As anyone who's ever struggled with meditation knows, it's one of the hardest wellbeing habits to make stick. However, when it does, it's life-changing. A serious eye-opening event or encounter often provides that Superglue moment. Suddenly you can't live without it.
I can testify to this; qualifying as a yoga teacher a decade ago and knowing that postures were only ever meant to help you sit in meditation without discomfort, I still lacked the compelling reason to make meditation a habit. I did yoga, wasn't that moving meditation? Then a few months ago, I hit serious overload; meditation scooped me up, got me through the day and restored my sleep. I drank less coffee and tea. I became less reactive. Now I meditate daily without fail. If don't, I feel out of sorts, as if I haven't washed or brushed my teeth. It's a form of personal hygiene, getting rid of the mental crud.
Emily Fletcher's story resonated with me. A former actress, she had her a-ha! moment while working on Broadway. By the age of 27, she was understudying three lead of the roles, but she was far from coping. "If my performance was off, I was devastated," she writes in her book Stress Less Accomplish More, which I urge you to read if you've ever felt that meditation was dull, unnecessary or impossible. "My anxiety kept intensifying, I had terrible insomnia, and I started to go grey at the tender age of 26. I was constantly getting sick or injured. There I was, living my dream, doing the one thing I had wanted to do since I was nine years old and I was miserable," she says.
Then she met fellow actress Deonne, who was understudying five lead roles. Unlike Emily, Dionne was calm, centred and full of beans. She had a greater workload, but also more joie de vivre. Her secret? meditation.
Emily went along with her to class and slept soundly for the first time in 18 months. She stopped going grey, in fact her colour returned, her performance improved, she stopped seeking approval and her life goals became clearer. Her journey to becoming a meditation teacher began. She studied for three years and set up Ziva Meditation in the US, which has garnered huge acclaim. It's taken the corporate world by storm with the likes of Google and Barclays adopting her methods and has glowing testimonials from Mark Hyman MD and actress Jenna Dewan.
Like ancient Vedic meditation, Ziva involves two meditations a day. While Vedic is 2x20 minutes, Ziva is specifically aimed at busy people who want to improve their performance and involves 2x15 minutes a day - the idea that you only need to give up half an hour of your day makes it seem more doable.
Emily now teaches Ziva Meditation as a productivity tool in NYC and has adapted the technique for a 15-day online course and in her book.
So why is meditation new caffeine according to Emily? It's a top productivity prop that we can all identify with. But what if we spent the 15 minutes it takes to buy and drink our latte, slotting in a quick meditation session as an alternative energy boost? No calories, no crashes and no cravings for more. Here's her compelling reason for everyone to give it a try.
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Meditation is the new caffeine
"Meditation takes only a half an hour out of your day, but it helps relieve you of roughly the same amount of stress as a full night’s sleep. Mathematically, that doesn’t seem possible, but remember that sleep and meditation are vastly different forms of rest. The state of consciousness achieved in meditation is anywhere from two to five times deeper than sleep. By this estimation a 15-minute meditation is roughly equivalent to a 60-minute nap; completing two 15-minute meditations is like giving yourself an extra two hours of sleep. Additionally, because you’re resting your body rather than your mind, your brain can prioritise intense destressing and repairing the body during meditation. You know that feeling when you go into the office on a Saturday when no one else is in the building, or maybe you just turn off your phone and your e-mail alerts so there are no interruptions clamouring for your attention? It’s a completely different sense of accomplishment and efficiency, all because you don’t have 20 other things pulling you off task while you’re trying to work.
I used to think that caffeine was nothing more than a mild stimulant that bumped up the nervous system to a slightly higher level, which was the reason it made everyone more productive. But it’s not as simple as that
"Meditation allows your brain to more readily notice subtle differences and detect patterns and themes, which is one of the things that makes you more productive. You can’t eliminate demands from your life, but you can take steps to train your mind to better adapt to whatever comes your way. And the icing on the meditation cake? You come out of your meditation more alert. There is no “nap hangover” as you try to wake up because you never went to sleep in the first place. Your brain releases bliss chemicals during meditation, not sleep chemicals.
"This is also the reason I like to refer to meditation as “the new caffeine.” A lot of people – maybe even most people – use caffeine as a substitute for sleep or as a productivity tool. Need to get moving in the morning? Grab a cup of coffee. Need a pick-me-up in the afternoon? Swig a caffeinated soft drink. All you really need is caffeine, right? Wrong. What you really need is rest. It’s true that caffeine makes you feel more awake, but not because it gives you deep rest. You feel more awake because caffeine masks the brain’s ability to feel tired. I used to think that caffeine was nothing more than a mild stimulant that bumped up the nervous system to a slightly higher level, which was the reason it made everyone more productive. But it’s not as simple as that. Caffeine is molecularly similar to a chemical called adenosine, which is the hormone your brain produces throughout the day that makes you feel sleepy and cues you to go to bed when your body is ready.
"When caffeine is ingested, it actually blocks your brain’s adenosine receptors, which means your brain can’t tell you’re tired. That’s the reason you’re able to accomplish more after a dose or two of caffeine. That may sound good, but caffeine is really just hijacking your nervous system. Now, blocking those receptors in your brain is not that bad for you in and of itself - that is to say, it’s not hurting you while it’s happening. But when the caffeine wears off and leaves those adenosine receptors open, all the adenosine your brain has been producing while you were rocking your caffeine high comes flooding in. This is what creates the crash and leaves you reaching for a second, third, or fourth cup.
"As John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, says, if you’re reliant on caffeine, your energy is not your own. Caffeine synthetically stimulates neural activity in the brain. When your pituitary gland notices this increase in neural activity, it thinks there’s some sort of an emergency happening, so it triggers your adrenal glands to start releasing adrenaline. Since adrenaline is the number one stress chemical that gets released when you launch into a fight-or-flight stress reaction, caffeine is putting your body into mild crisis mode, and with it comes all those jittery side effects.
"In short, caffeine artificially excites the nervous system. I want to be very clear here: I am not saying you should never drink coffee again – I actually enjoyed a cup or two myself in the writing of this book. I just want you to make informed decisions about any mind-altering substance you put in your body. If the pros outweigh the cons for you, then enjoy. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that caffeine is giving you energy. It’s not.
"Can caffeine make you more productive? Sure. But it’s only a temporary boost. That’s why meditation is such a superior alternative. Rather than looking to external sources and ultimately depleting your adrenals, it provides a sustainable and renewable resource of energy within yourself for as long as you continue your twice-daily practice.
"Like caffeine, meditation will make you more productive, but it does so in a very different way: through a form of rest that is exponentially deeper than sleep, and in a manner that de-excites (rather than stimulates) your nervous system. When you allow your mind and body to become more naturally in sync, you can decrease (or even eliminate) the amount of synthetic stimulation you previously required in order to feel fully awake and productive.
"Because you’re not masking your brain’s request for sleep but are instead developing an ability to rest more effectively, you’re setting yourself up for much more productivity in the long run. By stopping the biological depletion cycle that has become the norm in our culture and replacing it with a self-sufficient means of elevating your personal and professional performance, you’re laying the groundwork for a more engaged, creative, rested, and healthy version of yourself to emerge."