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Meditation - All it's cracked up to be?

A number of years ago I participated in a course to obtain a qualification to become a Trainer and Assessor. There were people from a number of industries all learning the essentials to becoming someone who could effectively teach and assess employees within their respective fields. As part of the course each participant had to deliver a 20 minute training session on a topic of their choice. We had a lot of fun in sessions as diverse as leg waxing to knife sharpening. I chose to teach a short meditation session to aid in stress reduction and relaxation.

In a class of about 20, very few had ever had any experience with meditating and one man thought so little of the activity that he just laughed and watched everyone else close their eyes and follow along. I must say this surprised me because the benefits of meditating have been well documented.

There is obviously a spiritual aspect to meditation but let's put that aside until a later post and discuss the physiological benefits here.

The Stress Response, which includes increased heart rate and changes in the lungs so we can increase our oxygen intake, was designed to keep us safe. So if a sabre tooth tiger appeared on the scene we could get out of there quick smart! The problem is the stress response is often 'switched on' permanently in today's day and age, because we are constantly stressed about the mortgage, or work, or climate change, or the world financial situation. I'm sure the list could be endless. And this is tough on the body.

The stress response triggers the release of certain chemicals and hormones which, if they are constantly secreted, have an adverse effect on the body and interfere with the immune system. In today's world we can't always resolve stress or run away from it - we feel we have to stay in that less than perfect job to pay that mortgage for the next 30 years! When stress is constantly felt, in addition to suppressing the immune system, it can also show in the body as headaches, skin rashes, digestion disorders and can result in such things as depression, inability to sleep, anxiety or nervousness.

Most recently, it has been suggested that stress has a detrimental effect on the telomeres on the DNA in cells which is linked to aging and the onset of disease.

Research has shown that simple breathing exercises like those experienced in meditation can have immediate beneficial effects on the body. Deep breathing takes us out of 'flight or fight' mode to a calming mode. (Technically, while in stress the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, and deep slow breathing disengages the overwhelming aspect of this system and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system - the one that calms us). This is called the Relaxation Response.

Thus meditation and its breathing component can be used to help the relaxation response kick in and to train the body to be less reactionary in stressful situations and reduce the production of harmful stress hormones.

Even more amazingly, Harvard researcher Herbert Benson (who coined the term "The Relaxation Response" in 1975) claims that breathing can even change the expression of genes. He says by using your breath, you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your mind. Dr Benson believes that this theory does away with the whole mind-body separation - you can use the mind to actually change your body.

So, as I've said previously, the first step is to just breathe. Most people are shallow breathers, only expanding the top of the chest when inhaling and exhaling and I've heard a number of interesting theories from different healers as to why.

Some believe that shallow breathing is a way to not have to feel everything we are feeling because when you breathe deeply you are more completely inhabiting your body. (Many people 'live in their heads'.) And when you live in, or 'feel', what it is to fully inhabit your body you get in touch with the emotions anchored there. These have often never been fully felt or maybe even subconsciously suppressed.

Other theories relate to the first breath we ever took - at birth - often a traumatic event when, at the very least, most babies experience cold, bright lights and loud noises for the first time along with that first breath of air.

And as someone who went through numerous rebirthing sessions over a period of two years in my early thirties I can say with certainty that deep breathing can have an enormous effect on the emotions that may be anchored in the body!

But, let's not get that extreme...

Start by putting some time aside each day when you can sit quietly without being disturbed. Soft instrumental music can help you reach a relaxed state. There are many CDs available specifically with music for meditation and relaxation and a number of online sites where you can download them too. There are also CDs with guided meditation scripts that can be helpful too.

This is a site that I have used where you can download a free online guided meditation and free meditation music at The Guided Meditation Site.

And, as the site says "meditation will relax you, uplift you, inspire you and fill you with positive, blissful feelings" and I think we can all do with some of that in our busy lives.


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