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Could meditation hold the key to a healthier and more stress-free life?

March 13th 2015 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru

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Yoga specialist Chris James shares his top tips on how to combat stress and boost physical and mental health using his recommended meditation techniques

With the effects of stress having far-reaching effects on both body and mind, meditation could prove to be a much-needed ally in stopping them in their tracks.

Forbes recently reported that Brown University had found a convincing link between mindfulness and improved cardiovascular health for instance and its wider ranging benefits seem to strongly imply that it is one daily ritual that’s worth learning how to do in order to boost both physical and mental health.

We asked yoga specialist and Get The Gloss Expert Chris James for his advice on how to meditate, the relaxation techniques that really work, his advice on proper breathing and how to set the scene for some much-needed serenity on the most stressful of days.

Here are his top meditation tips...

1. The benefits of meditation

The gift of presence

Meditation is an art that calms the soul and relaxes the mind, promoting an internal mental spaciousness in which troubles and fears no longer look so menacing. Creative answers can naturally develop besides a confident detachment that provides better objectivity and perspective.

Brain boost

It has been demonstrated that meditation increases brain size…researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

The structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice. In one area of grey matter, the thickening turned out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. Normally those sections of the human cortex get thinner as we age. The implication is that meditation may help slow some aspects of cognitive ageing. This is why Buddhist monks and yogis often enjoy an increased capacity for attention and memory in old age.*

2. My top meditation tips

  • Find a good meditation teacher if you can

Do try to get along to a meditation class taught by an experienced practitioner; it can really help to learn in the company of others and also to ask questions and get direct answers from someone who knows the territory.

  • Best not to meditate on too full a stomach!

Before breakfast is good. If you’ve just eaten, your body is using its energy to digest your food: you are more likely to get sleepy in meditation after a heavy meal.

  • Be sensible about posture

Westerners, unless they’ve done a lot of yoga or are naturally not particularly flexible, generally can’t get into a lotus position at all let alone sit comfortably that way for 20 minutes. You don’t need to sit in full lotus to meditate! Kneeling on cushions or sitting on a chair is fine. Be as comfortable and upright as you can.

MORE GLOSS: How to correct bad posture

  • Make some clear time

Choose a time to meditate when you really do have a bit of undisturbed time and can relax, even if it’s just for five minutes! Turn off your mobile phone and close the door. Do what you can to make it possible to allow yourself to let go of being available to outside demands for a while and take an undisturbed space for yourself.

  • Warm up a little before, chill out a little after

Prepare to sit with some stretches for the hips and easing out of stiff shoulders, give a bit of kindly attention to any tense places. Finish meditating in time for a cup of tea or even just a minute’s gazing out of the window doing nothing, before you go on with your day’s activities.

  • Find a quiet place free from distraction

If you decide you’d like to meditate regularly at home, it can really help to sit in the same place in your home each time and to create a bit of a special atmosphere there, perhaps with a candle, some flowers and a picture that really inspires you.

  • Let go of expectations

Have faith in yourself and a sense of humour. There are all kinds of meditation experiences, just as there is a huge spectrum of human experience, from serene to grumpy, ecstatic to bored, blissfully clear to distracted. Don’t judge yourself as having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meditations. Being aware of whatever is going on is what counts.

  • Celebrate your progress!

Meditation is conducive and supportive of positive change in your life, but be gentle with yourself - you may just not get enlightened overnight. Some old habits die hard, but bringing awareness to them and cultivating an increasingly positive emotional attitude towards yourself, you can achieve great things for yourself.

Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...

  • Breathing basics

Just as a correct diet enhances the body’s store of nutrition, correct breathing enhances the body’s vitality and promotes blood circulation. Regular deep breathing slows the action of the heart, reduces blood pressure, alleviates the symptoms of stress and anxiety and helps to relieve digestive problems. I practice Kapalabhati every morning for 10 minutes which helps to oxygenate body and mind. With my private clients, particularly those who suffer from stress (sometimes insomnia), I teach breathing techniques that stimulate the R&R response – Anuloma Ujjayi is a key technique for this.

MORE GLOSS: Diary of a yoga newbie

  • Setting the scene

In terms of creating the right meditation scene, I would try to create your own Sadhana (place of spiritual practice) at home. This does not have to a large space, actually the size of a yoga mat!

3. How to meditate

You can designate just 2 minutes in the first week, graduate to 3, then 5 etc. Find a comfortable place to sit, on a chair or on the floor: allow the natural breath to settle. Bring your attention to the navel. Observe the gentle expansion of the breath on the inhalation; observe the contraction of the breath back towards the spine on the exhalation. Continue to observe the breath without forcing it at all. When the mind wonders, as it inevitably will, bring the mind back to the breath. Meditation occurs when the space in between your thoughts increases (to set you off I have put together a special 2015 meditation. Click here).

Practice 1: chocolate meditation

Take a single square of dark organic chocolate and put it in your mouth, but don’t chew and swallow it. Let it sit there, as you savour it, noticing its earthy notes, hints of citrus, richness of its texture as it melts in your mouth. You swallow it almost regretfully after letting it linger, fully appreciating its deliciousness. As you allow the chocolate to melt and recede, give pause to think about the people who planted and grew the beans, who roasted and grinded them and hand-crafted them into this square of your happiness.

The savouring of a square of dark chocolate is a great practice you can do once a day. I like to use tea too, because it is light. You have to really pay attention to get the most out of it.

When you savour a cube of chocolate, or tea, or a good meal, you slow down. You pay close attention. The closer the attention, the more you’ll get out of your savouring. You don’t rush to the next thing, but stop and give some space to the activity. You aren’t worried about what you have to do later; you are fully in the present.

*I think that this also has applications for dementia (diabetes of the brain), and in our lifetime, I do not think that it would be too far-fetched to predict that meditation will be funded by the NHS.

Follow us @getthegloss and Ayesha @ayesha_muttu.

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