Mind­ful May: How you can make med­i­ta­tion a daily prac­tice


Good Health (Australia) - - Contents -

Re­gard­less of whether you’re a ded­i­cated mind­ful­ness con­vert, you’re a dip­per who starts for a while then loses mo­men­tum, or you’ve rel­e­gated it to the list of ‘must try one day but never quite get around to it’, Dr Elise Bia­lylew says ev­ery­one can learn some­thing new from the an­cient mind-sooth­ing prac­tice.

And when it comes to help­ing oth­ers find a way to get off the stress ex­press and into health­ier habits, she’s a bit of an ex­pert. Elise is the founder of Mind­ful in May, a pop­u­lar world­wide move­ment that for the past six years has seen thou­sands of peo­ple sign up to med­i­ta­tion pro­grammes. On top of that, the funds raised through the month of mind­ful­ness go to­wards build­ing clean water projects in Africa, and she trav­els there reg­u­larly to work with aid groups. She’s also trained in psy­chi­a­try, writes ex­ten­sively about mind­ful­ness, leads work­shops and sem­i­nars, and has re­cently penned the book, The Hap­pi­ness Project, about in­cor­po­rat­ing it into our mod­ern lives. »

‘It’s about teach­ing us how to master our minds’ – Dr Elise Bia­lylew

Elise first got into mind­ful­ness while she was study­ing medicine, af­ter de­cid­ing to give it a try when she was go­ing through a stress­ful time in her life. “I started prac­tis­ing and very quickly I got quite deep into it,” she re­mem­bers. “I dis­cov­ered that this was a piece of ed­u­ca­tion that my psy­chi­a­try train­ing hadn’t cov­ered at all, which was re­ally about how we can un­der­stand the mind so that we can use it to our great­est po­ten­tial. That’s what mind­ful­ness gave me.”

Here, she shares with us some of the things she wishes ev­ery­one knew about the an­cient art of mind­ful­ness.

Yes it’s a stress-buster, but there are other key ben­e­fits

Ac­cord­ing to Elise, one of the key as­pects of mind­ful­ness is de­vel­op­ing a greater self-aware­ness, and from there, the pos­i­tive spin-offs can lead to big changes. “When we’ve got more self-aware­ness, we have a bet­ter ca­pac­ity to un­der­stand our­selves and direct our lives in a way that is go­ing to lead to more hap­pi­ness,” she ex­plains. “This rip­ples into pretty much ev­ery­thing we do. It’s es­pe­cially ben­e­fi­cial to our re­la­tion­ships, as it in­creases our ca­pac­ity to be pa­tient.” As well as be­ing a proven hap­pi­ness­booster, reg­u­lar mind­ful­ness can also act as a cir­cuit breaker to get us out of the spi­ral of bad habits and neg­a­tive think­ing. “There are habits we do ex­ter­nally but there are also in­ter­nal habits, and I think the worst one is ru­mi­na­tion,” says Elise. “Get­ting caught up in worry, or go­ing over past events in our mind that we can’t change is re­ally un­help­ful, and it’s not how it has to be. “Mind­ful­ness helps us to be­come more aware of what’s go­ing on in our heads, so we start to catch our­selves when we get stuck in that stress­ful thought loop. I think as you get more ex­pe­ri­enced in mind­ful­ness, stress­ful thoughts have less ‘stick­i­ness’, and don’t im­pact us so severely.”

For the Mel­bourne-based doc­tor, mak­ing mind­ful­ness a part of her daily rou­tine has also helped her to be­come more re­silient to life’s in­evitable curve balls.

“In­stead of get­ting com­pletely caught up in the ‘what ifs’, you can recog­nise when the mind is pulling you into worry, and you can let those thoughts go. Mind­ful­ness is about teach­ing us how to master our minds, rather than be­ing a slave to our mind. I think be­fore you have that sort of ed­u­ca­tion, you just don’t re­alise that there is an­other way to be.”

It’s been proven to change your brain

One of the most in­cred­i­ble as­pects of mind­ful­ness is how it can help to change the struc­ture of the brain – and you don’t have to be a zen master to start the process.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, mind­ful­ness helps to pro­mote more ac­tiv­ity in the pre-frontal cor­tex, which is the most evolved sec­tion of our grey mat­ter.

Un­like the amyg­dala, which is our

‘fight or flight’ zone, the pre-frontal cor­tex is re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing our at­ten­tion and fo­cus, reg­u­lat­ing our emo­tions, keep­ing us cool un­der pres­sure, and help­ing us calm down af­ter a stress­ful episode.

