Meditating woman

Are you too busy to meditate? Read this now

Some people feel they are too busy for meditation or that meditation is for people who aren’t busy — but, really, it’s the busiest people who most need, and can benefit from, meditation. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I am going to meditate for two hours instead of one.” He knew and understood the powerful effect that a daily practice of meditation can have.

Equally, you don’t need to be someone who’s busy or ambitious to benefit from meditation. It can benefit anyone who wants to improve the quality of their mind, their energy levels and the ability to remain centred in turmoil. And who wouldn’t want that?

The quality of your life is directly related to the state of your mind, so doing practices that improve the state of your mind, like breathing techniques and meditation, will automatically improve the quality of your life. What else might they affect? Your relationship with yourself and others, your communication skills, the way you see things, your ability to make good decisions and your overall enthusiasm towards being fully alive and engaged with life.

When your mind is calm and clear, it’s easier to notice things that your mind wouldn’t otherwise notice, and this … can create profound changes in your life.

Most of the time your mind vacillates between your past and your future — either your mind is busy remembering an event or planning another for down the track. Neither of these states is particularly joyful: we’re usually anxious about the future and regretful of or glorifying the past — and even the glorification comes with a sense of “but it’s not like that now”. According to a US study by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, our minds wander 46.9 per cent of the time. This vacillation puts a lot of strain on your nervous system, depletes your energy and means you miss a lot of the beauty and joy of life.

Meditation & its effects

Kate Baltrotsky, a 32-year-old school teacher by profession and stay-at-home mum of two from the Gold Coast, says: “After four days of being on an intensive meditation course on which we meditated every day, I felt so deeply rejuvenated. It was as though I’d had my mind scrubbed on a washing board … I felt squeaky clean — inside and out. It totally redefined my idea of what a holiday really is.”

What Baltrotsky describes includes some of the other classic benefits that many mediators experience: sharpness, clarity and calmness of the mind. However, most of us spend much of our day, if not the whole day, in what’s called the body’s “sympathetic” mode: a state in which we are driven, anxious, on-edge, with the hormones of flight-or-fight pumping through our bodies. In this mode, our heart beats faster, our adrenaline is high, our breathing is often shallow and we feel pressured, stressed, rushed.

Adrenaline is not needed for success. Also, the long-term effects of having it pumping through your system on a regular basis are poor health and poor performance. What meditation and breathing practices do is enable you to switch off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the body’ parasympathetic nervous system, moving you into the “rest-and-digest” state: relaxed but alert, focused, happy, calm and full of energy.

Meditation also sharpens your perception, your observation skills. When your mind is calm and clear, it’s easier to notice things that your mind wouldn’t otherwise notice, and this increased perception and self-awareness can create profound changes in your life. For example, imagine how it would be for you if you were able to see your negative emotions objectively as they occurred, as if you were looking at yourself from another person’s point of view. In this position, you don’t identify with the negative emotions as being what you are or who you are (eg. an anxious and fearful person). Instead, you see yourself as someone who, in that particular moment, is simply experiencing anxiety.

An MRI study … showed that, through meditation, you can down-regulate something as primitive as the amygdala and, the more practice you have, the more effectively you can do it.

When you’re able to objectively observe a negative emotion arising in you, and then watch the journey of that emotion internally, you have the ability to choose whether to express or act on that emotion. This is a hugely beneficial skill for any human being, and allows you to have some say over your emotions and the consequences of them. Just imagine how that could affect your relationships! To quote psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

The benefits of meditation don’t stop there. Just last year, a Harvard study showed that mindfulness meditation actually resulted in increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and learning.

According to Chris Dale, a senior meditation and yoga instructor with the Art of Living Foundation, different types of meditation appear to have different effects. The effortless type of meditation in particular, such as the simple breath-focused meditation of sudarshan kriya, he says, reverses the detrimental impact of stress and slows down ageing.

As a result of meditation and pranayama, Dale has experienced far greater calm and ease in life. “I was quite stressed out when I was at uni and in my younger adult life and took to alcohol and recreational drugs,” he says. “Meditation saved me from that in my mid-20s. I think that pranayama, meditation and asana helped tremendously to reverse a lot of the damage done by those things. These days, even when life seems chaotic on the surface, there is an underlying sense that everything is OK. There seems to be a natural joy that bubbles underneath everything.”

