Your Meditation Practice and Healthy Aging

In my last posts, I wrote about the basics of meditation: how you do it, how you make it a habit, and how you might deal with common obstacles that arise. Whether you have a dedicated meditation practice or you’re just getting curious about meditation, you’re probably familiar with some of the benefits of the practice. But what happens when you dedicate yourself to a regular meditation habit? How do you know meditation is “working”? And what particular benefits does meditation confer on our aging brains?

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Kathleen Harris, 63, practices meditation before a yoga practice

 

Regular Meditation and a Changing You

Meditation practitioners report that a regular meditation practice makes them feel calmer, more centered, and more keenly aware of the space between stimulus and response. Another recognized result of regular meditation is greater concentration. But your meditation path might reveal other benefits (like better sleep, more vivid dreams, or a better awareness of posture and your breath) or it might not feel like you experience any of this! Additionally, some meditation sessions might come easily and feel rejuvenating, and some meditation practices might seem exhausting or fraught with constant mental turbulence. Whatever your experience, have faith that meditation is working, and over time you will start to notice the subtle benefits. Research shows this to be the case: in some studies, regular meditation conferred brain changes in as little as 2-8 weeks.

Meditation and Aging

The tangible benefits of meditation are more patience and more presence. But the greater benefit of meditation is a healthier brain. Research suggests that meditation actually changes your brain, creating more gray matter and a brain that is “younger” than your actual age might be. What does this mean, exactly? First, meditation reduces activity in the “me center” of the brain, so your self-focused mind and constantly-streaming anxiety chill out a little bit. In addition to calming your brain, meditation thickens gray matter in key areas, so your brain has an easier time with focus and concentration. In one study, this change occurred with just two weeks of habitual meditation. Finally, meditation might help you regenerate brain cells, allowing for slower responses to stress and a stronger memory. Preliminary studies even show that meditation may help decrease and slow the progression of brain ailments, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Like yoga and exercise, meditation is a practice. Meditating with regularity will make you feel better on a daily basis, and it will increase your vitality and overall health with every passing year. Ready to start?

—Alexandra

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 1

Sage Rountree
Photo by Tammy Lamoureux

Earlier this month, my back went out. This condition set in over the course of a day and hung around for two weeks, during which I generally was absolutely fine lying down, but felt the muscles seizing up after only a few steps. (Sleeping? Not a problem. Walking to the coffeemaker? Big problem.) About halfway through this frustrating fortnight, Alexandra wrote to me, “It’s interesting to think about this in the context of the inevitability of aging and injury. You do everything ‘right.’ Yet, this still happened. I think there’s a [B.S.] notion that yoga will save people. Not so. It helps, but there’s no way to avoid injury/illness.”

Yes. Injury is inevitable. If you continue a physical activity—running, gardening, yoga asana—for long enough and if you are interested in improving by testing your limits, you will get hurt. It’s an important part of the learning process; it often shows when you have pushed too far. In my case, my movement activities—running and asana—led to a muscular imbalance. I then found myself with some extra leisure time after we turned in the manuscript to Lifelong Yoga and my business partner and I got Hillsborough Spa and Day Retreat running. I spent this extra time doing more yoga asana than usual, and one or more of those poses found a way to capitalize on the existing imbalance and affect my SI joint. (Happily, this was caught by a wonderful athletic trainer and fixed by a clever chiropractor, and I’m better now.)

In my next posts, I’ll suggest some approaches for practicing from the sidelines. For now, I advise you do what it took me a few too many days to realize: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I stubbornly kept running and continued my usual movement practices without investigating too deeply what caused the problem in the first place. This just dug the hole deeper. When you find yourself in the throes of injury, the very first step is to stop and get clear on what is going on.

Introduction to Meditation, Part 3

In my previous two posts, I wrote about how to get started with meditation and how to make meditation a consistent habit. This week, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles that might arise when you meditate.

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Shelley Dillon, 56, practices seated meditation before yoga

Meditation Obstacles

Meditation is simple: all you do is close your eyes, focus your attention, and breathe. But despite its simplicity, meditation is not easy. Once you close your eyes, your attention immediately gets pulled in many directions…or you notice an itch…or you suddenly feel the urge to plan dinner. To just stay and do nothing and draw your attention (again and again and again) to an anchor point (breath, counting, or a mantra, for instance) is no small feat. Obstacles to meditation are omnipresent. Here are some of the most common ones and some creative ways to solve them.

Boredom

When you first start to meditate, two minutes is going to feel like a small eternity. Imagine sitting for ten minutes! Or half an hour! Your brain is going to miss your smart phone, your car radio, your coffee—whatever it is you use to distract yourself from what’s happening RIGHT NOW. And since your brain has no option but just to hang out with itself, in the beginning this slow presence is going to feel kind of boring.

