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From an impossible deadline at work to planning for holidays, from helping your child finish a school assignment to pushing for relentless sales targets, there are two things that are not going away from our lives—competition and stress. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living, gives the most realistic definition of stress in our modern lives, “Stress is too much to do and too little time or energy to do it. When we have too much to do with not enough time and energy, then we get stressed. So either you reduce your workload, which isn’t possible these days, or you increase your time—that is not possible either. So what we are left with is to increase your energy levels.”
Not having the tools to handle the stress from life situations has pushed many people to the brink of poor health, burn-out, and stress-related disorders, including heart diseases, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, chronic inflammation, anxiety and depression. Stress is officially indicated as a work-place hazard and costs American companies more than $300 billion a year in lost productivity, health insurance costs, absenteeism, and poor performance.
According to the Center for Disease Control,
- 110 million people die each year as a result of stress (Yes, that means that every two seconds, seven people die from stress.)
- 43% American adults suffer from health problems related to stress
- Up to 90% of visits made to medical clinics are for treating stress-related ailments.
Understanding How Stress Works
Our body has a natural way to respond to external triggers of stress in the form of hormonal release and a series of biochemical reactions that prepare the body for a fight-or-flight situation. But constant exposure to stress on a daily basis can weaken this mechanism and heightens physiological risks like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, or angina. These stress hormones also cause a rise in blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate.
The most common stressors include
- Family and Relationships
- Trauma from violence or abuse
- Loss in Family
- Job Loss
The Antidote To Stress: Meditation
With tons to do and not enough time to spare, people are resorting to the most reliable tool there is for managing stress—meditation. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing techniques are more widespread today than ever with more than 35 million Americans practicing some form of meditation today. This number (14.2%) is a steep rise from just 4.1% in 2012. But they are not mere statistics. They are stories in and of themselves of more and more people seeking relief from the ubiquitous problem of stress. Does meditation work well in beating daily stress and high pressure situations that potentially cripple mental health of workers?
How Does Meditation Help Reduce Stress?
Studies suggest a regular practice of meditation can moderate our physiological response to stress, lower oxidative stress (increasing difference between immunity boosting antioxidants and rogue radicals), reduce blood glucose levels (which also reduces the risk of micro vascular complications), and help reduce biochemical markers of stress: cortisol, corticotrophin, blood lactate, ACTH, and plasma MDA.
The biggest contribution of a practice like meditation is in reducing the pattern of worrying. The slightest uncertainty or fear of losing something we covet can trigger worry, or the ‘fight-or flight’ response that we call stress. Regular practice of meditation brings the mind to the present moment, increases self-awareness, and enables it to let go of the worries. With self-awareness, you are better able to see the futility of worrying.
Today there are hosts of studies that show the incredible benefits of meditative practices on human brain health, creativity, attention, stress alleviation, and endocrine functions, but back in 1968, Dr. Herbert Benson carried out a pivotal study at Harvard Medical School on the benefits of meditation for relaxation. According to him, meditation was powerful enough to improve what Benson called ‘relaxation response,’ an individual’s ability to have the body and mind release neurochemicals that slow down one’s muscles and organs and increase flow of blood to the brain.
Benson’s research showed that given a comfortable posture, a peaceful and quiet environment, a tool of focus such as the breath or any other object, and a non-judgmental state of mind, a meditation practitioner could experience
- Eased heart rate
- Slower breathing rate
- 20% decrease in oxygen consumption
- Decrease in blood lactate levels that increase with stress
- Improvement in signs of relaxations such as skin’s resistance to electric current improved four times and improvement in alpha brain waves.
Meditation and Oxidative Stress
Research shows meditation practices reduce oxidative stress—the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body—by as much as 20%. High oxidative stress is linked to premature aging of skin, diabetes, neuropathy, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, damage to essential protein molecules, and cardiovascular conditions. Too much oxidative stress can affect structures in the brain cells, too. Practicing meditation techniques like Sudarshan Kriya reportedly increase levels of antioxidant enzymes (glutathione, catalase, and superoxide dismutase) that fight the rogue free radicals.
Meditation, Stress, and Insomnia
Stress is invariably linked with sleep disorders like insomnia, and lack of sleep can trigger further stress. Meditation helps break this cycle of tiredness and fatigue by giving the body and mind high quality rest.
It is possible to stay in bed for eight hours and still wake up feeling tired and unrested if you are undergoing severe stress at work or in life in general. Meditation fills this gap by giving you deep rest from worrying, anxious, or remorseful thoughts or even lack of sleep. Researchers say the rest your body receives from a 20-minute meditation is as good as six hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Best Ways to Meditate for Stress Relief
Now that we have the solution to our problem, the next question is, how does one meditate? And where does one meditate? How often? What kind of preparation is required? What is the best way to do it? While we have read enough about the benefits of meditation, many of us still struggle with what it really means to meditate.
