The benefits of meditation are many, primary being a clear mind and a peaceful heart. Once meditation becomes a habit, then it’s as natural as breathing
“Meditation stops your thoughts, I have heard,” converses a 26-year-old Dutch lady, who had come to explore India. We are sitting in a plush hotel lobby, enjoying our holiday. I mentioned that I was meditating in the morning. Like her, many assume that meditation turns you into a sage and you don’t think, just live in a trance-like state. But my experience says, you just learn to sift your thoughts and take a more peaceful approach to situations and life.
I have been meditating regularly since the age of 28 and I will turn 51 in 2021. The brain is not designed to stop thoughts, is something I realized after a few months of this practice.
Meditation acts as a self regulator, optimising our brain function, reducing stress and anxiety and helping us take better decisions. Bin He, a neuroengineer at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to look at the brains of Tibetan monks and this is what his research proved, “Using electroencephalography (EEG), a series of electrodes placed on the scalp to measure brain activity, He and his colleagues found that long-term, active meditative practice decreases activity in the default network. This is the brain network associated with the brain at rest — just letting your mind wander with no particular goal in mind — and includes brain areas like the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. What’s more, the longer a monk had been practicing, the bigger the reduction in activity the researchers observed.”
How did I get into the practice of meditation? Well, personal reasons, troubled family situations, financial losses, and inability to find a mentor or a teacher who could help find a way out of the complexities that had risen. I had begun to practice yoga and the only asana I liked was ‘shava asana’. We would do ‘yoga nidra’ once a week, and that 20-minute relaxation would help me get through the day. My interest in the practice grew. And so did my quest to find more means to ease off the stress so I could focus on solutions.
1. Mantra Japa or Chanting
We may not understand meditating initially, but most of us are privy to chanting, affirmations and prayers. We go to places of worship and listen to priests. We remember some words or we just hum along as the hymn progresses. Many of us use prayer beads. Why? ‘Man’ means mind and ‘tra’ means to release. The rhythm of the words when repeated again and again rejuvenates us and gives us hope. It makes us feel better. The quiet ambience of a house of prayer, away from the chaos, makes us feel better. Prayer, when done in a quiet place and with utmost discipline, focused on the power of the word, brings out our innate strength.
Some positive chants are ‘Aum’, ‘I am a peaceful loving soul’, ‘I am thankful for being alive and living a joyous life’, ‘Aum Mani Padme Hum’.
2. Yoga Nidra
This is my eternal favourite practice. I do it a lot at night to sleep well. The focus is on relaxing every part of the body, beginning with the toes and traveling till the head. With each command, you unwind the tightly knotted muscles, the fraught nerves and lie in a self-induced sleep. For some, it might not be the deepest, but it does keep the body relaxed.
3. Candle Meditation
This is another yogic practice that I learned along with yoga. Lighting a candle, chanting aum and focusing on the light. You light the flame, focus on the flame for a few seconds and then close the eyes, feeling the light seep into the inner recesses of your soul. And then it lights up all the dark areas, bringing a heightened sense of energy and hope. This can be done multiple times in 5 minutes.. The yogis called this tratak or focussed gaze.
This is also among the most popular meditation techniques. Sitting or lying down in a quiet space, you visualize yourself in beautiful surroundings, mostly a heavenly paradisical garden or meadow with rays of sunshine falling on you. These tingling rays penetrate deep into your body, going through different layers to fill your body, mind and soul. You can even infuse the room with some light essential oils and then begin your practice.
Much later, I did Raj Yoga with Brahma Kumaris and it was the same method.
I did Vipassana in 2012 as I was dealing with anger management issues. But I had been doing pranayama since 1997. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have defined many breath practices. But the most prevalent is anulom vilom. In this, you take rhythmic breaths from each nostril—around 10 minutes of this is enough o control the breath.
