Mindfulness and Meditation...Do They Really Work?

healthy living meditation mindful movement morning practice phoenix rising yoga therapy resilience sleep stress-free Dec 05, 2021

Mindfulness and meditation are health buzzwords these days.  It seems like everyone, even those who aren't health practitioners, is touting the amazing effects of being mindful and practicing meditation.

But just because it’s popular doesn’t mean you should do it … or does it?

In fact, yes!  

In my experience, and with all the training and researching I’ve done, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  It will make a difference, perhaps even a profound one, in your life and that of those around you!  

I realize that’s a pretty bold statement, so let me explain why.

Science shows definite health benefits for people who use mindfulness and meditation.

Before we dive in, here are some definitions:

“Meditation” is the ancient practice of connecting the body and mind to become more self-aware and present. It’s often used to calm the mind, ease stress, and relax the body.  It is about being in silence with yourself, focusing inward and releasing the outside distractions of the day and your life.  Being present and noticing whatever comes up: your thoughts, any emotions, how your body feels, any realizations or flashes of Inner Wisdom.

Practicing “mindfulness” is one of the most popular ways to meditate. It’s defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 

Mindfulness meditation is well studied in terms of its health benefits.  I’m going to talk about a few of those benefits, and refer to the practice as “mindfulness” for the rest of the post.

Staying “Present”

In the yoga world, we often refer to “taking your yoga off the mat” where what we might have noticed about ourselves during yoga practice starts to also show up in day-to-day life.  This applies to meditation as well:  a regular practice can allow you to be more present, to be more aware of the moment to moment reactions that you may have in any situation, allowing you to choose your response rather than reacting automatically (and maybe regretting it later).  This means that meditation is also a tool that can help reinforce our efforts to change our habits - letting go of the ones we no longer want or need, and replacing them with ones that will help keep us healthy!

More Awareness = More Choice = Greater Control of your Life!

Norm Farb, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Toronto, has studied Present Moment Awareness.  He found that an 8 week mindfulness meditation program enabled participants to control their awareness, spend more time in the present, and less time in the past or the future, and that intensive practice in attending to momentary sensations altered one's sense of self and well-being:

Attending to one’s immediate environment is critical for adaptive behaviour, yet modern life is increasingly filled with distraction.”

Being Present is the opposite to continually distracting oneself with various devices, music, mindless entertainment, etc.  Don’t get me wrong, a little of this now and then can help you relax, but if it’s continuous for hours on end, how much of your life are you truly engaging in?

Instead, learning to meditate can teach you to be more present and engaged in your life.

Keep reading to learn how to make this happen!

 

The link between mindfulness and stress reduction

Have you heard the staggering statistics on how many doctors' visits are due to stress? Seventy-five to ninety percent!

So, if you ask me, it makes a lot of sense that anything that can reduce stress can reduce health issues too.

Studies show that mindfulness reduces inflammation, reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and improves sleep. All of these can have massive effects on your physical and mental health.

I'll briefly go over the research in three main areas: mood, weight, and gut health. But know that the research on the health benefits of mindfulness is branching into many other exciting new areas too.

Mindfulness for Mood

The most immediate health benefit of mindfulness is improved mood.

In one study, people who took an 8-week mindfulness program had greater improvement in symptoms according to the “Hamilton Anxiety Scale.” They were compared with people who took a stress management program that did not include mindfulness. It seems that the mindfulness training was key to lowering symptoms.

Other studies show that mindfulness has similar effects as antidepressant medications for some people with mild to moderate symptoms of depression.

While mindfulness isn’t a full-fledged cure, it can certainly help to improve moods.

Mindfulness for Weight

Studies show that people who use mind-body practices, including mindfulness, have lower BMIs (Body Mass Indices).

How can this be?

One way mindfulness is linked with lower weight is due to stress-reduction. Mindfulness can reduce stress-related and emotional overeating. It can also help reduce cravings and binge eating.

Another way it can work for weight is due to "mindful eating." Mindful eating is a "non-judgmental awareness of physical and emotional sensations associated with eating." It's the practice of being more aware of food and the eating process. It's listening more deeply to how hungry and full you actually are. It's not allowing yourself to be distracted with other things while you're eating, like what's on TV or your smartphone. 

People with higher mindfulness scores also reported smaller serving sizes of energy-dense foods. So it seems that more mindful eating = less junk.

Mindfulness about food and eating can have some great benefits for your weight.

Mindfulness for Gut Health

Recent studies show a link between stress, stress hormones, and changes in gut microbes (your friendly bacteria and other critters that help your digestion).  In theory, mindfulness-based stress reduction could be a way to help prevent negative changes in the gut's microbes.

Also, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) seems to be linked with both stress and problems with gut microbes. In one study, people with IBS who received mindfulness training showed greater reductions in IBS symptoms than the group who received standard medical care.

The research here is just starting to show us the important link between stress, gut health, and how mindfulness can help.

How to Start Meditating Today Using Breath as a Focus

While there are several objects or sounds you can use to help you focus during meditation, such as a candle flame, a statue of the Buddha or a mantra to name a few, one of the most effective and easiest to use (it’s always there with you!) is your breath.  Once you learn to pay attention to and to adjust your breath, it can become a valuable tool.  For example, deepening your breath will calm your nervous system and that can lead to releasing resistance, bypassing mental chatter (including that gremlin that always tells you why something won’t work!), and restoring equilibrium at times when your anxiety is temporarily stronger than your faith. 

So whether new to meditation or experienced, take time to notice your breath. 

A Breath Meditation:

  • Sit in a comfortable position – chair, floor, cushion.  Let your spine be long and your hands resting in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, or lower your eyelids to a soft gaze in front of you.
  • Breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly. Long, slow breaths without any effort.
  • As you breathe in say to yourself, “Breathe in”, and as you breathe out say “Breathe out”. Or just notice your breath coming in through your nostrils and going out through your nostrils or mouth. Focus on the rhythm.
  • Repeat for 3 or more breaths.
  • Notice if your mind goes elsewhere between or during each breath. If it does, just notice that it does without judgment, and return to the breathing and the repeating of the two phrases: “Breathe in, Breathe out.”
  • Continue for a few more minutes. 
  • Extend the length of time in the coming days as you settle into the practice.

Remember: “There is nothing else you need to be doing right now.” 

Use your Meditation Practice to help you listen to your Inner Wisdom

  • As you are meditating, place a hand on your heart centre (centre of your chest) and feel the connection of hand to body to inner self.  And listen.  Listen to whatever arises.
  • Perhaps ask yourself the question “What matters in my life?”
  • And listen for whatever is there, without any judgement or trying to understand it, simply notice.
  • As you complete your meditation, spend a few moments reflecting on this wisdom, perhaps journaling, and consider how you might bring the wisdom into your life.

Need more support?

Download my  6 minute Breath Meditation audio.

For a more comprehensive Yoga and Meditation program, try out weekly LIVE classes here: Take a Deep Breath In!   First Week Free!

Conclusion

Meditation and Mindfulness are powerful tools, ones that you can master with just a little effort, that will help you reduce stress and inflammation, be kind to your gut and microbiome, sleep better, refocus your mind and help you change your habits!

And all of these will help improve your overall health and resilience!

References:

Norm Farb:   https://www.radlab.zone/research

Meditation - In Depth:  https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm

Stress and Illness:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/

Mindfulness and Weight:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4454654/

Mind-Body and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26186434

For more info on this and other natural health topics:

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