Sri Sri has taught meditation to more than 450 million people globally. He defines meditation as “the delicate art of doing nothing and letting go of all the efforts to relax into your true nature which is love, joy and peace.”
Even if you intellectually understand the definition, or for that matter any other concept of meditation, it may still be difficult to really get it, especially for beginners. Beginners usually complain about having a lot of thoughts in the mind or sleepiness when they begin the practice. But Sri Sri says that is perfectly natural. For those who have just begun to familiarize themselves with meditation, a powerful technique is to use the breath, allowing for effortless meditation.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga Meditation
The Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) meditation is a powerful rhythmic breathing technique being practiced by more than 450 million people all over the world. Irrespective of what your state of mind is or how restless you are and the thousands of thoughts that run in the mind per minute, SKY sets you up to effortlessly move into a meditative state with the tool of breath. The closest example of this can be the state of thoughtlessness and peace a mountaineer might experience at the peak of a climb.
SKY involves pranayamas (deep breathing practices) like Ujjai breath (or the victory breath), followed by a cyclical breathing technique cognized by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The practice ends in an effortless meditative state where you experience clarity of mind, lasting moments of thoughtlessness, slower, steadier heart rate, more energy and calmness. It brings the mind into a relaxed, stress-free but wakeful state and removes stress toxins from each cell of the body.
Another simple way to meditate for beginners is to use guided meditations available online or on CDs. But how do you decide which one to pick from the many meditations available? For guided meditations, pick ones that require you to put in least effort, those that let you sit in meditation for 15–20 minutes to get the full benefit of it, and give you a calming high. You can find guided meditations led by Sri Sri online; here are three powerful, deeply relaxing yet simple and effortless to follow:
This is a 10-day residential meditation protocol where participants follow strict physical and mental discipline, learn the technique, and practice it over the course of the program. The idea of the program is transforming through self-observation.
Described as an effortless meditation technique, Transcendental Meditation doesn’t involve contemplation or concentration. One uses a mantra settle the mind down naturally and, ultimately, to transcend thought.
Sahaj Samadhi Meditation
The technique cognized by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, ‘Sahaj’ in Sanskrit means effortless and ‘Samadhi’ is an equanimous mind which is in bliss. Unlike other techniques, Sahaj Samadhi does not mandate you to focus or concentrate nor does one need to stringently observe the breath, thought or any other object. It is reportedly easy to practice, requires the least mental effort, and is ideal for beginners and seasoned meditators alike.
A meditation technique rooted in Buddhism, it encourages a practitioner to improve one’s present moment awareness. Here one becomes aware of what goes on in the mind without really getting pulled into its drama. It combines concentration and awareness.
Walking the Labyrinth
This is a meditation technique practiced in ancient spiritual traditions that has been re-purposed for modern times. Here, one walks into the center of a labyrinth, while putting one’s attention within oneself. One experiences quietness on reaching the center of the labyrinth and comes out of the labyrinth the same way.
An idea that is quickly gaining popularity among Americans is meditation retreats. The stress caused by environmental triggers and excesses of urban living is mitigated by spending quality time in silence, eating in moderation, realigning one’s body and mind with natural laws, and learning how to meditate in the midst of nature. Such a setting supports one’s journey towards meditation and inner peace. Retreats are the best form of investment in oneself to recuperate from the fatigue, burnout, anxiety, and emotional pollution that pile up on a day to day basis. At the end of the retreat, participants return home with clarity of mind, more life force, less stress, and spiritual and physical nourishment. They also experience a rekindling of positive emotions.
Our retreat center, nestled atop the gorgeous and calming Blue Ridge Mountains makes for the most idyllic setting for you to dive deep into your soul.
8 Meditation Tips for Beginners
- The best time to meditate is brahmamurata or the twilight hours of sunrise and sunset.
Pick a quiet and peaceful setting for meditation. A peaceful environment aids in reducing external noise while helping you turn inwards.
- Make sure your spine is erect while sitting for meditation. It is believed the prana or life force flows from the base of the spine to the top of the head.
- Do not sit for meditation on a full stomach or on an absolutely empty one. Post lunch hour is a total no-no for meditation. You can practice yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, post lunch. Wait at least two hours after meals before you sit for meditation.
- Practice a few gentle yogic stretches before sitting for meditation. Physical exercises, or yoga asanas, remove the rajas guna or restlessness from your body, setting the tone for a deeper meditation.
- Take a few deep breaths and begin by simply observing them without trying to control or guide your thoughts.
- If you want, you can practice alternate nostril breathing at this point or any other breathing technique you may have learned.
- Gradually move into your meditation practice.
- Make sure you have a pleasant smile on your face as you meditate. Smiling releases the stress from your facial muscles.
The Well-Being Loop
Meditation creates a sense of well-being that self-perpetuates the urge to meditate regularly without it becoming a chore. Best of luck on your journey to reducing stress and anxiety in your life with your newfound meditation practice!