Vipassana is a more intense and needs a teacher. For beginners, it is a 10-day retreat and you also have to prepare yourself for the intense daily meditation. There are many centres across the world and I went for a retreat at Sohna, Haryana.
6. Shamanic Drumming
A shamanis ‘onewho knows’. “The term shamanism comes from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. Shamans recorded in historical ethnographies have included women, men, and transgender individuals of every age from middle childhood onward,” as per britannica.com/topic/shamanism. Shamans have been prevalent in Northeastern Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, many American aboriginal tribes, few groups hunters and gatherer tribes in Africa, Siberia and Indonesia.
Shamans are traditional healers and they bring messages from ancestors and universe to heal the community. Typical way of entering into a trance is through dance and drumming. To understand the power of drumming, from elephantjournal.com/2016/01/the-health-benefits-of-drumming/, “Everything that exists in the universe is made up of energy vibrating on different frequencies. The vibration of the drum resonates with the vibrations radiating from the human body and aligns the energies harmoniously.
Mother Earth also has its own heartbeat. This pulse is known as the Schumann Resonance. According to the Schumann resonance our brains vibrate at the same frequency that is pulsating from the Earth’s crust. This is known as Harmonic Resonance. Drumming is used to combine the 180-cycles-per-second beat of Earth with the vibrational tones of meditation to tap into our inner psychic ability so we can travel to alternative ethereal dimensions.”
This technique needs to be learned, as some might not find it easy on their own.
7. Chakra Healing
Chakra means disk or wheel. The sages have described seven main chakras or energy centres that reside in our auric body along our spine. We can’t physically see them, but these energy centres govern our life in an intangible manner. Each chakra has a role in a certain area of our life. And when the wheel does not rotate in the way it should, then that area is disturbed. Then you meditate to heal the chakra. Personally, I do a complete seven chakra healing, because the cycle of one wheel is bound to affect the other wheels. There are other minor chakras too in our auric body, but we focus on these main ones.
The seven chakras, beginning from the base of our spine, are:
a. Muladhara or Root chakra is the foundation of our life. Located at the base of the spine, it stands for stability and security.
b. Svadhisthana or Sacral chakra is located below the belly button. It stands for creative, sexual and emotional energy.
c. Manipura or Solar plexus chakra is located in the stomach area. It helps maintain control in life, governs confidence and self-esteem.
d. Anahata or Heart chakra is located near the heart, in the center of the chest. It governs love and compassion.
e. Vishuddha or Throat chakra is located in the throat and governs verbal communication.
f. Ajna or Third eye chakra is located between the eyes. This governs our intuition and imagination.
g. Sahasrara or Crown chakra is located at the top of the head. It connects us to the universe and guides us to our life’s purpose.
Chakras can be overactive, under active or blocked. It takes weeks of perseverance to understand the flow. And initially, the guidance of a teacher helps.
8. Meeting Your Spirit Guides
All of us come on Earth with our guardian angels. Children are prone to see them and to communicate with them, sometimes in the form of invisible friends. As we grow older, the physical world takes over and we forget these friends. But these invisible beings are always around us. If we sit in silence in some power spot, we can sense our spirit guides. They can come like the whiff of a fragrance, a swish of breeze or even a pleasing sensation. But for that we have to sensitise ourselves to our environment and find our power spot.
Music therapy is as old as time. We all know that music uplifts our mood and changes the ambience. Peppy music can make us happy, dance and swirl with joy. Soft music with the right notes has the capacity to heal. Music affects different parts of the brain in different ways.
Music therapy has its roots in Ancient Greece. But its primary acknowledgement as a therapy came in 20th century, after the end of World War II.
I personally listen to calming music in the evening and at night to have a clear head before sleeping. It helps clear out the clutter of emotions and situations that affected during the day.
- Nature Trails
There is nothing more healing than fresh breeze, green leaves, wet earth and soft sunshine. Living in the city and a high rise, I am lucky, I see the sunrise and hear the chirp of birds. But a trip to gardens and wildlife sanctuaries brings us alive. It changes our aura and there is a heightened awareness. All the senses come alive.
