Warning: This is the type of article you're either going to love or hate. Unfortunately, the aggressive types who laugh at the following "hippie psycho-babble" are probably the ones who could benefit from purposeful relaxation the most. The trick is to browse the available material and pick only what helps you while discarding the rest. Promise to keep an open mind and I'll promise not to call you grasshopper.
Ever wonder about what meditation is all about? Ever wonder what it can do for you but didn't know who to ask? Me too.
After posting a blog entry regarding my personal forays into meditation, I was stunned to instantly receive over 30 private messages. It seems that many T-Nation readers are as interested in this stuff as I am. But I'm no expert. Unlike my usual position of authority when I write on sports nutrition topics, I'm going to preface this article by saying that I'm a meditative intermediate at best.
So, rather than act like a psychologist or Buddhist monk, I'm going to focus on the areas of behavior modification in which I'm actually trained (nutrition and fitness) while simply offering a number of personal observations that you might find helpful. "Helpful in what way?" you may ask. Good question.
You should first decide why you're even looking into meditation, because it takes time and practice. Aside from the pursuit of an abstract goal like "enlightenment," there appear to be real benefits to be had, especially for Type A driven individuals, worriers, sleep-deprived persons, evening overeaters, and even hyped-up guys who frequently go off in the gym. (At times I'm all of the above!) Here are some potential rewards of daily practice:
- Lowered risk of overtraining (8)
- Reduced stress hormone concentrations like cortisol and aldosterone (5, 7, 12, 15, 16, 22)
- Higher DHEA-Sulfate as well as increased Testosterone and growth hormone response to stress (3, 12, 22)
- Improved kidney function, lower sodium-potassium ratio and reduced urinary loss of calcium and zinc (22)
- Remarkable success getting off drugs, even after being dependent (13)
- Enhanced immune function (7, 16)
- A shift toward fat oxidation ("fat burning") (6, 9)
- Improved focus and sports performance (11)
- Enhanced reaction time (19)
- Improved carbohydrate metabolism (data is mixed, however) (1)
- Reduced evening-time overeating (15) and better chance for long term weight loss (4)
- Slowed biological aging (according to biomarkers) up to 5-12 years (21)
- Improved antioxidant effects indicated by 15% lower lipid peroxides (18)
- Ability to levitate and snatch flies with chopsticks (20)
Unbelievable? Yes, these things would certainly seem so if there wasn't a growing body of hard science to support them. These are in fact scientifically referenced. Hence they aren't just subjective, touchy-feely opinions or hopeful delusions. These cited benefits are extremely appealing to at least a subset of open-minded T-Nation members, including me.
Although I remain guarded until a consensus forms concerning each of these effects, I have to say, the preliminary (and sometimes greater) science does interest me. Now you know why I've been digging through this literature and meditating for many months now. And of course, how can I hog such potential benefits all to myself?!
If you're stressed out, a workaholic, or are seeing signs of overtraining, then you may be a candidate for meditation. Also, if you're experiencing high cortisol concentrations, reduced fat burning, premature signs of aging, poor carbohydrate handling, poor sleep, and evening emotional overeating, then you might just be a prime candidate for purposeful mediation and relaxation.
After critically evaluating audiotapes on meditation from various perspectives (Buddhist, Christian, Sidhi, non-religious) and reading books from various doctoral-level authorities, I've come to a few conclusions.
First, the general idea is often to stop the internal dialogue that chatters beneath the surface of our everyday lives. You know what I mean: repetitive worrisome thoughts about an upcoming deadline, internal debates over what to do about a predicament, racing thoughts at bedtime.
Believe it or not, there's a way to stop it for a while, to calmly abide in the space between the thoughts. And the duration of that calm abiding grows longer and longer with practice. A chatter-free mind can become an unbelievably focused mind, and that spills over into physical benefits as listed above.
So how do we get our own brains to shut up? The three ways I've discovered to work are
- Use of a mantra or repeated sound or even breathing style.
