Any way you look at it, 2017 has been an eventful—and often stressful—year. Besides our own professional and personal lives, we’ve had to come to terms with a world that seems to be growing more dangerous by the day. On top of that, the current political climate is more contentious than I can recall in my lifetime. How can we find some peace and quiet from all the noise? You might try to unplug, but that is easier said than done. Still, taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional health has never been more important. One way to do that is to make time for meditation in the new year.
How Stress Affects Our Health
As I’m sure you know, stress can affect us in many ways. According to the Mayo Clinic, the physical effects can manifest in tight muscles in our neck and shoulders, frequent headaches, and fatigue. In terms of our mood, we may feel irritable, overwhelmed, depressed, or unmotivated.
Raise your hand if you’ve experienced any of these symptoms over the past 12 months. I know I have. Unfortunately, once you get into this cycle, it can be tough to break. You’re tired, so you don’t exercise, and then you get even more tired and less likely to go to the gym. You’re irritable, so you argue with a friend or a spouse, and then you feel bad about it. You’re overwhelmed at work and instead of prioritizing your to-do list and methodically working through each task, you end up in a state of paralysis and can’t get anything done.
While there’s no silver bullet, there are activities that can help you get back on track and find balance. They include the aforementioned exercise and—you guessed it—meditation.
The Benefits of Meditation
I don’t know if it’s because I’m interested in the topic, but it seems like meditation is gaining in popularity. There are articles touting its benefits in publications ranging from HuffPost to Forbes. You might argue that some of them are just fluff, but others present real evidence of meditation’s benefits. An article from Healthline.com, “12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation,” suggests that meditation can, among other things:
- Reduce stress
- Make you more self-aware
- Improve your attention span
- Help you sleep better
- Control pain
- Reduce your blood pressure
Even if it’s a placebo effect, I wouldn’t say no to these improvements. Would you? (Of course, if you have troublesome symptoms that persist, it’s best to visit your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.)
3 Easy Meditation Exercises You Can Start Today
One of the great things about meditation is that it’s pretty easy to get started. You don’t need any special tools (though there are some available, which I’ll get to in a moment)—just yourself. At Commonwealth, the RIA–broker/dealer where I work, we’ve been promoting employee wellness for the past couple of years, and part of that campaign has included what we call “mindful moments.” These are opportunities to take a 30-minute break in the day to meditate or practice breathing exercises before returning to work. Here are a couple of those exercises, which you can easily do in your own office or home.
Metta meditation. Also known as loving-kindness meditation, this practice uses four short sentences, spoken internally, to engender positive feelings about yourself and others. You start by first sitting comfortably and closing your eyes. Next, you direct the following statements toward yourself; then, you direct them toward a loved one, a familiar stranger (like the clerk at CVS), and a person who challenges you.
May I (you) know love and kindness.
May I (you) be happy.
May I (you) experience peace and a sense of ease.
May I (you) be well.
Finish by taking a few deep breaths, and then open your eyes when you are ready.
Transcendental meditation. This technique aims to help you let go of your anxiety and find a sense of calm. Typically, you use a mantra—like “Om” or a personal mantra you get from a certified instructor—repeating it to yourself over and over again for a period of time, usually 15 to 20 minutes. Visit www.tm.org for more information.
Same-interval breathing. Although not technically a meditation, this practice can help you focus and clear your mind. You can also use it to relax or to recharge when you’re feeling tired. Here’s how you do it:
- Using good posture (i.e., open shoulders, tall spine), sit comfortably on the floor or a chair.
- Inhale while you silently count up to 6.
- Exhale while you silently count back from 6.
- Repeat for 1 to 2 minutes—or longer if you have time.
- Be sure to breathe normally for a moment before getting up and returning to your day.
The great thing about these exercises is you just need a few moments to experience the benefits, so they are easy to squeeze in during lunch or a break in your day.
What About a Meditation App?
Given meditation’s popularity, the app market is pretty large. You can go into the App Store or Google Play and find any number of options to choose from. Some apps are free, while others require you to pay to access content. Here, I’ll introduce you to three I’m familiar with, but be sure to do your own due diligence to find the option that’s right for you.
Insight Timer (my personal favorite). This app is rated as the top free app on both the Android and iOS stores—and I can understand why. More than 3 million people take advantage of its library of nearly 7,500 guided meditations and music tracks. Each time you open the app, you can review and listen to content that’s new that day, or you can explore by category (Popular, Guided, Music, Teachers, etc.)—and even length of track—to find something that resonates with you and fits your schedule. Each item includes a description, as well as a rating and comments from other users.
An online community allows you to connect with other meditators if you wish, and a Stats page helps keep you accountable by keeping track of how often you meditate and for how long.
Headspace. Headspace, available on both Android and iOS platforms, was one of the first meditation apps to hit the scene, and it continues to be a popular option. Those new to meditation who want a crash course in the basics will find this app particularly useful. It also offers exercises that focus on specific topics or goals, such as managing anxiety, sleep, happiness, and motivation. Co-founder Andy Puddicombe, who is a former monk, acts as users’ personal meditation coach. A unique feature of this app is its SOS sessions, which, Headspace says, you can use when you’re having a “meltdown moment.”
The basic training portion of this app is free (the initial trial subscription lasts 10 days). But after that, you’ll need a paid subscription to access the rest of the content library.
Qi Gong Meditation Relaxation. This free app is available only on the Android platform and is somewhat obscure (just 100,000 downloads). It includes Qi Gong (a basic form of Tai Chi) videos, articles on meditation and mindfulness, and a library of guided meditations, with and without music. Meditation content ranges from relaxation, to emotion/stress training, to mindfulness training—there’s even a section for kids. The relaxation tracks are a highlight of this app; you can choose to be guided through a visualization of a mountain cabin in the snowy woods or a desert oasis, among other options. It doesn’t seem to be updated with the frequency of Insight Timer and Headspace, but its existing content is worth coming back to.
A New Balance
Our lives are busier and more chaotic than ever these days. Factor in the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquitous social media and it can be tough to find some downtime. When you make time for meditation—setting aside anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes a couple of times a week to start—you make a commitment to changing your perspective and potentially even your health.
If you found this past year particularly stressful and disruptive, meditation could help you gain a new balance in 2018. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?
Do you have a favorite meditation app? Do you rely on any other strategies to help you manage your physical, mental, and emotional health? Please comment below!