Contributed by The Tuck Sleep Foundation
Meditation has been an integral part of Eastern culture for hundreds of years. It may have been a fad when it first hit the scene in the Western world but, today, science has begun to discover the many benefits of how meditation on the mind and body.
The Relaxation Response
When the body relaxes there are biological responses that take place such as a decrease in oxygen consumption, an increase in exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress. Together these create the ‘relaxation response’ that gets triggered while meditating. There is even evidence to suggest that regular exposure to the relaxation response can change the cells at a genetic level.
Depression, Anxiety, and Fatigue
The science behind the relaxation response supports the idea that the mind can change the body. Studies have shown that regularly helping the body to have a relaxation response can relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Meditation can also reduce the feelings and signs of daytime fatigue. More studies have found that the effect of meditation works across age groups with older adults and teenagers having similar responses to regular meditation.
Reducing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue creates conditions that lend themselves to getting better sleep. Better sleep creates a healthy cycle that can continue to reduce symptoms of mental and physical illness.
The Right Kind of Meditation
Not all meditation techniques promote sleep. Some methods work to bring the mind into focus and stimulate the brain for complex activity. If you’re trying to get ready for bed, you don’t want your brain to be waking up. In general, the less cognitive effort needed the more likely you are to relax.
Four of the most effective methods include progressive muscle relaxation, mindful breathing, counting, and guided meditation. All can be performed while lying in bed so that you can drift off to sleep as your mind an body relax.
This method involves identifying muscle tension followed by systematically tensing and releasing muscle groups. Once you’ve laid down in bed, breathe deeply. Starting at the top of your head and tense one muscle group for five seconds and then release. Inhale before tensing and exhale as you relax. Work your way through each muscle group in your body down to your toes. It may take two or three times through the exercise to release all tension at which point your muscles should feel heavy.
Mindful breathing involves focusing on the inhale and exhale of your breath. As you take slow, deep breaths feel the expansion of your lungs and chest. With every exhale, empty your mind and body of stress as you release your breath. When the mind wanders, bring gently back to the rhythmic in and out of your breathing.
If muscle relaxation and focused breathing don’t work for you, counting meditation might be the right blend of focus and tension release. When you lay down, take a few deep breaths and start slowly counting. Focusing on each number helps you stay present but isn’t hard enough to require mental strain, which will allow you drift off to sleep.
The key to guided meditation is that you don’t have to think about what to do next. You follow someone else’s instructions. Guided meditation may involve mindful breathing or counting, but you simply follow the guidance of the instructor. You can use guided meditation apps and/or audio files.
Whatever meditation method you use, it should help bring your mind to a quiet place of rest for a better night’s sleep.
“Meditation: Because some answers can’t be answered by Google.”
How do we balance a meditation practice and a work schedule? Is it possible to wake up earlier just to sit and breathe before we turn our attention to our work load? Can we take advantage of breaks in the day to set aside a few minutes for sitting in silence? These are questions I constantly asked myself for a long time before taking action. For a while, just the thought of creating some sort of meditation practice was enough for me to be content. I didn’t know how it would manifest and what benefits would truly resonate with my life. Then, one day, I stopped asking and started doing.
Creating space for meditation can be a humbling experience. Like our practice on the mat, it is a mirror of ourselves. When we transition in yoga or hold postures we become aware of our breathing patterns, how we engage and focus. In meditation, we observe how we sit, how we react to external silence and internal chatter. When the voice in our head screams discomfort from sitting in the same posture for an extended period of time, do we silence the voice or listen and walk away? Do we silence the voice that says laundry is more important than giving ourselves space to breathe and release the urgency to attend responsibilities? Do we stay or walk away? Sometimes it’s harder to even discipline ourselves to take the initiative to try and sit for meditation. Wherever you are in this process of developing a meditation practice, don’t give up! The benefits show up in our work life and all other aspects of our being.
How do we find a method of meditation that works best for us? There are so many variations of creating space to “just be”. When we find a method that naturally syncs with our needs and wants, cultivate a regular practice! If you have a regular “asana’ practice, carve out some time before or after “final relaxation” to sit and meditate. Maybe carve out some time after you wake up, before you return from your lunch break or before bed. Try out different variations of meditation. Taking a walk out in nature is a form of “being present in the moment”. Notice your breath with every step, how the wind rustles the leaves. Simply notice all that is around you. My personal favorite form of meditation is holding something in my hand (a rock or mala) that connects me to earth. I then repeat a mantra over and over again that keeps my mind from wandering. Some people focus on colors or images. Research and explore the possibilities.
Meditation does not have to be a linear idea. There are many ways it can be practiced. Keep exploring all the different forms of it and when you find that one or two ways that truly resonates with you, keep practicing! The calmness and clarity that follows is unexplainable. It is simply to be experienced to truly understand. We work hard in our everyday lives for stability and assurance of survival. Imagine what life would be like if we worked that hard for clarity and relaxation. For further ideas on meditation techniques, visit this website below!
Meditate away, om shanti om.