Although your favorite way to unwind might be drinking a glass of wine while watching a marathon of your favorite television show, it’s not doing as much as you think to ward off stress. Instead, the key to truly unwinding just might be in your breathing. Meditation is the act of bringing your mind to a neutral state with focused breathing. According to researchers at UCLA, long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification or folding of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster than those who do not meditate. Not only does the cerebral cortex play a key role in memory, but it’s also a major factor in attention, thought, and consciousness—so the more folding that occurs, presumably the better the brain is at processing information, forming memories, and more.
Not enough to make you meditate yet? In conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation (ARPF), researchers found that a twelve-minute yogic meditation performed once a day not only can help lower depression but may also improve cognitive functioning. (A bonus: researchers even found that the meditation was associated with a decrease in cellular aging resulting from stress.) Before you dive into meditating, follow these five steps to get started and help you to reap the most benefits from your daily meditation.
Just as you would set the alarm to wake up for your morning yoga class, the first step to meditating is making time to do it, says Joy Rains, author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind. “Any time you can fit meditation practice into your schedule is a good time,” she says. “Many people find that meditating first thing in the morning is an ideal time since they can be sure to meditate before they get involved in the busyness of their day. Additionally, some people become so relaxed while they meditate that they fall asleep, and this is less likely to happen in the morning.”
Like with most new activities, sometimes the easiest way to incorporate it into your everyday life is to do a little bit at a time, otherwise it can become overwhelming fast. “Rather than trying to meditate for twenty minutes a day, start with five minutes, or even a couple of minutes,” suggest Rains. Find quick, two-minute audio meditations on Rains’ website, joyrains.com.
KEEP IT REGULAR
The more often you do something, the better you become at it; such is the case with meditation. “Try to meditate every day so it becomes a habit,” advises Rains. “If you can, meditate in the same place in your home or office, such as a favorite chair or favorite room. Once you get used to meditating there, simply by entering that space your mind may begin to settle.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Some of the best environments to meditate in are simply comfortable chairs in quiet rooms. “I don’t recommend music unless the person is doing a ‘sound meditation,’ which means they are resting their attention on the sounds of the music,” explains Rains. “Meditation is a practice of bringing the mind to a neutral state, and music can generate thoughts and judgements; for example, ‘I like this song’ or ‘the flute sounds pretty.’”
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
As easy as meditation can be, it also takes time to reap the benefits from it. So don’t expect to “get it” on your first or even second or third tries. “It may take a while to develop this new perspective that allows you to relax and watch your mind, but once you do, your relaxation will deepen,” says Gary van Warmerdam, author of MindWorks: A Practical Guide for Changing Thoughts, Beliefs, and Emotional Reactions. “After a while of practicing this way you will later deepen the practice and find quiet periods of silence.”
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