It has finally reached the medical forefront that overstressing our bodies and minds is not good for us. Stress, which most of us experience daily, causes our bodies to release the hormone cortisol which is toxic on the areas of the brain that deal with memories and emotions and also causes fat to collect around your stomach which is then difficult to remove. We rarely think of our bodies and all that they do for us while we are entrenched in the daily grind. We don’t feed ourselves well enough and don’t get enough sleep for our bodies to work at peak performance. We need to reclaim a little time and space in our lives to help us relax, de-stress and gain balance in the juggling act of life. Through simple breathing and a little meditation anyone can improve their ability to handle stress and become a little more spiritual.
Being spiritual means different things to different people, from religion and order to nature and the super natural anything pertaining to the human spirit can be seen as a type of spirituality. To look up the definition of spirituality, one is confronted with a series of ideas rather than a clear answer. For the purposes of this article, we can define spirituality as any practice or activity that helps us enjoy ourselves and improve ourselves while we nurture our inner spirit.
Based on this definition, one can become more spiritual through activities we enjoy and through things that help us learn more about ourselves and become better people. Basically, all you really need is some time with yourself. Practicing a type of spirituality can help us to identify goals and ambitions we have, allow us to reflect on our lives and actions, and provide us with relaxation and unwinding that we so desperately need.
One simple way to find time for ourselves throughout our busy days is to simply take notice of our breath. Breathing in and out a few times, while paying attention to the flow of our breath, can provide a moment of calm in a busy day. Every one of us can spare a minute to close our eyes and breathe in deeply three to five times as a way of calming ourselves and focusing our intention for our next action. In his book Healthy Aging, Dr. Andrew Weil presents a breathing exercise which achieves the desired effect.
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind and above your front teeth and keep it there through the whole exercise.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound.
- Inhale deeply and quietly through your nose to a count of 4 (with your mouth closed).
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale audibly through your mouth to a count of 8.
- Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 for a total of four breaths.
By completing this exercise you have succeeded in taking the time you need to relieve stress in your life. By doing this exercise you have aided your body by providing much needed oxygen to your cells. You can do the exercise above and then begin to work your way up in repetitions or length of breath. The more time you take in your day to breathe consciously, the better you will feel. Breathing has been proven to reduce stress and increase oxygen flow to the cells which contributes greatly to your overall health and well being.
Another great way to balance stress in your life is to take some time for meditation. This does not necessarily mean that you have to sit in a cross legged position and chant “Ohm” (although you can if you want to). Meditation, like breathing is another way to simply create a space for you to relax. Wikipedia offers a definition of meditation as one of the following:
- a state that is experienced when the mind dissolves and is free of all thoughts
- focusing the mind on a single object (such as a religious statue, or one’s breath, or a mantra)
- a mental “opening up” to the divine, invoking the guidance of a higher power
- reasoned analysis of religious teachings (such as impermanence, for Buddhists).
There are many different kinds of meditation that one can practice. However, anyone can meditate because all it takes is a few minutes of concentration. By concentrating on our breathing, we are partaking in a simple meditation on breath. The goal of meditation, long-term, is to clear your mind and not to think about anything. Although it may sound easy, thinking about nothing is not that easy. It takes practice and concentration to notice your thoughts and it is even harder to simply allow them to be there without it making you think. To be able to meditate there are a few things you need to set up before starting.
- Don’t have expectations about what meditation is. There is no wrong way to meditate. As long as you take the time and try to concentrate you are succeeding.
- You will need a place to meditate where you feel comfortable. To create an inviting space you can place pillows on the floor for you to sit on, play soft music, or create an altar with things that bring you peaceful feelings such as pictures, candles or incense.
- Create solitude for yourself. This means finding a space where no one will bother you and turn off the phone.
- Allow time for your meditation, at least five minutes. As you practice, increase the amount of time you spend in meditation.
In order to meditate there are a few different paths you can choose.
- Sit and breathe and try to concentrate on your breath for 5-10 minutes
- Identify a mantra (saying) or object you would like to meditate on
- Listen to a meditation led by another person. These can be found online as well as in most bookstores on CD
- Follow a specific type of meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation or Zen meditation
- A meditation class or group setting
Meditation is giving oneself personal attention. It helps the body and mind rest, relax and rejuvenate and has many benefits to your heath. Studies have shown that daily meditation can help people overcome anxiety and depression, deepen their concentration, stimulate their creativity and lower blood pressure. It has also been shown that a meditation practice can lead to lowering of bad cholesterol, increase lung capacity, and actually slow the aging process.
For the five to ten minutes a day you can spend breathing and/or meditating, you are doing a great deal of service to your body. Not only are you promoting your own health and wellness, but you are also taking time for yourself, developing your spiritual practice and reducing the daily stress in your life. It’s not hard and it doesn’t take a long time, so why not evolve your spiritual practice and add breathing and meditation into your life?
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD