Did you hear about the new brain imaging study by researchers at Yale University? It showed that people who meditate regularly are able to switch off parts of the brain associated with anxiety, schizophrenia, attention deficit, and hyperactivity disorder and other problems.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of beginner and experienced meditators. They found that experienced meditators exhibited less activity in an area known as the "default mode network," which is linked to self-centered thoughts. They concluded that experienced meditators may have developed a new default mode based on being mindful of the present rather than focused on the self.
Meditation is part of many ancient traditions, and the benefits - a greater sense of peace, less anxiety, clear thinking - are well known. The Yale study got me thinking also about the benefits of meditation for the many people who walk around feeling low energy, tired and sleep deprived.
With all the great benefits of our communication technology today come the downsides of being constantly connected, and working even when we are supposed to be resting. We think we're getting more done, but what we're actually doing is keeping the computers (our brains) on all the time. Eventually our productivity goes down and being "on" all the time begins to take a toll on our health. If you feel rundown, your immune system probably is, making you more at risk to get sick.
Recently I wrote an article about how taking short breaks to meditate can help refresh, recharge and "reboot" the brain. Here are some ideas to consider:
Take an Air Break: Every 90 minutes take the time to step outside and take a real break for 10 or 15 minutes. If you can't go outside because of the weather (it may not be as nice where you are this time of year as it is here in Hawaii!), try staring out the window or at a calming picture. Take long breaths through your nose and out your mouth with a gentle "ha" sound. It does not have to be perfectly timed - you can do it at any time - but there is a scientific reason for aiming for every 90 minutes.
Pay Attention to Your Body's Cycles: Studies on sleep habits have found that 7 to 7 1/2 hours is the best amount of sleep for an adult because that gives us five 90-minute cycles on average. During these cycles we drop into delta, the deepest sleep that invigorates and refreshes the body. When we are awake our brains also cycle from beta into alpha roughly every 90 minutes. In our fast-paced go-go-go world, we often fight going into alpha by grabbing an energy drink, another cup of coffee, or a chocolate bar. Instead, pay attention to what your body is telling you. The goal is to switch your brain for a few minutes from the busy beta wave state to an alpha wave state, the state that precedes sleep. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to slow down and the brain to regenerate. It only takes 10-15 minutes of meditation to feel the benefits.
Light meditation: Hakalau is a light meditation suited for these 15-minute breaks. This is a form of meditation from the ancient Hawaiian Huna system called "the walking meditation of the Kahuna" because the Kahuna who practiced it were able to walk around and function while remaining in the state. There are five steps to this form of meditation:
1. Ho'ohaka: Pick a spot on the wall to look at, preferably above eye level, so that your field of vision seems to bump up against your eyebrows, but not so high as to cut off the field of vision.
2. Ku'u: "To let go." As you stare at this spot, just let your mind go loose, and focus all of your attention on the spot.
3. Lau: "To spread out." Notice that within a matter of moments, your vision begins to spread out, and you see more in the peripheral than you do in the central part of your vision.
4. Hakalau: Now, pay attention to the peripheral. In fact, pay more attention to the peripheral than to the central part of your vision.
5. Ho'okohi: Stay in this state for as long as you can. Notice how it feels.
Deep meditation: If you have an office or a space you can make quiet and can close your eyes, you can do a 15-minute deep meditation. This is going into a deep alpha state without going to sleep. The form of this meditation we teach from Huna is called Hiolani, also called the sitting meditation of the Kahuna. "Hio" is "to lean, "lani" is "heavens." People in the islands use the term Hiolani to express the phrase "to lean upon the heavens." The Hiolani meditation requires you to be as comfortable as you can and to remain awake (this can be the hard part!). You can also achieve this state through self-hypnosis.
These techniques can be very helpful for restoring your energy, but should not be used as a substitute for sleep. Remember also that every so often you need to take a true day off. Pick a day and let people know you won't be answering emails or phone calls. Spend that time doing what you love most. Then you can think about those moments the next time you take your 15-minute breaks at work. And, as the Yale study shows, the more you meditate, the more benefits you will experience.
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Aloha and Happy Holidays!
Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of Kona University and its training and seminar division The Empowerment Partnership, where he serves as a master trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical behavioral technology for helping people achieve their desired results in life. His new book, The Foundation of Huna: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, details forgiveness and meditation techniques used in Hawaii for hundreds of years. He carries on the lineage of one of the last practicing kahuna of mental health and wellbeing. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at info@Huna.com.