The amygdala is part of your brain related to your emotions. It is especially active when you perceive a threat (irrespective of whether that threat is real or unreal). When your amygdala is activated, it takes over and shuts down part of your brain so that you literally stop thinking — instead, you tense up and react. That’s great if a tiger is running at you; not so great if you’re losing your cool with your boss. An MRI study conducted on monks who had done more than 10,000 hours of meditation showed that, through meditation, you can down-regulate something as primitive as the amygdala and, the more practice you have, the more effectively you can do it.

The good news is that you don’t have to meditate for as long as those monks did before the effects of meditation become measurable. The latest research shows that meditation can affect your mind in a measurable way when you accumulate just 100 minutes.

What about the breath?

Your breath is a powerful tool. You may have noticed that your breathing pattern changes as you experience different emotions. When you’re sad your out breath is long, when you’re angry it’s hard, when you’re anxious your breath is short and shallow and when you’re happy it’s long and light. Ashtanga yoga teacher Richard Freeman explains, “The mind and the inner breath swim together like two fish in tandem.” Because of this intimate link between your breath and your mind, you can dramatically influence the state of your mind and emotions once you know how to work with your breath.

Different yogic breathing practices affect your mind and emotions differently. Some simple yogic breathing practices include: full yogic breathing, ujjayi breathing (breath of victory), bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath), kapalbhati pranayama (frontal brain cleansing breath), nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) and bhasytrika pranayama (bellows breath).

Most of these practices are short and can be learnt easily during a regular yoga class, others take much longer and need to be taught over a period of days. What they have in common, though, is that they must be practised without strain, on an empty stomach (three hours after a meal) and under the guidance of a trained teacher.

“The mind and the inner breath swim together like two fish in tandem.”

According to Roger Jahnke, OMD (oriental medicine doctor), author of The Healer Within, “The breath is a link to the most profound medicine that we carry within us.” Within it, there is a simple yet profound healing capability. Some of the many benefits of yogic breathing practices are that they can dramatically increase your energy level and free you from (or at least reduce) depression, anxiety, stress and trauma. Millions of people have turned their lives around completely through breathing practices and the main reason for this is the connection between your breath and your mind. When you work with your breath, you’re actually working with your mind.

For many meditators, breathing practices are used before meditation and there’s good reason why: certain breathing practices can take the mind to the door of meditation and are a tremendous aid for any meditator from any tradition. Padideh Fazelzadeh, a 31-year-old naturopathy student, says, “When I first practised sudarshan kriya my mind became incredibly still. For the first time ever I was able to meditate effortlessly, without all the restlessness that I’d experienced when I’d sat to meditate before.”

Origins of meditation & pranayama

“We tend to associate the origins of yoga and meditation particularly with the Indian subcontinent,” says Dale. The conventional wisdom is that yoga had its origins in the Indus Valley (in the northwest Indian subcontinent) — including present-day Pakistan, northwest India and some regions in northeast Afghanistan — about 5000 years ago. The evidence for this is soapstone seals depicting figures in recognisable yoga postures. While in India the techniques of yoga were systematised in the most sophisticated way, other ancient cultures in China and Tibet recognised the profound link that exists between breath and mind, as well as that altering breath patterns is a very powerful way of healing and of leading the mind to meditation.

However ancient these practices, yoga is innate to the human nervous system. Babies move in and out of different asanas, mudras (hand positions) and breathing patterns and these are part of their natural development process. There are also many reported cases of people with no background in yoga doing yoga poses and pranayama spontaneously during techniques like cathartic breath work and in recovery from traumatic events.

Dale feels that we humans have a fundamental urge to turn our attention inwards. “There have always been people who felt that there is much more to life than what appears to the senses, and there have always been adepts who have shared their own findings about the inward journey.”

Are meditation & pranayama yoga essentials?

One of the beautiful things about yoga is the diversity of viewpoints and teachings. However, most yoga schools will acknowledge that The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the key text on which the yoga system is based. The opening verse of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important texts on hatha yoga, makes it clear that the purpose of hatha yoga is a means to achieve raja yoga, that is, the physical practices aimed at preparing the system for stilling the mind.

