Meditation: The Simplest Health Tip Has the Biggest Benefits
January is BlogHer's Month of Little Steps to Health & Fitness, and we want you to share your favorite easy health tip! Click here to see how to play along. And check out all the tips so far in the Month of Little Steps to Health & Fitness series.
You know what's scary? Watching your best girlfriends cornered by a group of aggressive men. You know what's even scarier? Realizing that you can't help them because you've forgotten to breathe and are now on the verge of fainting.
I am not good in a crisis. Despite my years of training in pediatric first aid, it was my husband who had to Heimlich my son when he choked on a quarter while I ran around screaming. (Sweet love, did you know that "blue in the face" is not just a figure of speech?) So thank heavens for my girlfriends that the above scenario was contrived for the sake of a women's self defense class we were taking. If they had really had to rely on me to help them, we all would have been in a heap of trouble. (Take that mugger! I will now swoon menacingly!)
While I learned a lot of valuable things in that self-defense class, surprisingly the thing that has come in most handy was the technique the teacher taught us at the end called "Warrior Breathing" as a way to calm ourselves in the midst of a crisis so that we would be able to act. But it doesn't take a crisis of scary-guy-in-an-alley proportions to tell us that breathing is a very important skill.
When I was 21 and in my last semester of graduate school, I suddenly came down with a mysterious illness. A couple of times a week I would get an attack of severe stomach pains that would last until I threw up or had diarrhea or both. Many times I'd end up in the E.R. screaming and convulsing. The pain was so severe that soon I was on a cocktail of heavy duty pain medications while the doctors tested me for everything from colon cancer (to this day one of my favorite memories - I'm serious, whatever drug they gave me made me feel happier than I ever have in my entire life!) to celiac disease. The final verdict however was a bad case of irritable bowel syndrome. All that a diagnosis of IBS means is that your bowels don't work right and no one knows why.
One doctor told me to try yoga and meditation. I looked at him like he was crazy. I was in pain that was an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 and he wanted me to snort incense and stand in tree pose? He explained that he thought my symptoms were due to the extreme amount of stress I was under. Graduate school, graduation, full-time teaching job, part-time lab job, newly married, experiencing a miscarriage, interviewing all over the country, moving 1,000 miles away... hmm, maybe he had a point. I signed up for a meditative yoga class.
It changed my life. And I do not say that lightly.
While we may think that we already know all there is to know about breathing - in, out, in, out, repeat until death, right? - you'd be amazed at how often we forget to do it and do it right. The only thing tricky about meditation is the fact that it's so simple. You sit quietly. (No you don't have to sit ramrod straight with your hands in classic "ohm" position.) You focus inward. You breathe deeply. That's it! Sure you can make it more complicated but you don't have to. The only reason I think more people don't do it is exactly because it is so basic.
They should, however: The health benefits of meditation are numerous. Lower weight, increased immunity, less depression, better heart health, greater resilience and stress relief are just a few of the many ways that learning to be still can help you. This is one of the easiest "little steps to better health" that you can do and it has one of the biggest payoffs! Just try it right now: rest your hands on your legs, close your eyes and inhale deeply, counting to three as you inhale and three as you exhale. Just do five breaths. You feel better right?
You don't have to be a yoga guru and balance on a cushion for an hour every day to reap all the benefits of meditation. In this case, every little bit helps. Rather then set aside 30 minutes a day to sit in the dark, let go of "perfection" and just make it a goal to take 5 breaths 2-3 times a day and go from there. Right before eating is a perfect time. Not only will it remind you to be conscious of your satiety levels but it will help you eat slower and enjoy your food more.
Have you ever tried meditation? Do you have a favorite kind? If you don't do it, why not?
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!