- Listening to guided meditation or music to draw my attention.
- Purposefully focusing exclusively on the present moment.
There's some overlap but let's look at these briefly in turn.
Mantras and repeated prolonged sounds like "Ahhh" and "Ohmmm" interspersed with slow deep inhalations can certainly come across to others as hokey or weird and therefore are best done in private. Perhaps there's somewhere in your home or even a parked car where you can find 20 minutes during which no one can hear you.
Dr. Wayne Dyer is one proponent of doing this at rising and bedtime and (yes, here it comes) sells a CD, Meditations for Manifesting. Although he considers meditative sounds far more powerful than what I describe, his CD does seem well received by most who are new to this type of calming meditation. He even touches on the concept of bodily chakras, which may send certain conservative organizations like quackwatch.com into a tirade.
The general idea, to me, is that these vocalizations take just enough mental focus to draw you away from the noise of your ongoing internal dialogue. I believe I'm on the right track here, according to other educated authorities. Even the charismatic but controversial Deepak Chopra, who's an MD, refers to mantras as analogous to a taxi. It's not the vehicle that matters, it's the destination. Repeated meditative sounds simply hold your focus until, after a while, you get to a state of clear mindedness.
If any of this sounds way too over the edge for you, ask yourself if the benefits are worth it. Or wait for a more open-minded state when you're either more interested or indeed in need of these mental techniques. You may find yourself reconsidering meditative vocalizations when anxiety is causing your mind to race and you really need to get to sleep. In such times you may be desperate enough to give it a go!
At the end of this article, I'll list several websites containing free audio and additional info. (But remember, if you find yourself overly anxious or have other real emotional concerns, go talk to a licensed counselor. These professionals can address and incorporate mediation and relaxation into approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatments.)
A similar approach to mantras and "humming" vocalizations is to perform deliberately slow, controlled breathing. Thinking "one" with each slow deep inhale (filling the belly, not the upper chest) and "two" with each slow exhale is surprisingly effective. Becoming aware that you're clenching your jaw and breathing rapidly from the chest is itself helpful in getting yourself to relax. Clenched jaw, intense facial expressions have been shown to alter our biology in a "fight or flight," aggressive way. (10)
Although there's a time and place for it, such as under a heavy squat bar, there's also a time to let it go, relax and recover. My personal experience here is that I ironically try to "hurry up and relax" by breathing this way just a few times, then letting my focus slip back to other racing thoughts. This won't do.
Twenty minutes or more of these deep breathing "ones and twos" is best, but even an uninterrupted five minutes is something. I don't, however, count consecutively upward or downward with each breath (say, up to 50) during such five-minute cool downs, as this reaffirms a hurry-up-and-finish mentality that's counter-productive.
The next category is guided meditations. During these, a (hopefully) qualified leader talks you through a relaxation phase by asking you to focus on various facilitative things. Examples might include "move your head gently from side to side to release any tension while unclenching your jaw," then after a few minutes perhaps "breathe as if you could do so directly into and out of the heart" or "imagine now that your mind is not confined to your head but fills the entire room."
These sound funny as text but can help get a person very relaxed and clear minded. Jack Kornfield (legitimate psychology Ph.D. and counselor) is perhaps my favorite, but many such guided meditation audio examples exist. Your Buddha Nature is one of Kornfield's offerings and can be found in many bookstores and as a free check-out from some libraries. A company called Sounds True is involved with these, as is the Spirit Rock Center.
I also personally enjoy tapes/CDs from the Dalai Lama, which are more an academic discussion than guided meditation per se. This guy is world-famous for his ability to make anyone feel at ease and he offers clues, upon inspection, as to how Eastern practitioners such as samurai could achieve such awesome calm, focus and awareness, even when confronted with death. How do you think this kind of discipline would help an athlete in the midst of heated competition? Dr. James Loehr wrote about getting into this kind of zone in Mental Toughness Training for Sports.
