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Meditation has long suffered an image problem. Ever since hippies claimed this ancient practice as their own in the sixties it’s been largely dismissed in the mainstream. The sense it’s difficult to master, a little too left field and impossible to fit into modern life prevails today even though there are an estimated 600 million meditators worldwide.
But with the UK feeling the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic on top of day-to-day stresses and a fuel crisis, more people are turning to holistic methods to combat rising cortisol.
Meditation teacher and author Jillian Lavender says the London and New York Meditation Centres she co-founded with Michael Miller have seen a recent rise in new meditators in the last 18 months.
“Life was hectic and demanding before the pandemic, which has intensified this for so many,” she says.
“Individually and collectively we’ve had to deal with immense change and often in ways that we didn’t see coming. Dealing with this prolonged uncertainty takes a lot of energy – very quickly people can become drained, unable to sleep and overwhelmed”. This is why mental health tools like meditation are needed more than ever.
“The deep rest of meditation allows for a daily reset and recharge. By clearing out stress and tiredness we can stay grounded, energised and in better shape to deal with whatever changes are coming next,” adds Lavender,
A UK-wide *survey found almost three quarters of adults (74%) have at some point over the past year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
“There’s good evidence that meditation helps people manage moderate stress and anxiety, elevates mood, helps reduce panic attacks, and offers a whole range of really good things that are positive for your mental health,” Dr David Crepaz-Keay from the Mental Health Foundation who commissioned the study.
But he explains the goal isn’t to eradicate stress from our lives entirely. He says: “Stress and anxiety are not a bad thing. In the context of a pandemic both have been useful reminders that there is a threat. It’s really good to be aware of stress and meditation can help you focus on that feeling and whether or not there is a genuine threat you need to respond to. Having meditation in your mental health tool bag is really useful.”
Meditation comes in many shapes and forms. From mindfulness to transcendental meditation, there are courses, apps and a pantheon of celebrities chiming in the benefits. Type ‘meditation’ into Google and you get 4.5 billion results. Understandably it’s difficult to know where to begin. With some expert help we’ve broken down what you need to know to get started with meditation. No John Lennon glasses required.
Top meditation myths busted
First let’s clear up the common misconceptions of what meditation is. “A big part of understanding meditation is to understand what it is NOT,” says Jillian Lavender.
Here she busts five myths around meditation.
1. I don’t have time to meditate
“If you’re so busy you don’t have time to pause, rest and rebalance then something’s off,” says Lavender. “Meditation doesn’t have to involve many hours each day. My meditation practice only takes about twenty minutes, twice a day. You might be reading this, thinking forty minutes a day! Where’s that going to come from? Don’t panic. Meditators quickly notice that they gain time. The deep rest you get in a twenty-minute meditation leaves you more clear and alert. You get through your to-do list faster.”
2. It’s not easy to meditate
“The idea that meditation is difficult and requires lots of discipline to control the mind is very common. There are many techniques that do involve a focused approach like trying to block out thoughts. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Meditation is a process of working with the nature of the mind instead of fighting against it. All we need is the proper technique. Then the process is easy and extremely pleasurable. And when something is easy and enjoyable you want to do it.”
3. Meditation is for New Age Hippies
“All sorts of people meditate, from all walks of life: mothers, teachers, CEOs, nurses, actors, teenagers, you name it. It’s understandable why many people think meditation is something just for hippies. Meditation exploded onto the scene in the 1960s. The Beatles learned to do it and there was a surge of young people who were drawn to it. Meditation was accessible in a way that it had never been before. [Today] there’s an obvious need for everyone to have more peace and quiet in their lives.”
4. You have to sit in some weird position
“When you look at pictures of people meditating you’ll often see a yoga pose. Someone sitting with legs crossed, eyes closed, hands contorted in some unusual gesture. Actually none of this is necessary. You can practise meditation anywhere, sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. You might be in a chair at work, on the sofa at home or propped up in bed with pillows behind you. Meditation is portable. Take it on the move: on a train, on a plane, in a car (as long as you’re not driving!) or on a park bench.”
5. Meditation is a religion or a belief system
“You don’t need to believe in anything to meditate. It’s not faith-based. The knowledge base from where we get meditation comes from India. But it’s not Hindu, and it’s not even an Indian philosophy. It doesn’t mean you need to shave your head, change your name or use prayer beads. In fact, you don’t even have to believe meditation works for it to have an effect. All that’s required is to do the practice. When you do, changes occur.”
What is meditation?
Jillian Lavender started teaching in 2003 and has since seen an explosion in the number of techniques and practices labelled as meditation from mindfulness to meditation apps.
She says: “It’s not hard to see why. There’s an urgent need to counterbalance the rollercoaster of life in a way that actually works and doesn’t have negative side effects. On balance I think it’s positive that there’s more awareness about meditation.”
