing/guiding their meditation practice.

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  • UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center offers free guided mindfulness mediations in English and Spanish
  • Fragrant Heart has free online meditations under various categories
  • Tara Branch offers free meditations, with a new meditation added every week
  • The Chopra Center offers free guided meditations, including a free 21-day guided meditation experience
  • Smart phone apps:
    • Calm 
    • Headspace
    • Insight timer
    • Meditation Oasis
    • Mindfulness Daily 
    • Sattva

Of course, you do not need a guided meditation or an app to meditate; these are just resources that are helpful for some people - but we are all different and perhaps they are not for you! Even simply following your breath, the rise and fall of your belly, chanting a mantra, doing a walking meditation or sitting and focusing on a candle flame are some of the many other options. My suggestion to you would be to try a few different methods to find what works well for you.

My personal 28-day meditation plan

My personal plan this month will be to mediate for 15 minutes a day, every day. I have cleared out space in my house to serve as my "meditation nook". I have personally tried different techniques, apps and guided meditations, as well as been to a couple of silent meditation retreats (a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Washington State and a 5-day Theravada Buddhist meditation retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand). I love these meditation retreats, but for day-to-day, I have found that what works best for me is simply sitting comfortably, with my eyes closed, and focusing on my breath causing my belly to rise and fall. If I find my mind wandering, I acknowledge what is happening. If I am distracted by sounds I silently repeat "listening, listening" until my mind comes back to my breath moving belly ("rising-falling-rising-falling"). If I find my mind heading along different tracks of thought, worries or to-do-lists in my mind I silently repeat "thinking, thinking, thinking" until my mind comes back to my the rise and fall of my belly with my breath again.

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Following my breath is helpful for me, but others find guided meditations, or apps, or walking meditations more helpful. It's all about finding what works best for you. A Buddhist monk told me, years ago, that our mind is like an elephant's trunk. You need to give it something to hold on to, otherwise it will keep swaying, this way and that, looking for things to grab. For me, I give my mind my breath to hold. Sure, it lets go, and looks for other things to grasp, but the important thing to do is to not get frustrated when that happens. Instead, acknowledge the distracted meanderings of your mind and gently guide it back to the breath, or whatever you are giving it to hold. 

I hope that you find the resources provided helpful in finding a meditation practice that works for you. Choose your own path, decide how much time you want to dedicate to meditation each day, and, if needed, create a meditation space for yourself. I wish you well in your own personal meditation journey this month, and hope that you find that it benefits you physically, mentally and emotionally.

Here's to living a more mindful life,
Dr. Khaira