It’s official, we are stressing more than ever. Reading about this mounting stress and the adverse health effects involved seems to only add to the panic. The good news however, is that the benefits of meditation can be achieved in just minutes a day. No costly equipment, no crippling lotus position required.
But what exactly is meditation? We know that meditation is an ancient practice that involves turning the mind inward to focus on a single point of reference, be it a phrase, an image, feeling, or most commonly, one’s breath. Although meditation has its roots in Buddhism, you don’t need to be religious or even spiritual to benefit from a regular practice. Up until recently, the practice had a niche footing here in the West. It seemed the types of people singing its praises were the aforementioned spiritual types, or herringbone-clad intellectuals. But then the celebs got on board. In fact, it was the Beatles who were loosely credited with helping raise the profile of meditation in the West, following their ‘consciousness expanding’ trip to India in the 60s.
But as the (accredited) evidence mounts, meditation has started to become more mainstream, finding its way into schools looking for ways to help children focus, hospitals seeking additional ways to provide relief to sick patients, and now, into the homes of busy, overstretched women. Stress is generally the biggest driver of new recruits to the practice, according to 50-plus instructor Sarasvati Sally Dawson. Since opening the doors to her Waverley Meditation and Yoga studio back in 2002, Sally has noticed that even in the absence of work commitments, stress continues to impair the health of women aged 50-plus. ‘The stresses of work may not be there, but are replaced by other ongoing worries about health, finances, elderly parents, children, babysitting grandchildren and so on,’ she says. ‘One woman confided in me recently that there is just always too much to try and keep in her mind.’
Meditation, yoga instructor and founder of Waverley Yoga Studio, Sarasvati Sally Dawson.
If that list of worries wasn’t enough, we are also stressed about ageing. While we can try and keep moving, nourish our minds and tend to a full social calendar, there is no escaping the fact that our body continues to age and we can see it, staring back in the mirror at us each and every day. ‘It is undeniable. The body begins to show the signs of age,’ says Sally. ‘We often see it in the eyes and our skin, but then there’s the hearing, our skeletal system, arthritis crepes in. All this in itself is yet another cause of stress,’ she adds.
Keeping our stress levels in check isn’t only just vital to maintaining good mental health, but also our physical health, which can be adversely affected by the adrenaline rush of periodic stress responses. In addition to quietening the mind, meditation can help us in other more physical ways. Research has shown a positive effect of regular practice on the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the rest and digest system, which is in charge of the body’s automatic process, like digestion, respiration and heart rate. It works with the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates our energy systems and chemical responses to stress, helping bring us back into check if our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated.
Although there are a number of meditation methods, each requiring different (seemingly unrealistic) levels of commitment, Sally reminds us not to get too hung up on the specifics. ‘Any meditation is better than none at all, she says, ‘It may be that some methods are better suited to some people. Busy minds may need more of a concrete focus.’ To this she is referring to either a mantra style of meditation, which seeks to employ the thinking mind rather than trying to silence it; or the visualisation style of meditation, which can often involve a guided journey through some form of imagined, calming landscape, or the envisaging of stress as a physical object that can be encouraged away from your emotional space. But it is important to remember, meditation simply seeks to evoke a still mind. How you get there is entirely up to you.
Seasoned practitioners might then progress to a purely breath focussed practice, whereby one centres their attention on the movement of breath in and out of the body — then using that focus to bring the mind back every time it might wander onto the chores not currently being done. Sometimes referred to as Mindful Breathing, the beauty of this type of practice is that it can be done anywhere, and in whatever window of time you might have available. Just as long as that incessant phone is out of earshot.
Having worked closely with a number of mature women in her Glen Waverley studio, Sally is witness to a number of recurring themes amongst her students. ‘Marie was recovering from a heart-attack when she first came to see me,’ she says. ‘Gradually she built up her strength with yoga postures, but most importantly she learned to better tune in to her inner state and find peace through meditation.’
She goes on to describe her experience with Sheila, who had struggled with pain from hip issues and multiple knee replacements. Sheila had learned to meditate in her 80s, and now, aged over 90, credits her practice with feeling more at peace and relaxed. Her family overjoyed that she had become ‘less grumpy, and easier to live with.’ Then there was Anne and Rhonda, who had both lost life partners. Plans of future adventures and travel, shattered. Both were already avid meditators, but credit meditation with their ability to cope with the diagnosis, through the period of illness, and then after their passing.
‘Many of my students have suffered a major loss. Be it a partner, or in some instances a child. Their practice has played a big part in coming to a place close to acceptance,’ says Sally. ‘Being okay with what is is a major outcome of a dedicated practice. It is difficult when we recognise we have less control over our life’s events than we would like.’ There’s no shortage of opinions on what’s good for us these days. Yet something as simple as meditation, requiring no branded activewear or lengthy membership, no cutting out of all of life’s pleasure on the promise to eat nothing but bone broth, still leaves many of us unresponsive.
Casting any ‘hippy-dippy’ preconceptions aside, let’s look at some of the myths around meditation that might be holding you back.
I’m too busy to commit.
Myth, busted. One can reap the rewards in as little as 10-15 minutes a day. And once those stress responses start to abate, you will be amazed at how much more efficient you become at prioritising your time.
I’m not spiritual.
Meditation doesn’t require an adherence to any particular spiritual or religious belief, just a desire to reap its rewards. It’s up to you what you make of it. You could incorporate religious props or mantras if you like, but at the end of the day, meditation should be seen as a technique for slowing your thoughts and centering the mind.
I can’t sit still for long enough.
You don’t have to sit to meditate. Nor do you have to be a human statue. You don’t have to suffer in silence on a paper-thin yoga mat, so pop yourself in a comfortable chair or even lie down if you have to – though exercise caution here as you may just fall asleep. For those even less inclined to be still, walking meditation is also possible, or you could try one of the ancient meditative arts such as tai chi or qi gong, using the body to quieten the mind.
I just can’t meditate, my mind is too busy.
I think you would be hard-pressed to find a woman whose mind wasn’t busy. And all minds wander. The whole purpose of meditation is to recognise this, and train your mind to come back to a place of calm, to let go of negative thought cycles. It’s not going to happen the first try.
Although some might think their mobile phone is the last place they would turn to feel less stressed, meditation apps are a popular way for beginners to get a grasp on the practice. Apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind are easy to navigate and offer secular meditation experiences for those that are interested in trying mindfulness exercises that go beyond simple breathing.
Like a good fitness regime, new users are asked to choose an area they want to focus on, and can even put together a wellness plan that aligns with their needs and lifestyle. The Headspace app has been downloaded over 16 million times, and while it is unlikely to transport you to a state of nirvana, it’s a good place to stick your toe in.
‘Most people will need a method to get started, but these are just tools to replace one’s thoughts’ says Sally. ‘I would say to anyone who thinks they can’t meditate, just start out by focussing on the breath, or a mantra of your choosing, and keep coming back to it as the mind wanders.’ ‘There is no limit to the number of times you can come back to it, the idea is to practice,’ she explains. ‘You have to treat your mind like a small child. Be gentle, but with some discipline. That is how you will see lasting benefits.’
Sarasvati Sally Dawson has been practising Yoga since 1996 and teaching Yoga and Meditation since she founded Waverley Yoga Studio in 2002. Sarasvati has developed a number of post-graduate workshops for Yoga teachers, and also teaches a variety of workshops for ongoing students of Yoga and Meditation. Her new book ‘Yoga Off the Mat – Freedom in Everyday Life’ is available through her website at sarasvatisallydawson.com.au