One note of caution is called for regarding the voice "acting" on some of these Dalai Lama tapes: the translators can vary widely in tone and accent, from very helpful to a little annoying. The key is to find a meditation leader whose words make sense (maintaining your reasonably critical ear) and whose voice sounds very relaxing to you.
Now let's take a look at the final, and perhaps most unfamiliar, technique.
My last pseudo-category for reducing internal dialogue also appears quite Buddhist in nature and involves an elusive focus on the present moment in time. At least during the meditation there are no memories, no planning, just right now. (Bear with me.) Of course, the mind naturally wanders and has been dubbed a "story factory" by some, so this is somewhat harder than it sounds.
As a start, spiritual persons like Ekhart Tolle suggest moving your focus to something as simple as the sense of touch in the fingertips. It can indeed be calming and gratifying to see how long such focus can be maintained before the story factory naturally brings other thoughts to the surface. Simply identifying the random thought intruder for what it is and re-focusing on the present sensation is all that's needed as a corrective action.
But topical sensory input or even a focus on something external like a candle flame isn't the only way to get into the present moment and become calm. Others recommend progressive relaxation, which basically involves sequential tensing and full relaxing of muscles while keeping the eyes closed and maintaining a comfortable seated or lying position.
An example progression involves five to ten second contractions each of:
- Arm extension with tight fists (then fully relax arms)
- Forehead/brow tensing and grimacing (then relax completely)
- Neck flexion – isometric not forward movement (relax)
- Shoulder shrugging (relax)
- Upper back contraction (then relax)
- Lower back tensing (then relax)
- Chest contraction (then relax)
- Abdominal tensing (relax)
- Quad and hamstring contraction (relax)
- Calf and tibialis anterior (shins) contraction (then relax)
- Feet and toe tensing (relax)... followed by a heavy and warm but aware whole-body relaxed state for about three minutes.
Concentrating on sensory input, stimulated externally or internally, is an almost anti-Rene Decartes-like method (that is, depending on rather than distrusting your senses) but the latter seems to meld with a bodybuilder's mind-in-the-muscle ability very well. And purposeful attention on your muscles is a great way to both systemically relax and to stay in the "now."
With weeks or months of practice in any number of techniques, you can become highly conscious and aware yet free of chattering thoughts (memories, plans, labels and associations, emotions, etc.) for many minutes consecutively. This isn't easy for non-meditators but can even be developed for use in competition or under duress. Think of the scene in Last Samurai when the young villager counsels Captain Algren (and I paraphrase loosely): "You have too many minds... mind on village, mind on people watching... you must have no mind..."
Do you see how total present-moment consciousness ("right now" focus) can be superior to internal dialogue-entangled consciousness? Some would argue that an overexcited internal dialogue isn't conscious at all. I believe the Eastern word for a thought-free mind is "Mushin..." Okay, okay, I apologize if this is getting too deep or esoteric. But this kind of "no mind" thing takes practice, practice, practice. Remember to check out that list of web sites and books at the end of this article.
Planning time for meditation and relaxation isn't unlike planning for nutritional success or training progress. It starts with an open mind and an appreciation of the benefits to be had. Meditation doesn't come naturally or easily to those who mock it. As we've seen though, the benefits are real.
Take another look at our list of fourteen (okay, thirteen) items above. How many of those look attractive to you? If they were the proven benefits of a dietary supplement, would you take it?
So you see, meditation is valuable and not solely the realm of the hippie chic or monastery resident. Bodybuilders, dieters and performance athletes are all great targets for systematic types of relaxation and calm mental focus. As with progressive resistance training, so too does meditation practice lead to ever-greater results over time. You can start by looking into just a few of these techniques, hopefully with expert guidance from reputable meditators or even licensed therapists.
Now that you have some places to start, you can begin to address a heretofore-untreated aspect of your mental and physical growth. And I didn't even ask you to roam the desert like David Carradine.
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