Mindful May: How you can make meditation a daily practice
WE LIVE OUR LIVES ON THE GO, BUT MINDFUL MAY IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO SLOW DOWN AND RELAX – AND MAKE MEDITATION PART OF YOUR DAILY LIFE. SARA BUNNY TAKES A CLOSER LOOK
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.”