What do you do? Sometimes when I don’t feel like running, I make a deal with myself: If I get my running clothes on and run one mile, I can check the box, go home, and be done for the day. Of course, once I’m out there running, I don’t usually opt out. Meditation works the same way: once you get going, it feels pretty good. The boredom fades. So make a deal with yourself: sit for ten sessions, and if you still feel bored you can opt out of meditation and try it again in another few months.

Physical Discomfort

It’s tough to sit in one place for an extended period of time—you may feel a little stiff and creaky.

What do you do? Prioritize comfort when you start meditating. You do not need to sit on the floor. Sitting in a comfortable chair works great. You could even be propped up in bed (although the temptation to fall asleep may be too great there.) Make sure, though, that your seated meditation doesn’t result in legs falling asleep or muscles being pinched. Get particular about your comfort before you begin.

Loneliness

Although you can certainly join a meditation group, even there you are essentially alone in a room of people. Sitting and being present with what’s in your head might feel a little isolating or even lonely.

What do you do? You could make it a point to have a meditation buddy—someone that you talked to about your practice on a regular basis, so the experience feels more shared. The thing is, though, meditation will feel like a lonely endeavor initially, but eventually it becomes a place you go to find solace from the busy world of people. It moves from feeling lonely to feeling solitary. Time practicing helps you make this shift.

Distraction

Distraction shows up in various forms: emotions (like anxiety or anger), desire, planning for the future, ruminating thoughts, or outside distractions, like noises, family, or pets.

What do you do? This is where the discipline of meditation comes into play: when you notice your mind has moved away from your anchor, you gently and deliberately bring it back. Some days, this will be easier and some days this will feel like you are jogging through mud. The easier practices and the more challenging practices are all part of meditation. Over time, you may find you’re distracted less. You may find it easier to stay connected to your anchor during your practice.

In my next post, we’ll look at how you can tell meditation is working and how your meditation practice might offer support for aging.

—Alexandra

 

 

 

Find the Good Spots

So much is going right!

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a thought on gratitude. Lately, I’ve started class with a body scan. It’s natural for the attention to go straight to the sites of injury, tension, fatigue. (As my colleague Sara says, “The mind is a pessimist.”) And these are critical to notice as you begin an asana or meditation practice, so that you can see clearly what you’re working with.

But also take the time to find at least one spot, and ideally more, that feels totally fine right now. This could be “My right pointer finger is OK,” or “I don’t have a headache.” Let this expression of gratitude and appreciation for the good spots grow. Once you’ve found one, you can usually find several more. It makes a sweet practice out of counting your blessings, focusing on the sites of function rather than dysfunction.

All our best for a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

—Sage

Introduction to Meditation, Part 2

In my last post, we looked at the reasons meditation is important as we age, and I offered a brief primer on how to meditate. Starting a meditation practice can be daunting, but once you begin, you have to create a habit that sticks: the magic of meditation comes from doing it routinely.

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Alex, 37, sits in meditation. You might have a special place where you always meditate, but your yoga mat works just fine, too.

Same Time

It is not imperative that you meditate every day, although meditation experts suggest it. More important than how often you meditate, though, is that you meditate with regularity. Whether you meditate daily, three days a week, or just once a week, find your meditation time and adhere to it.

Don’t fret about how long you “should” meditate for: starting out, go for a regular meditation practice but for short intervals of time. After all, if you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t start by running ten miles on your first day of training. First, you’d create a manageable weekly running schedule, and you’d commit to running at least several times a week. From there, you’d start with shorter runs and build slowly to running longer distances and covering more miles. It’s the same with meditation: make it a habit, and then add a little more. When you first begin to meditate, two to five minutes is plenty of time! If you do that successfully for a couple of weeks, consider adding an additional minute every few meditation sessions.

Same Place

It’s just as important to have a set place as it is to have a set time. Some people enjoy having a meditation area in their home—a specific corner of the bedroom or an alcove near a window. You could put a yoga mat, meditation cushion, or candle there. That’s a nice idea, and if setting up a sacred area appeals to you, go for it. It’s also completely fine for your meditation “place” to be on the floor next to your bed—or even on your bed! Where you meditate doesn’t have to be special, but creating habits is easier when you do the same thing again and again: for that reason, meditate in the same place every time. (Of course, when you travel, this idea gets shaken up. But when you’re home, have a meditation place.)

