It’s only 8am and I’m already feeling flustered. I’ve just returned home from dropping my kids off at school and traffic was a nightmare.
As I walk in the door, I’m already making mental checklists of everything I need to do today. I’m itching to switch on my computer and start working but I resist the urge. Instead, I take off my shoes; sit down in a comfortable, sunny spot on my lounge floor; and open up the meditation app on my cell phone.
Then I close my eyes and spend 10 minutes listening to a soothing voice encouraging me to relax, breathe and acknowledge my thoughts as they enter my mind but then allow them to slip away. For the past three weeks I’ve been taking time out to meditate twice a day – in the morning and at night before going to bed. I felt inspired to try out this practice after reading about research conducted by the University of California, which showed the benefits it can have for people aged 18-35.
Like most millennials, I’m glued to my cellphone from morning until night. Aware of all the stresses that technology causes, the American researchers wanted to find out if our smartphones can be used for another purpose: to help us relax. In the study, 59 participants meditated for 20 to 30 minutes daily using a cellphone app. And the results were incredible: just by doing these short sessions they found their focus and memory improved and they were less likely to procrastinate.
According to the study’s author, Adam Gazzaley, combining aspects of the ancient practice of meditation with modern technology enhanced sustainable attention. I could definitely do with some of that. As a working mom of two girls, aged 11 and 7, I often feel overwhelmed by how much I need to do. In between work, housework and homework are the constant distractions – pinging phones, nagging thoughts and looming deadlines.
It had never occurred to me before to try out meditation. To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I imagined people sitting cross-legged in an ashram, chanting under the watchful eye of Buddhist monks. The idea of being able to meditate at home using my cell phone seemed much more doable. I started out by loading Headspace (see box below) onto my phone.
The app encourages you to sit with your eyes closed and your legs and arms uncrossed. I chose to sit cross-legged on the floor as I felt this would be more comfortable while I listened to the guided meditations.
I’ve got to admit that during the first week I found it a real struggle to pull myself away from my busy life for meditation sessions. It felt counterintuitive to sit around doing, well, basically nothing when I had so much to do. But by the second week it had become a habit and after meditating I felt better equipped going into a busy day.
When you’re stressed out, you carry tension all over your body. Your jaw clenches, your breath shortens, your midsection tightens, and your shoulders stiffen and lift. The meditations encourage you to do a full scan of your body and notice where the tension lies, then to relax these areas.
This acute sense of body awareness stayed with me long after I was done meditating and I found I became more sensitive to the physical signs of stress and anxiety that used to go unnoticed. Now when my jaw clenches or I notice my shoulders are sitting up near my ears I breathe deeply, the way they tell you to do in the sessions and try to relax.
THE MAGIC OF MEDITATION
IT IMPROVES FOCUS
A study published in the Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience medical journal a few years ago showed that human resource employees who regularly practised mindfulness meditation stayed focused on a task for longer. These workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their peers who didn’t practise. It helps manage depression and anxiety: scientists believe there’s a link between mental illnesses such as depression and ruminative thinking (the compulsive and repeated revisiting of the same thoughts). “It’s likely that the more someone meditates, the less they’re going to be ruminating. And that decrease in rumination may be directly or causally linked to the improved symptoms in depression and anxiety,” says David Vago, researcher at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, US.
IT REDUCES STRESS
Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation. A study done by John Hopkins University in Maryland in the US showed that meditation lives up to its reputation as a stress buster. In the eight-week programme the more than 3 500 participants showed notably reduced levels of inflammation caused by stress
IT IMPROVES SLEEP
The agony of insomnia affects 10-35% of the world’s population. A study undertaken by the Los Angeles healthcare system in 2015 compared the sleeping patterns of one group that practised meditation and another that didn’t. Participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer.
IT CAN DECREASE BLOOD PRESSURE
Studies have proven that both meditation and deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. A 2015 study by a team at China’s Lanzhou University found that when 996 volunteers meditated by concentrating on a “silent mantra” – a repeated, non-vocalised word – blood pressure was reduced by about five points on average.
Rather than learning to block out thoughts, meditation teaches you to acknowledge them in a detached way without getting caught up in them, and then letting them pass. At first I only used this technique during sessions but after a few days this also spilled over into my life. After about a week I also started feeling much more focused.
I was able to concentrate on whatever task I was working on, or person I was interacting with, without getting distracted.
The night-time sessions were just as beneficial. I often struggle to fall asleep, lying in bed with my mind racing, but after 10 minutes of meditation I was off as soon as my head hit the pillow. Final verdict: It felt like a bit of a chore at first but I’m glad I stuck with it. And now, having experienced the benefits, I plan to continue making meditation a part of my daily routine.