But this does have its downsides. Lavender adds: “I see many things that are called meditation that have little positive impact. This results in confusion and misunderstanding about the value of all meditations.”
Broadly the three main styles of meditation according to Lavender are: concentration or focused attention, open monitoring (AKA mindfulness) and automatic self-transcending. “The latter is the meditation style I practise and teach. It involves the use of a sound called a mantra to orient the mind towards quieter levels of thinking.”
Why Meditate? Because it Works by Jillian Lavender (£14.99) contains more details on this type of meditation or visit londonmeditationcentre.com
Meditation is full of surprises
“This meditation thing, it really works,” says Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation. “I’ve now taught 9000 people and it always exceeds people’s expectations. The reports you get back from people tally very well with what the science is telling us.” Here Williams reveals five positive aspects to meditation that might surprise you.
1. Meditation really is effortless.
“I teach five year olds, that’s how easy it is. And actually, once you give your mind, body and nervous system a taste of this experience it wants more of it. Meditation keeps the brain in good condition. If you’re living in a city, you’ve got a job, relationships, and lots of demands then your nervous system is going to be quite jazzed up. Meditation will calm it right down.”
2. It’s a performance enhancing tool
“There is a misconception that meditation will turn you into a zombie. You will actually become more engaged with life, less edgy and a lot sharper. Stress is terribly numbing and your brain will start to rewire itself through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity and become a higher functioning piece of kit. There’s a reason why so many CEOs, successful entrepreneurs and sports stars around the world meditate everyday.”
3. You become better at life
“The creative functions in the brain become more enhanced, which leads to better problem solving skills and more innovative approaches to everyday things. You gain more perspective in life and with that you will become more emotionally balanced and make better decisions. There are lots of well documented brain changes, which all support the fact that you become a much more capable human being as a meditator.”
4. Apps are a good starting point
“When Headspace first came along, the one that kind of really broke the mould, I was quite sceptical that they were watering down meditation. But probably half of the people who come to Beeja started with a meditation app and actually Headspace, Calm, and other apps are providing a gateway to a deeper practice. They have made meditation feel more accessible and reachable as a bit of a halfway house.”
5. Reap the results quickly
“I suffered from chronic insomnia for many years. I knew I was onto a winner from the first day I started meditating and two weeks later my insomnia was gone. My life changed in so many ways, not only being able to sleep better, but lots of other lovely things started unfolding. We all want to feel happy and live fulfilling lives. It is really surprising how quickly meditation shows itself to be working and it is very easy to do and maintain.”
To find out more about Beeja meditation see: beejameditation.com
A simple breathing exercise to try
Not quite ready to dive into daily meditation? Lavender shares this simple exercise you can do from wherever – at work, at home, on the train. “This is a lovely soothing breath that brings a sense of calm and peace. It’s great to do when you’re feeling a little bit stressed or anxious,” she says. All you have to do is follow these steps.
- Find somewhere where you can sit or lie down comfortably and close the eyes.
- Take a moment to acquaint yourself with your breath as it is now. Is your breathing shallow, smooth, stop-start? Simply take notice, without judgement.
- Now gently start the practice of breathing in for a slow count of four, and exhaling for a slow count of six. Repeat this cycle, feeling an expansion in the body on the inhale, and a release on the exhale. Notice how your body feels as you do this.
- If your mind’s wandering all over the place, this is totally normal. Gently come back to your breath and the body when this hap- pens. You can spend anywhere between three and five minutes practising this pattern of breathing.
- We tend to spend most of our day operating from our sympathetic nervous system – the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. By bringing a longer exhale to our breathing, we’re stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system – our ‘rest-and-digest’ mode. We can use the breath to quickly change the state of our nervous system, and restore a little bit of balance.
The quick fire round – five benefits of meditation
From Jillian Lavender and Michael Miller at the London Meditation Centre. If this list of pros doesn’t get you to sign up we don’t know what will.
Reduced stress and anxiety
Meditation cuts back your stress chemistry (like cortisol and adrenaline) and replaces it with natural bliss chemistry (like dopamine and serotonin).
Stay focused and clear
Meditation develops full-brain functioning. Your prefrontal cortex is activated, alpha waves increase and neurophysiology changes so you think clearly and make good decisions.
Sleep better and have more energy
The very deep rest of meditation does two things: gives you lots of energy and calms your system so you can fall asleep (and stay asleep!)
Be healthier and feel younger
Stress weakens your immune system and speeds up ageing. Meditation reverses this: you get sick less often and you stay youthful.
Get along better with people
When you’re healthier, happier and thinking clearly, you’re nicer to be around. All your relationships get better.
*The survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation click here.