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Meditation, Yoga and Brain Health

beginner-yoga-meditationBy Katie Athearn

Is your mind always on the go, thinking about the next thing you need to do? Is it difficult for you to focus? Is dealing with stress a struggle for you? Do you want to feel more connected with others and the present moment? Meditation might be your solution. If you’re not very familiar with meditation, you might be picturing a monk sitting pretzel style and barefoot on a rock with his eyes closed saying, “Oommmmm…” In reality, meditation is practiced by all kinds of people.

 

You can train your brain to focus and deal with stress better through meditation. It is scientifically proven that the actual structure of your brain can still change, even as an adult. There is evidence through MRIs, EEGs, and other technology that meditation can increase the amount of gray matter in the brain in areas used for attention, emotion regulation and mental flexibility. The more gray matter, the better. Meditation improves the brain by strengthening and creating new connections between neurons. The brain’s ability to remodel itself is known as neuroplasticity.

 

Some Possible Benefits of Meditation:

  • Increase ability to concentrate
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Feel more connected to others and life
  • Feel more compassion toward others and yourself
  • Be more aware of your present surroundings
  • Increase in cognitive abilities such as processing information and forming memories
  • Decrease depression
  • Help fight addictions
  • Give you a positive outlook
  • Give you mental clarity

The type of effect on your brain sometimes depends on the type of meditation you do. You might meditate differently if your goal is to improve your ability to focus than if you want to train yourself to handle stress better. For example, if you want to learn how to concentrate better, you might try concentration meditation in which you focus solely on one thing, whether an object or breathing. It stimulates areas in your brain crucial for controlling attention. You can also improve your ability to pay attention and be more in tune to your present surroundings. This can help you reduce anxiety and stress in your life. There can be different focuses to meditation, but usually all people who meditate at least feel a sense of calm as a result of this daily practice.

How Much Do You Need to Meditate to Make a Difference?

If can’t sit still for long periods of time, even only 10-15 minutes of meditation a day is beneficial. That short amount of quiet time can be a great way to wake up and start off your day on a positive note. People can sometimes experience the benefits of meditating even after only one time. However, making meditation part of your daily routine is the most beneficial. There really is no right answer for how long to meditate; it is a personal choice that you make based upon how you feel.

 

Listening to an instructor might help, especially for beginners, but it is not mandatory to have a positive experience. You can also follow guidelines found online or in books, but there are not really any rules to meditation; it is a very personal experience.

Yoga

If sitting quietly for 15 minutes sounds too difficult for you, try yoga. There’s more to yoga than just doing a few stretches while listening to an instructor’s soothing voice. It involves controlled breathing  and meditation techniques along with a variety of physical postures.  It also has similar potential health benefits such as:

  • Improved fitness—i.e. it can improve flexibility and strength
  • Reduction of stress and anxiety—it has been proven to biochemically reduce stress through the decrease in the hormones created by the adrenal glands in response to stress.
  • Management of chronic conditions as well as reducing risk factors associated with chronic conditions—i.e. it can lower blood pressure and heart rate

Some things may be difficult to prove scientifically, but there are plenty of anecdotes from people who practice yoga. Many people say their ability to concentrate is improved, as well as their general mood, as a result of yoga.

However, it is not right for everyone. For some, certain health conditions might put you at risk for injury while doing yoga. It is important to talk to your doctor if you have any concerning circumstances to make sure it is safe for your body. Some of these health conditions could include but are not limited to:

  • Uncontrolled blood pressure
  • Glaucoma and other eye conditions
  • Hardened arteries
  • Balance problems
  • Pregnancy
  • A herniated disk

Meditation and/or yoga can be very beneficial to your mind and overall sense of well-being.  Anyone can meditate even if they are unable to practice yoga. All you need is a little motivation to sit still and better your mind.

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