Yoga, according to Patanjali, is considered to have eight limbs: yama (rules for social conduct), niyama (guidelines for personal conduct), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing practices to expand the life energy), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (focus), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (a totally equanimous mind which has transcended mental activity). (For an in-depth look at each of these limbs, see p32.) When you look at these eight limbs, it’s obvious that yoga asanas are just one of many aspects of yoga and that the true essence of yoga includes all eight limbs.

Some of the many benefits of yogic breathing practices are that they can dramatically increase your energy level and free you from (or at least reduce) depression, anxiety, stress and trauma.

Some teachers view the eight limbs as sequential, teaching that you have to master asana (postures) before you can move on to practising pranayama (breathing practices). Other schools of yoga and teachers feel that Patanjali referred to these eight aspects as limbs precisely because they all develop together rather than as steps. Just as your body functions best when all your limbs are present, yoga is best when all eight limbs are part of your practice.

If the eight limbs are sequential, the logical conclusion would be that you shouldn’t even start practising asana until you have mastered the yamas and niyamas. This would mean that, before you pitched up to a yoga class to practise yoga poses, you’d need to not be harming yourself or anything on the planet (non-violence), be physically clean and have a mind free from tensions, be content, patient and forbearing, be dedicated to understanding the self and be dedicated to God or the divinity. Actually, it’s through the practice of meditation and pranayama that all these qualities can effortlessly blossom in you.

“While it’s certainly helpful to be able to sit properly with your spine straight without discomfort, you don’t have to be able to sit in padmasana (lotus pose) for three hours or have mastered all of the major asanas before learning pranayama, which is the position of some schools,” says Dale.

People who just practise asana will definitely experience some benefit to their health and state of mind, but there’s much more to yoga than asana. You could practise asanas for many years and maintain and improve your physical and mental health, but still be unhappy and disturbed in your mind and emotions.

However, asanas practised by themselves diligently with a balance between effort and relaxation can be a very nice entry to yoga and a good initial first step.

“While there’s a minority view that everything in yoga is attainable through asana, I personally feel that nearly everyone would benefit from practising some pranayama and meditation at an early stage in their practice, as long as they learned under someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Dale. Pranayama and meditation, combined with an understanding about the mind and how to manage it, are very effective tools with which to create health, happiness and harmony on every level of your being.

A word of caution

While the risks would be less than the chance of getting injured in a yoga class, there are legitimate grounds for caution with the practice of pranayama. “I have had some people coming to my yoga and meditation classes who have got themselves into trouble trying to practise pranayama from a book without proper guidance,” warns Dale. “However, learned from a teacher who has been authorised by a lineage and who themselves are an advanced practitioner of the practices they teach, there are minimal risks and tremendous potential benefits.”

Tips for beginners

Are you interested in starting meditation and breathing practices? Here are some tips.

  • Find a teacher and approach that you resonate with and stick with it. It’s OK to shop around in the beginning but, once you find something you like, practise it diligently, without mixing it with other approaches.
  • Avoid “get rich quick” schemes in the field of pranayama and meditation.
  • If people promise you instant enlightenment or charge huge sums of money, walk away.
  • Avoid forced practices that are very effortful.
  • When choosing a guru/teacher or mentor, don’t just look for someone who has done a yoga teacher training course. Look for someone who is fully and authentically living the yogic knowledge. Someone who has money can give you money, someone who has knowledge can give you knowledge — but only someone who is established in peace and wisdom, or who is enlightened, can show you the path to freedom.

Meggan Brummer

Meggan Brummer

Born in Zimbabwe, Meggan has been practising yoga since she was four years old. In 1999, she left London and the corporate world and travelled the globe for a year, searching for a way to make her life meaningful and fulfilling. She became a yoga teacher in Varanasi — India’s city of light — during that time and, after a year of working in Zimbabwe as a yoga teacher and journalist, moved to live in Australia. Currently a stay-at-home mum living in Sydney, Meggan balances motherhood with a variety of interests and work. She’s a civil celebrant, a corporate wellness consultant and an internationally published writer.

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