MEDITATION BEATS HOLIDAY STRESS

Here are basic meditation tips to help you relax: Pick a word, short phrase or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system that will help you focus. Try words like “peace,” “one” or a religious word or phrase. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Some prefer yoga positions as practiced in the East. Others prefer a more Western stance: Sit in a chair where your spine is straight and your feet are comfortably flat on the floor. Hands should face upward on your lap. Close or lower your eyes. Breathe slowly. Exhale through your mouth and inhale through your nose. Other thoughts may cross your mind, but it doesn’t mean your session needs to end. Say to yourself “later” and return to your breathing and/or visualization.

Try to meditate for 5 to 20 minutes, preferably twice a day. Meditation is a discipline. So try to practice it at the same time every day.

Holiday to-do list:
Buy and wrap gifts
Send greeting cards
Bake cookies
Decorate Christmas tree
Light the menorah
Visit family
Entertain relatives.

Oh, cripes, the kids need to be picked up from soccer/basketball/French horn practice, and the post office closes at 5 p.m. Long lines at the store aren’t helping matters, and it’s going to take more than watered down eggnog to take the edge off. Maybe what you need is to just stop the world, have a comfortable seat and catch a few ohmms. That’s right. Want to feel better and maybe chase some of that
negative inner dialogue away? Meditate. Two decades’ worth of research suggests meditating — be it visualization, prayer or shutting yourself off from your surroundings — can significantly reduce stress levels.

A busy lifestyle is no excuse. In fact, meditators say that’s why you need to do it. “If you take the time to meditate, you actually create more time in your life,” says Cheri Eplett owner of Indialantic’s Aquarian Dreams, which specializes in books and CDs about meditation. “You are more efficient because you’re less stressed. So meditation is a good investment of time.” Perhaps the biggest meditation motivator lies in a recent, small scientific study that suggests locating the ohhhm can make you live longer.

Last month, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital released a study showing areas of the cerebral cortex — the outer layer of the brain — were thicker in the participants who regularly meditated. The study, which appeared in a recent article in NeuroReport,
described results from 20 people who meditated regularly. These people had four regions of cortex — the part of the brain,
associated with higher functions like memory and decision making — that were thicker than in 15 subjects who didn’t meditate. In addition, researchers found signs that one area of the cortex seemed to have aged less quickly than it did in the folks who didn’t
meditate. Researchers are doing follow-up studies to see how meditation might effect behavior. Dr.Wasim Niazi, a neurologist at Wuesthoff Rockledge, says more research needs to be done to confirm meditation’s anatomical changes on the brain.

But he does agree mediation results in relaxation, which has been proven to reduce stress and help people focus better during their
waking hours — and sleep better at night. “But all modalities of meditation have something in common in that they are about disconnecting yourself from the impulses you are receiving — the noise and the worries,” Niazi says. “Consider that 100 impulses reach the brain every per second and most are subconscious.” Al Rapaport, founder of Melbourne’s Open Mind Zen Center says it’s
such impulses that “make us subject to a monkey mind,” he says. “Meditation helps us slow down that internal dialogue.”

But meditation practitioners say studies only reinforce what they already know. “We’ve known for nearly 20 years that meditation effects the physiology of brain chemistry and this (Massachusetts study) is the first one I’ve seen in which meditation directly effects the brain,” says Rapaport, who also is author of the book “Open Mind Zen: A Guide to Meditation.” “But for meditators, the laboratory is our own body and mind. We get the results through our experiences.” The Zen center specializes in group meditation, but Rapaport
encourages people to meditate at home as well. “All the techniques are designed to help focus the mind,” Rapaport says.

Eplet prefers to use visualization techniques and sit in a comfortable position, feet flat on the floor, her palms upward in a receiving position. Others prefer to focus on breathing. The goal is to practice daily — but don’t worry about being perfect at it.

“A lot of people don’t meditate because they are under the impression they must clear their mind and think of nothing for 20 minutes,” says Andrea de Michaelis, who publishes the Brevard County-based Horizons. She meditates twice a day. And she gets better at it each time, she says. “When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is make myself sit when my mind is still in that foggy place,” de Michaelis says. “Once I start the process with the breathing, the cobwebs start to clear. If a concrete thought or worry crosses my mind I can release the thought by saying the word ‘later,’ which satisfies the concrete mind that wants to hang on to something.

Don’t worry if you can’t schedule a 10 or 20 minute stop-action timeframe. “Meditating for three minutes is better than nothing,” she says. “For people with kids, it can be a matter of locking yourself in the bathroom and take a bath — and hope you won’t be interrupted more than 30 times.”

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