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Meditation isn't for you. You don't have the time or the inclination. Plus, you're just not the type who can "clear her head" -- whatever that means. You're hardly the only one who feels that way: The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that a mere 7.6 percent of Americans use meditation to improve their health. But judging by the success of books like Eat, Pray, Love and Stumbling on Happiness, women are in great need of stress relief, even if they do think meditation is, well, a little weird. Laura Essie, 46, of San Mateo, California, felt that way too. Until three years ago, she considered herself "superathletic"; she hiked, lifted weights, did yoga -- until a repetitive stress injury left her sidelined with a chronic pain in her neck and arms. Her doctors put her on painkillers, nerve blockers, and muscle relaxants. She tried physical therapy and biofeedback, but nothing worked completely.
Finally, after two years of suffering, Essie found relief -- at church, of all places. "They put me in touch with a meditation center," she says. "I didn't really think it would work, but I was desperate enough to try it; at that point, I couldn't even sit still for any period of time because I was in such pain."
Essie began meditating for 20 minutes a day. At first, there was no relief, but in just two weeks she started feeling better. "I had less nerve pain, and my muscles weren't as sore," she says. She used various techniques gleaned from class, including guided meditation with a CD and meditative walking. "I snuck it in during lunch breaks," says Essie. "I even did it in the car -- not the walking, obviously! It was a nice break from my day."
Could meditation help you, too? Is it possible to do it without getting all Zen-like? We've got the answers to your biggest (and most cynical) questions.
In short: Meditation helps people reduce stress. Stress stimulates our fight-or-flight response, which raises blood pressure, narrows blood vessels, tightens muscles, increases heart and breath rate, and floods our bodies with stress hormones.
Chronic stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, cirrhosis of the liver, suicide, and accidents. And two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms.
Meditation stimulates the part of the nervous system that lowers heart and breath rate and blood pressure, relaxes muscles, and can reduce stress hormones to a normal range, says Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
As Essie proved, "you don't have be a yogi in the Himalayas meditating for 45-minute stretches to get results," Dr. Bauer says. It takes just 10 to 20 minutes to relax your muscles, become aware of your breathing, and reduce your heart rate.
Transcendental Meditation is a style of meditation that involves simply sitting quietly with your eyes closed for up to 20 minutes. While seated, meditators repeat a mantra to allow the mind and body to settle down and find deep rest. People who practiced Transcendental Meditation actually lived longer, according to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology.
For Essie, daily meditation offered drastic relief from her debilitating nerve pain. "My muscles are much more relaxed, and I'm on less medication now," she says. In essence, Essie's brain learned to handle pain differently. With the help of MRIs, researchers at the University of California at Irvine discovered that people who meditated twice a day for five months showed 40 to 50 percent less activity in the area of the brain that senses pain as compared with non-meditators.
Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that 15 to 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation (TM) practiced twice daily can significantly reduce the severity of congestive heart failure and increase survival rates. In addition, a randomized, placebo-controlled study -- the gold standard of research -- published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that four months of TM significantly decreases risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and insulin resistance. "Meditators have lower death and heart attack rates, too," says Noel Bairey Merz, MD, study coauthor and medical director at the Preventive Cardiac Center at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
And the list goes on and on: Research has shown that daily meditation can lesson symptoms of stress, chronic illness, epilepsy, and PMS; ease menopause, depression, and anxiety and mood disorders; heighten insulin resistance; and help psoriasis patients heal faster. And a 2005 MRI-based study found that meditation increased brain density.
Yes. Anyone can meditate -- virtually anywhere. "Focus your mind on the sensations present in your body, and all your stress and anger will fall away," says Richard Faulds, a senior teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. That means concentrating on your breathing or a mantra or anything that takes you out of the chaos and into a quieter state of mind. Easier said than done, right? Not so!
A few easy ways to sneak some Zen into your life:
While you're on a walk...
Sync your breathing to the steps you take, walking slowly (sans iPod) and consciously while focusing on the movement to quiet the mind.
While you're eating lunch...
Focus on chewing each bite slowly, noticing the flavors, textures, and smells for maximum enjoyment.
While stuck in traffic...
Repeat a relaxing phrase or word, such as calm, to yourself; this will prevent distracting and anxious thoughts from entering your mind.
While at the office...
Make the "you've got mail" chime a reminder to return to calm. Pause, close your eyes, and take a deep breath every time you hear it.
When arguing with a friend...
Silently repeat in on the inhale and out on the exhale to help keep you calm and centered and to curb knee-jerk reactions.
A few parting words of wisdom to meditate on:
"You don't have to be better than anyone else. You don't have to win. You don't have to be number 1 or number 27 or any other number. Give yourself permission to just be." -- Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, from Change Your Thoughts -- Change Your Life
"If your mind is scattered, it is quite powerless." -- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from How to See Yourself as You Really Are
"These days, I love silence.... For the first few minutes, my brain clatters and clangs like a stovetop of agitated, boiling pots and pans. But then I begin to hear the great silence around me, the stillness that underlines all sound. It seems to awaken a version of the same silence that lives within me. The two pools of quiet reach out for each other like magnets, like water droplets on a windshield. When they meet, the cacophony of my mind slows, calms, and on a good day, for a moment, stops." -- Martha Beck, from Leaving the Saints
"I've heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the act of listening." -- Elizabeth Gilbert, from Eat, Pray, Love
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November 2007.