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Ask the PT: How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?

Posted by on Sep 27, 2017

According to the eight-limbed path of Astanga yoga, concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) make up the sixth and seventh limbs. The placement of these limbs alone is enough to suggest their importance, for it is through these last two limbs that total absorption (samadhi) unfolds. And if that’s not reason enough to consider learning more about a mindfulness meditation practice, think about 1 habit or tendency (stick with the first thing that comes to mind) that you’d like to change; meditation can help you get there.

How does mindfulness meditation work? Simply stated, over time we collect patterns of thought and behaviors that become habits. Some may be habits that support your health and success, while others may be habits that worked well at another time but no longer work well in your life today. It can feel like the stress in life is caused by situations outside of your control. Your reaction to a situation, however, can make it better, or worse, for yourself and others.

When you practice mindfulness, you begin to cultivate a gap between what happens and your reaction. That gap is the moment to slow things down and pause, notice your habitual, autopilot reaction and then decide what the best response is in a particular situation. A mindfulness practice allows us to live our lives with greater clarity and wisdom.

Mindfulness is a series of practices, including breathing, gratitude practices, mindful movement and meditation that help build a strong mental infrastructure to help you handle everyday life and those times of unexpected challenges. Think of it like physical exercise that works to develop resiliency to handle stress and bounce back… and possibly even gain wisdom from the challenge! A mindfulness practice can help us learn to redirect our thought process to build new mental habits.

Establishing a mindfulness meditation practice can be a life changing decision. It can also feel overwhelming at first, so do yourself a favor and keep it simple. For years I struggled with my meditation practice because I had an idea of what it was supposed to look and feel like and neither of those things were true for me. Eventually, and with the guidance of my teachers, I came to understand that the goal was not to completely empty my mind nor transcend suffering so that thoughts, sensations and emotions would not touch me. It sounds funny now, but that was what I was aiming for because I thought that was the ‘real’ experience of meditation.

Now I know through my own experiences that one’s practice and approach can vary from another’s in that it can be tailored to an individual’s strengths. Perhaps sitting still on the floor for 30 minutes while focusing on breath isn’t quite your thing, but a mindful walk through the woods with a focus on the sounds you hear around you is more your speed. Simply by setting an intention and beginning you’re on your way to deepening your experience of the world and body you inhabit.

Here are a few simple suggestions to try to establish your own practice.

Taking 3 breaths: This is an effective practice in those moments when you feel stress rising. Long deep breaths calm the body’s nervous system and also bring you back to the present moment and cultivate that pause so you can find clarity and make better choices. Inhale a long deep breath through the nose and exhale through the nose. Do this three times.
http://www.zencentersandiego.org/files/transcripts/Three_Breaths.pdf

Listen to a Guided Meditation
When the body is tight or the mind is anxious, relaxing is a good first step. Try a short five-minute relaxation meditation or five-minute mindfulness meditation.
http://www.prasadawholebeing.com/meditation/5-minute-mindfulness-meditation

Go for a Walk
If sitting in meditation holds no interest for you, a walking meditation might work better. You can do this inside or outside. Mindfulness is not something you can “do wrong.”
If you’re paying attention and developing more awareness, you’re doing it. It’s that simple.
http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/walking_meditation

Download an App
There are a number of useful apps out there that offer free trials so you can find one that’s a good fit. It’s an easy way to begin and can easily be shared with others.
https://www.headspace.com/

– Meg Satinsky MPT, PYT

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