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Keep Calm and Carry Om

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Jan 26th, 2014
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YogaJAN14

Keep Calm and Carry Om
article by Angela Genusa

Brian Sivils sits on a yoga bolster in front of the room, his wiry frame straddling the cushion, with his knees touching blankets spread out on the floor. His eyes are already shut as he strikes a Tibetan singing bowl with a mallet. We close our eyes and rest our attention on our breath. Thoughts of finances, family, relationships and work begin to fade away as we focus on the sensation of air in our lungs with each inhale and exhale. This is no New Agey, “woo-woo,” mystical stuff. Meditation is an ancient technique in which practitioners enter a deep relaxation that helps them go into meditative states. All is still in the yoga studio, and the noise of traffic, car horns and the occasional siren outside the studio recede into the distance.

Several minutes later, the silence is broken when Sivils strikes his bowl again. We open our eyes, stretch our legs and arms, and blink as he turns the lights up in the yoga studio—a long, rectangular room with a painted concrete floor. The meditation practitioners gathered here on a Sunday afternoon in Monroe are of all ages and religions and from all walks of life. Sivils leads these sessions as a practitioner—not a teacher—each week at Blue Sky Yoga Studio. “Meditation is a set of practices that help train and discipline the mind,” he said. “It’s not a religion or belief system and not anything mystical. It is a very simple practice that has proven over time to discipline the mind.”

A growing number of people—not just in northeast Louisiana, but across the nation—are taking up Eastern practices. A 2007 government study found that in the previous year, nearly 10 percent of the population—more than 20 million people—had used meditation. Since then, its popularity has increased dramatically. Meditation has become de rigueur among celebrities; its practitioners include Oprah, David Lynch, Angelina Jolie, Paul McCartney, Katy Perry, Kourtney Kardashian and Hugh Jackman. Classes on mindfulness and meditation sessions have become part of the workday routine for executives and employees at many of Silicon Valley’s most well-known companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo! and Twitter. The David Lynch Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, offers transcendental meditation training at no cost to troubled students, women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, veterans, homeless people, American Indians, prisoners and other at-risk populations.

“Not only is it a trend, but there has also been a lot of research in the last few years that has shown how helpful meditation practice can be,” said Billy Ledford, a therapist in Monroe. “It helps with mental, emotional and physical problems.” Indeed, studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of meditation in the treatment of stress-related health problems such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. As a result, a growing number of medical centers are offering meditation classes to their patients.

Repeated studies have shown that meditation can “rewire” the brain’s response to stress. Hundreds of studies on meditation have been conducted since the 1970s, and the results of the practice’s positive benefits continue to pour in. Some of the most recent include a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in November 2012, which found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation regularly had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death. A paper published in the February 2013 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that mindfulness meditation helps give patients control over depression and anxiety levels and levels of chronic pain. Previous studies have found that mindfulness meditation can cut the recurrence of depression by 50 percent, and neuroimaging scans have shown significant positive change in brain activity of long-term meditators. A study in the January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging reported that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program made measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. And a study in the 2011 Journal of Obesity indicated that meditation could help people control their dietary habits and lose weight.

Meditation isn’t just “relaxing,” like watching TV or going to the beach, said Ronald Koepke, M.D., a cardiologist in Monroe. “Meditation is more of a training program whereby people condition their autonomic nervous system, that part of the nervous system that controls things we normally don’t think about—breathing, digestion, sleep, heart rate—the things that go on in our bodies without us having to make any conscious decisions or control,” he said.

The autonomic nervous system is also responsible for the human body’s response to stress and anxiety, Koepke said. In what is called “the fight or flight response,” the nervous system causes a variety of bodily responses: heart rate increases significantly, the pupils dilate, blood pressure increases and adrenaline is secreted by the adrenal glands. The whole body is put in a state of alertness, so that it can respond appropriately to the danger facing the person. Because of our busy-busy, go-go-go American culture, many people suffer from stress-related diseases and disorders. “In our society, chronic stresses aggravate or instigate the same responses that cause the nervous system to stay on edge constantly, so it’s chronic stress that causes a lot of the anxiety and depression that is rampant today,” Koepke said. “By practicing meditation techniques, a person can get some control over these autonomic nervous system responses.”

