Start Small and Build your Meditation Skills
By Janel Norton, O2X Yoga Specialist
Ever notice that A-hole in your head who never shuts up? You know who I’m talking about. That voice that pops up out of nowhere, like a Monday morning quarterback. Are you engrossed in the obsessive thoughts about something that just happened, or are these intrusive ideas causing you to worry about what is about to happen? Who is this obnoxious actor that spews negative thoughts across the movie screen of the mind and makes us anxious? If you can ask yourself these questions, you have begun the meditation process.
As a veteran and former war photographer, I never gave much thought to this stuff in the past. In fact, I never realized that these thoughts in my head were something I could simply observe with curiosity without getting sucked into the narrative.
Start slowly and build
Learning to objectively observe these thoughts didn’t come easy. Like our body, our mind needs some conditioning. You probably know enough not to walk into the gym for the first time in forever and load a ton of weights onto the squat rack, because you won’t be able to walk right for a few days if you do. Meditation is similar, when it comes to your mental wellbeing. You need to work up to a full “workout.” If you jump in thinking you will be able to sit in stillness with a clear mind right from the start, you’ll most likely duke it out with that a-hole in there with little success, and then the chances of you giving it another go may be slim to none.
The key is to start meditation with small, digestible bursts. Meditation isn’t about stopping the thought process. It isn’t about trying to achieve a particular state of mind. It is simply taking some time to become familiar with how your thought process works.
Research shows, through MRI brain scans, that a regular meditation practice reduces the size of the amygdala (our fear center in the brain) and increases the size of our Prefrontal cortex (our decision-making center). Here are just a few benefits that stem from these brain changes:
Benefits from Regular Meditation
- Reduces stress, anxiety, and fatigue
- Enhances cognitive performance
- Gain insight
- Increase attention and focus
- Reduce brain chatter
- Reduce impulsive reactivity
How to Meditate
So how does one meditate? There are so many ways to incorporate meditation into our daily lives. One is by simply bringing yourself into the present moment by bringing all your awareness and attention into what you are doing. The next time you are immersed in a mundane task, try opening all of your senses into it.
For example, if you are at the gym droning away on the treadmill, take a moment to feel the pressure each time your foot hits the belt, feel the sensation of air moving across sweaty skin, notice the rhythm of your breath through the nostrils or mouth, notice the sights you see in front of you, hear the sounds happening around you, and see where are your thoughts being pulled to. Maybe you’re thinking about all the things you did before you got on the treadmill, or maybe you’re considering all the things you need to do when you’re done with the workout. Just notice the thought traffic and where it’s taking you. The purpose isn’t to try and change any of it, instead it is just to be aware and observe.
Or, you might try a traditional seated practice. Start by finding yourself in a comfortable seat with a tall spine, eyes open with a soft gaze, or eyes closed. Notice your breath and where you feel it entering and leaving the body. Or focus on the cool inhale and warm exhale in the nostrils, or maybe the expanding and releasing of the mid ribs and belly. You might incorporate an internal mantra such as, “breathing in, breathing out.” You may only make it 5 seconds before the mind is carried off with a thought, and that’s okay. Notice that is happening and bring awareness back to the breath. That’s it – you are meditating! Remember it’s a practice, so keep up a little bit every day.
Nobody else has this front row seat in your mind but you. Once you see that, you can begin to observe these thoughts non-judgmentally, as they stream in and out and not attach to or carried off with them. When we start to pay closer attention to the happenings in the mind, it rubs off to the rest of our lives. We can train ourselves to pay closer attention to things around us in the world. It can help us get into and stay in the “flow state” longer, listen better, or pay attention to the needs of others with less distraction.
These practices translate into “being mindful.” Being mindful is the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly react or get overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. You can start small today and build your meditation skills with continued practice to reduce stress, gain insight, and improve your mental performance.
About the Specialist/Author: Janel Norton is an O2X Yoga and iRest Specialist. She is also a veteran, having served in the U.S. Air Force as a combat photojournalist. She was also a press information officer and photojournalist for the United Nations, spending her early career documenting crises in Panama, Bosnia, and Liberia. After 20 years as a photographer, Janel returned to school for her master’s degree from the University of South Florida. Facing a difficult job market upon graduating and discovering how yoga helped her maintain balance, she enrolled in a yoga teacher training program. Her newfound love of yoga—and teaching it—quickly turned into ownership of Trinity Yoga Studio. Eventually, Janel wanted to give back to other veterans like her, which led her to co-found the Veterans Alternative, a non-profit organization designed to serve Veterans experiencing trauma incurred while serving in the military by training the mind, body, and spirit to heal after returning home from military service. Janel travels nationwide to provide yoga and iRest as part of the O2X Human Performance team.
Study: Rinske A. Gotink, Rozanna Meijboom, Meike W. Vernooij, Marion Smits, M.G. Myriam Hunink, 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review, Brain and Cognition, Volume 108, 2016, Pages 32-41