We encounter stress everyday, at work or school, others at home. While we do our best to cope with stress, sometimes the burden simply becomes too much and we break down because of it or suffer poor physical and emotional health outcomes as a result. So what can we do about it? The good news is we are not powerless and can take some positive steps to help us on our journey.
One method that we hear again and again is that regular meditation practice is a proven way to help us cope with these every day stresses that life throws up. But, for those of us just starting out what is the science behind meditation and what are some simpler techniques that we can try to get us under way?
This article looks briefly at the science behind mediation and then outlines a number of techniques that you might consider for your own practice.
The Science of Stress
In the General Adaptation Syndrome model designed by Hans Selye, there are three stages that people undergo when stressed. During the first stage, the body goes on a state of alarm at the realization of a threat. In this stage, cortisol is released by the body. The second stage is where the body becomes unable to cope with the strain until its resources are depleted. Finally, the body breaks down, which includes the exhaustion of the immune system. Because of this, the body is unable to fight off sicknesses which then expose the person to illnesses.
How Meditation Helps Reduce Stress
According to the Mayo Clinic “Meditation has many benefits, including lowering stress, improving immune function, and slowing mental aging. This age-old practice has become one of the most popular ways to relieve stress among people of all walks of life. Meditation can take many forms and can be combined with many spiritual practices. It can also be used in several important ways
- It can be a part of your daily routine and help you build resilience to stress.
- It can be a technique to get centered when you’re thrown off by emotional stress.
- It can be a quick-fix stress reliever to help you reverse your body’s stress response and physically relax.”
So the next time you feel stressed out, consider trying to calm yourself down by practicing a simple meditation. While your problems may not go away, you can at least become more mentally prepared to face them and find a way forward.
Below, we discuss several different meditation techniques that you might like to try as we all have our own comfort levels and a bit of experimentation until we find the ideal method for us is a worthwhile exercise
Meditation takes many forms. All have one thing in common. They use concentration techniques to still the mind and stop thought. Various practices exist such as chanting (Mantra), focusing on energy centres in the body (Chakra Meditation), breathing, mindfulness (Mahamudra), loving kindness, formal sitting (Vipassana), expressive practices (Siddha Yoga), and walking to name some of the styles. Try each style and see what works for you or you may want to alternate between the techniques from time to time. For the purposes of this article, we discuss two forms of meditation practice, Mahamudra and walking meditation.
Practical Steps To Begin Meditating
- Find a place where there are few external distractions. A place where you feel emotionally comfortable, safe, removed from pressure and stress is the optimal location.
- Wear clothing that is loose and sit or lie in a comfortable position.
- Plan to meditate in an area that is warm and comfortable. You might want to have a blanket or light covering as some people experience a feeling of coldness when they aren’t moving around for a period of time.
- Candles can be used to focus attention on the task at hand. If you use them, remember to be cautious and extinguish them before leaving the room.
- Relaxation is a key component of meditation. Take a few moments to bring about a state of relaxation by taking a deep breath through your nose, expanding your lungs and diaphragm. Hold the breath for a few seconds and slowly exhale through your mouth. Do this several times until you feel relaxed.
- Calm, soothing music can be helpful for inducing a state of tranquillity and relaxation
- If you are hungry, have a little something to eat, as it is not necessary to meditate on a completely empty stomach.
- Put your expectations aside and don’t worry about doing it right.
Two Types of Meditation Practice
Mahamudra is the form of meditation that is a way of going about one’s daily activities in a state of mindfulness. It is meditation integrated into all aspects of our lives. This following exercise is one you can do anywhere to create a feeling of inner peace. It is particularly helpful for those times you are stuck in traffic, waiting in line at the grocery store or bank, at the office when days are hectic, or when you are picking up the kids from school or extra-curricular activities. What I do today is important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it, wrote Hugh Mulligan. Meditation helps us remember to stop and smell the roses.
Begin by taking a deep breath. Breathe deeply and as you do expand your lungs and your diaphragm. Hold the breath for a few seconds and slowly exhale through the mouth. Focus on your breath and clear your mind. Do this several times until you feel the slowing of your breath and a deep sense of peace fill your body. Consciously feel the peace permeate your body. Drop your shoulders and connect through the top of your head to Universal Energy. Repeat. If you wish, send peace to those around you by connecting to their hearts with light and love.
A walking meditation is simply an exercise in awareness. There are four components:
- Become aware of your breathing
- Notice your surroundings
- Be attentive to your body’s movement
- Take some time to reflect on your experience when you return home.
To practice walking brings awareness to walking wherever you find yourself. Take notice of your breathing. Are you taking short, shallow breaths without even knowing it? If so, take several deep breaths and center yourself in your body and in the present moment. Appreciate the wonderful body you have and the blessing of being able to walk.
Notice your surroundings. What season is it? Take a few minutes to listen to the noises around you. Feel the wind, sun, fog, rain or snow on your face. Look at the people, animals, birds, sky, trees, and buildings around you. Breathe in and out and realise that you are an integral part of the environment.
Pay attention to your body. Are you holding tension in your shoulders, neck, solar plexus, lower back, or legs? Breath into any areas where you are feeling tension and let it drain into the Earth. Next, pay attention to your posture. Are you standing straight and tall or slouching? Walk in a way that is comfortable for you with your body loose and uplifted. Walk with dignity and confidence, one foot in front of the other and pay attention to the experience of movement.
You can walk mindfully anywhere, along a sidewalk, walking your dog, in the mall, along the hallways at work. You simply remind yourself to be in this moment, taking each step as it comes. Some people find it helpful to repeat a mantra (mantras are sacred words repeated in order to bring focus to your mind). You can also use a variation on the walking mantra by counting your breaths. Walk more slowly than you usually do and count how many steps it takes for your intake of breath and how many steps for your exhale. In this type of meditation, your attention is focused on both your steps and your breathing bringing together a wonderful balance of peacefulness and awareness.
Take some time to reflect on your experience when you return home. Five or ten minutes brings closure to your walk and provides an opportunity to make the transition from this place of peace to ordinary day-to-day activities.