Back in the ‘70s, the only people touting meditation were the hippies. Ah, how times have changed. Not only do a lot of people practice some type of mindful meditation today, but new science is showing us just how meditation actually helps. A study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology reports that the brains of meditators decline less with age than the brains of those who don’t meditate.
That’s good news for people who’ve been chanting “Ohm” for a while now, but even better is that it’s not too late to begin a meditation practice that not only might reduce anxiety and depression and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being, but help reserve your mental capacity, stave off Alzheimer’s and keep you sharp.
In essence, we’re living longer than ever before, but due to the nature of the brain’s decline, that quality of life may be decreased due to impaired mental function. What if we could keep our brains as sharp as a 40-year-old well into our 80s or 90s?
• Preserve the brain. Meditators were shown to have more gray matter volume and show less of aging’s effects.
• Prevent monkey mind. That’s the term for a wandering mind when you’re not thinking of anything in particular and your mind is left to ruminate and worry about the past or future.
• Help manage depression. Meditating simply means training the brain to increase awareness, and this type of activity appears to help depression.
• Improve learning and memory. Meditation increases the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, responsible for these cognitive functions.
• Reduce fear, stress and anxiety. Meditation decreases cell volume in the amygdala, responsible for these emotions.
• Relieve social anxiety. Those who practice mindful meditation have improved social anxiety and performance and fewer “me-centered thoughts” that trip them up in social situations, making them self-conscious.
The studies that have looked at meditation’s effect on brain health all agree that meditation may slow, stall or even reverse age-related brain degeneration. Further research is needed to tell us exactly how much meditation and for how long may actually be beneficial, but meanwhile, it’s not too late to start your own practice of quieting the mind.
Mindful meditation should not be intimidating; it merely serves to help you learn to quiet your mind, giving it a much-needed rest, which in turn creates the positive benefits.
Here are two examples of a meditation practice you can start today.
1. Carve out 10 minutes.
2. Lie down on a mat on the floor or on a bed.
3. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
4. Begin by focusing on the top of your head and scanning each body part mentally as you go. Notice your position, how you feel, whether there’s any pain or discomfort. Notice how you feel emotionally—whether you’re fearful, anxious or calm.
5. Pay attention to your breathing as you work down the body to the face, neck, chest, limbs, stomach, taking in any sensations like tingling, heaviness, lightness, warmth or pressure, and notice if there are no sensations at all. Continue to your feet.
6. Mindful meditation is simply being aware of sensations. If your mind wanders, bring it back again to your body. Notice how you bring your attention to each part of the body as you breathe until you’ve “checked in” with every body part.
1. Settle in a comfortable chair or space on the floor. Close your eyes, or keep your gaze focused in one spot in front of you.
2. Take a few deep breaths, and then begin by bringing your attention to your breath. As you breathe in, notice the tip of your nose. Continue breathing normally, following your inhalations as your breath flows down into your lungs. Notice your lungs expand and contract during your exhalations. There is no need to change your breathing; just breathe normally.
3. Continue following your breath in this manner for 10 minutes. The first few times you practice, you may find that a lot of your time is spent lost in thought, rather than focused on your breath. The practice of mindfulness is about beginning to notice these internal distractions. Every time your mind wanders to something else, simply bring it back to your breath. Doing this over and over is part of the practice.
4. The more you practice, the less your mind will wander away, and the more time you’ll spend noticing your breath. This act of tuning out your thoughts and learning to quiet the mind is when meditation is most calming, centering and powerful.