Ledford, who began meditating when he was in high school, incorporates mindfulness meditation into his treatment of clients for a variety of psychological and emotional issues. He likes the definition of mindfulness that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the well-known teacher and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn said that mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

Ledford said that in mindfulness, the attitude that one brings to the present moment is acceptance. “Contrast acceptance with the two other attitudes that people often have toward situations: aversion to those thing they dislike and attachment to the things they do like,” he said. “The problem with aversion and attachment is that they ultimately lead to some sort of suffering. Those things we dislike, we try to avoid or resist them, which leads to more tension in our lives and more stress. The things we do like, unfortunately, they don’t last either. We live in a world that’s impermanent, so when they end or go away we tend to feel pain or disappointment. With mindfulness, we’re cultivating acceptance—as opposed to aversion or attachment, an openness to whatever is occurring in the present moment.”

Meditation is difficult to describe to someone who has never tried it. Many myths abound about the practice. “One of the misconceptions that people have about meditation is that we’re trying to stop thinking, but that’s not true,” said Bill Savage, a yoga and meditation instructor from Collinston. “The human mind will never stop thinking. One of the things that I have learned in practice and that I teach is that it’s not about not trying to have thoughts, but trying to develop a different and more healthy and constructive relationship with one’s thoughts.”

All of Savage’s meditation practices are based on awareness of the breath. “We have this incredible gift that is the one thing that every living being shares—the breath. By being conscious of the breath, you are doing lots of things: you are calming the mind, you are becoming more present to being, because that’s what allows us to be is the breath. There is an awareness of the breath being a messenger between the health of the mind and the health of the body.”

Savage, who has meditated every day for 35 years, believes that meditation has made him more compassionate and more aware of how he speaks to others, how he interacts with others and how he behaves. He believes he also possesses a sense of calm, well-being and peace of mind that comes from meditating. He notices things around him that other people usually tune out. “As an example, this morning when I was driving to the pool and crossing the bridge at Bayou DeSiard, there was this beautiful duck just taking off from the water,” he said. “There was this really great moment that I was aware of—the duck taking off from the water. So many people miss the beauty that’s all around us.”

In one meditation exercise, Savage teaches practitioners to mentally recite these sentences as they inhale and exhale, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.” That’s consciousness, he said. “You are conscious of what you are doing. That’s all you’re doing: You’re sitting and breathing.”

“Of course, the question arises: What’s the ultimate purpose of all that?” he said. “It’s to be more conscious in life. Sure, you could sit on a cushion—all the time, all day, but what good is that? It’s about taking the mindfulness you develop out into the world and being more mindful in your relationships, in what you give out into the world, in what you’ve received from others. There’s that connection between being mindful of everyone else who’s breathing.”

Sivils credits meditation practice with changing his life. Before he began meditating regularly and two years ago, small things would trigger his temper. “As Shakespeare put it, it was ‘the slings and arrows of life,’ the normal kind of things that happen everyday—the cell phone doesn’t work, the credit card goes over the limit—that would happen,” he said. “I would get very angry and upset.” His methods of coping with these stressors were blaming others and zoning out in front of the TV. “I had an internal monologue in which I was trying to tell myself that I wasn’t at fault in situations, that it wasn’t me,” he said. “I would check out with television or other entertainment.” After two years of meditating practicing yoga regularly, his blood pressure and heart rate are lower, his sleep is better, he has less chronic back pain from an old military injury, he has more compassion for and better relationships with others, and he is happier and more relaxed. “So now I can enjoy just a drive across town, a day at work or holding one of my grandchildren, and I am able to focus on that event right then and there.”