Re­cent re­search car­ried out by leading Har­vard neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Sara Lazar also found reg­u­lar med­i­ta­tion boosted den­sity in sev­eral ar­eas of the brain that are linked with per­spec­tive, higher-level cog­ni­tion, stress re­sponse and em­pa­thy. Ac­cord­ing to Lazar’s find­ings, the su­per-sen­si­tive amyg­dala tends to be smaller in those who prac­tise med­i­ta­tion, and she noted that changes in the brain took place af­ter just eight weeks of med­i­tat­ing daily.

An­other study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science, found reg­u­lar med­i­ta­tion pro­duces pain-re­liev­ing ef­fects in the brain, and scans re­vealed re­duced ac­tiv­ity in an area of the brain that is linked with how in­tensely we per­ceive pain.

It can re­duce in­flam­ma­tion

In­flam­ma­tion − and all the is­sues and chronic ill­nesses that are linked to it − has been big news re­cently on the health scene. And while most of us know that diet and life­style fac­tors play a role, what the sci­ence world has been look­ing at is how and why our genes can add to the prob­lem. For rea­sons that aren’t com­pletely clear – although stress is thought to play a role – our genes can pro­duce a pro­tein that causes in­flam­ma­tion in the body.

“This is linked to gene ex­pres­sion,” says Elise. “Genes ex­press them­selves like a vol­ume dial, and they can be turned up or down. Some of the more re­cent re­search has re­vealed that a day of in­tense mind­ful­ness can im­pact the ex­pres­sion of our genes, and turn them down so they aren’t cre­at­ing in­flam­ma­tion.”

The 2013 study, car­ried out by a team of re­searchers from France, Spain and the US, com­pared two groups – one that did a day of med­i­ta­tion, and a con­trol group that didn’t do any med­i­ta­tion but stuck to quiet, non-stress­ful ac­tiv­i­ties for the day. At the end of the ex­per­i­ment, the med­i­ta­tion group had a wide range of ge­netic and molec­u­lar dif­fer­ences.

Con­sis­tency is key

“Mind­ful­ness is very much like phys­i­cal fit­ness,” says Elise. “If you go to the gym three times a week, you’re go­ing to see a big dif­fer­ence in your fit­ness, whereas if you go once a week, you might not see much of a change.”

The jury is out when it comes to how long you need to med­i­tate for each day to see a dif­fer­ence, but many be­lieve 10 min­utes is a good place to start.

While a lot of the ear­lier re­search looked at the ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion in those who prac­tised it for 30-40 min­utes a day, even the most ded­i­cated med­i­ta­tion pros soon re­alised it’s a time­frame that’s out of reach for most peo­ple. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mel­bourne’s Monash Univer­sity, Elise pi­loted a study on whether the 10 min­utes of daily med­i­ta­tion

pro­moted as part of Mind­ful »

in May was enough to bring about ben­e­fits. It’s still early days, but the sur­vey-based study showed some in­ter­est­ing re­sults.

“We had 200 peo­ple who com­pleted the study, and we asked peo­ple to re­flect on how they felt at the be­gin­ning of Mind­ful in May com­pared to how they felt at the end,” says Elise.

“There was a sta­tis­ti­cal ben­e­fit af­ter do­ing a month of daily med­i­ta­tion for 10 min­utes. The key as­pects were the abil­ity to per­ceive stress and re­spond to it more ef­fec­tively, an in­crease in fo­cus, and greater self-com­pas­sion.”

It’s the lit­tle changes that lead to big dif­fer­ences

If a ded­i­cated ses­sion of med­i­ta­tion each day sounds like a bit too much, ‘mind­ful wak­ing’ could be more your style. Not only does it help to set you up with a more pos­i­tive out­look in the morn­ing, it’s also su­per-easy and only takes a minute.

“When you wake up in the morn­ing, rather than reach­ing for your phone, make notic­ing your breath the first thing you do,” says Elise. “Be with your breath for 10 in and out cy­cles. Rest your at­ten­tion on the breath, feel it in the body, sense it. Then bring to mind three things you’re grate­ful for. It’s a much bet­ter way to start the day.”

If you’re want­ing to learn some easy steps to calm­ing the mind but you’re not sure where to start, Elise says guided med­i­ta­tions are es­sen­tial to get the hang of it. But the most im­por­tant part of it all? Just be kind to your­self.

“At the be­gin­ning, just do five min­utes of med­i­ta­tion, as it’s all about do­ing small bursts reg­u­larly,” she says. “Some­times it takes a num­ber of at­tempts be­fore you get into the flow of it, and of­ten peo­ple make the mis­take of try­ing to do too much. Rather than give your­self a hard time, just start again.”

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