This is why many Nature movements such as forest therapy, hugging trees have become popular. I like to spend my time listening to the birds, hearing the breeze float around me, sit under a tree and walk barefoot on the grass. And I maintain silence at this time.
At different stages, we need different things. The body, mind and soul are designed to evolve, nothing is ever stagnant. We can a blend of many techniques or we can even stick to one, it would depend on our individual response.
Meditation For Beginners
- Find a quite corner or a time when you are sure to find some quiet moments.
- Take a comfortable chair or sink in sofa. Or you could lie down on a mattress with a clean sheet.
- Light an essential oil lamp with soft oils such as jasmine, lavender, orange, frankincense, rose, lemongrass, citronella (this is optional).
- Close the curtains and dim the lights.
- Play some soft music. If you have decided on chanting, then you can play that chant in the background, but keep the volume moderate.
- Keep the room temperature to normal. If the air conditioner is too high, you might feel the need to get up in the middle.
- Keep a bottle of water with you in the room. Or lemonade is also good.
- Sit comfortably on the floor or chair or sofa. If this is uncomfortable, then lie down on your back.
- Now, close your eyes. And feel the vibes of the chant all around you. Then visualize them seeping into your body and soul. Feel the swirl of good vibes. Feel your breath, the sensations of your skin and just be in the moment.
- You can do this daily for 3-5 minutes.
- Make it a habit for 2-4 weeks and then you will be able to see a perceptible change in your reactions.
- It’s okay if you sleep in the middle. Get up and get fresh and try it again.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
Can anyone do meditation?
Yes. All of us can do it.
Do I need a teacher?
Yes, a teacher for beginners always helps. When we start meditating, we go through many emotions and some physical issues such as headaches, fever, cough, pains and aches in certain areas, as we release the inner blocks. If we don’t have a larger understanding of these issues, then we will not be able to reap the benefits of this practice. But we also need to choose our teacher wisely.
Which technique should I use?
You can begin with the one you resonate with. And then as you progress, you will find your own special technique.
Is there a specific time to meditate?
I don’t think so, but doing it when you have a quiet corner is good. Else, besides your own inner changes, you will be stuck with outside noise as well.
Is meditation religious?
No, can the brain be religious? It is an organ that governs our senses and physical movement. We have to keep it in good health and meditation does just that. We can use the different external tools such as music, drums or we can rely on our own breath to guide us.
Proven Scientific Benefits of Meditation
(Source: Understanding the Power of Meditation by Kayt Sukel)
Neuropsychologist Michael Posner from the University of Oregon first outlined how the brain’s attention systems work. His own work, with Yi-Yuan Tang, has shown distinct changes to the white matter, or the nerve fibers that allow different brain regions to more efficiently communicate with one another, surrounding the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain heavily involved with managing attention, with meditation practice. Using diffusion tensor imaging, a special kind of neuroimaging technique, Posner and colleagues found increased levels of myelin, sometimes referred to as brain “insulation,” after only a few weeks of regular meditation practice — and that increased insulation helps improve connectivity by letting different brain regions communicate faster and more efficiently.
“This is a major node of attention in the brain — and we can see these changes after only two to four weeks of practice,” he said. “Those changes are linked to improved attention in different tasks. And as the anterior cingulate has vast connections to the limbic system, or emotional system, it helps us understand why meditation can help improve mood and reduce anxiety, too.”
Such results are especially promising considering the participants in Posner’s study didn’t have to join an order of Tibetan monks in order to gain a variety of benefits. Participants improved on tasks measuring attention and problem solving in as little as five days. They also showed reductions in cortisol, a hormone commonly used to measure a person’s stress level, Posner said. Improved cognitive skills and lower stress levels are certainly nothing to sneeze at.
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