Familiar Anchors

You can vary the anchors you use: one day you might choose to focus on your breath, one day you might choose a phrase or mantra. When inspiration strikes, let it guide your practice. There will be plenty of days, though, that you won’t feel inspired to meditate on a new mantra or intention. You won’t feel inspired to meditate at all: the very act of committing to your meditation practice—actually sitting down and closing your eyes—will feel like a chore. For those days, you need a stockpile of go-to anchors. You might have a specific counting pattern you know captures your mind well. You might choose a simple mantra you use often: the word “peace” or a sentence like “breathing in, I am present; breathing out, I am here.” As you begin creating your habit of meditation, jot down a few anchors you can use any time you sit to meditate. When you don’t feel inspired, use familiar anchors.

Connect Meditation to Your Daily Life

The best way to begin—and then stick to—a meditation practice is to connect it to something you already do routinely. If you plan to meditate daily, perhaps you can sit down right after you brush your teeth every morning. You’ll use your already ingrained habit to trigger your soon-to-be-ingrained habit—and meditating with minty breath may even help you stay alert! Or maybe you unwind at night by reading. You can still do that, but sit in meditation first. If you have a daily or weekly yoga practice, add a few minutes of meditation before or after your practice. Instead of making your meditation practice something else you have to do, connect it to something that you’re already doing.

In my next post on meditation, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles and examine how you know when your meditation practice is working. (Preview: are you meditating routinely? It’s working!)

—Alexandra

 

Productive Discomfort and Pain

As you’ll know from decades of life and experience with exercise, sensation—even intense sensation—is a byproduct of effort. And this sensation is often necessary for growth. With no stress stimulus, there’s no adaptive response. No challenge, no change. But the trick is to learn how to find the right degree of stress, so that you grow and don’t break down. I wrote about this in Goldilocks and the Gauge.

Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain
Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain.

Your asana practice—doing yoga poses—can be a laboratory so you can begin to discern between productive discomfort and unhealthy pain. This skill then can serve you off the mat, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Here’s how to begin to tell the difference; your body, of course, should be your number-one guide.

Productive discomfort can feel like . . .

  • Shaking in the muscles
  • Heat in the muscles (“feel the burn”)
  • A challenge to keep you focused
  • A challenge to keep your breath regular
  • Sensation that fades quickly when you leave a pose

Pain can feel like . . .

  • Sharpness in the joints
  • Aching in the joints
  • Too much to keep you focused
  • Too much to breathe through with a regular rhythm
  • Sensation that continues even after you leave a pose

Use your practice to help you find ways to stay present in the face of discomfort, and to recognize and avoid unproductive pain.

—Sage

Introduction to Meditation, Part 1

The idea of meditation has gotten increasingly popular in mainstream culture in the past few years. And there’s a reason for that: studies have shown that meditation changes your brain, making it more able to handle stress and better adept at finding focus and calm.

Meditation is of particularly importance as we age; research has shown a correlation between meditation and brain health. Meditation is like yoga for your brain: with practice, it allows you to assert better control of your responses to stressful, stimulating events and situations.

While many of us have grand plans to meditate, getting started and sticking with the habit of meditating can be hard. In my next few posts, I’ll write about how to get started, how to make it a habit, and how to know it’s working. (Early hint: if you’re doing it, it is.)

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This week, let’s look at how to get started and how to actually meditate.

Start Small

Start a meditation practice with modest goals. Decide to meditate a few times a week or even just on a special day, like Sunday night or Monday morning. Even if you feel ambitious and make a plan to meditate daily, limit the time you sit in meditation. Start with two minutes or five. If you aren’t used to being still with your thoughts, even five minutes can feel like a long time! Set a timer and get comfortable.

Get Comfortable

You do not need to sit on the floor cross-legged. If that feels great in your body, you certainly can, but you could also sit in a chair, on the floor leaning against a wall, or even comfortably reclining. (Don’t get too comfortable, though, or you might fall asleep.) Definitely do not choose a position that causes you any degree of agony. Start in a sweet place.

Choose an Anchor

As you sit in your comfortable space for several minutes, your goal isn’t to clear your mind. Rather, your goal is to choose an anchor for your attention. Common anchors include your breath, a mantra (a phrase or intention you repeat, like “calm,” “present,” or “here now”), or counting. You can also meditate with your eyes open, focusing on a candle or an image that appeals to you and calms you.

Gently Return

Regardless of what anchor you choose, your attention will wander—probably within a matter of seconds. When you notice you’re thinking about something—plans, the future, some event that’s already happened—gently and kindly (and without judgment or frustration) move your attention back to your anchor. Reset. Start again. In each meditation practice, you will return your attention to your anchor again and again and again.

—Alexandra

 

Just One Pose: Mountain

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This one is the most express of all, and you can do it virtually anywhere: mountain pose (tadasana). It’s simply standing there—simply, and profoundly just standing there.

(Smokey) Mountain Pose
(Smokey) Mountain Pose

Why

When you learn to pay attention in mountain pose, both to your alignment and to your breath, you’ll have the ideal foundation for virtually every other pose. And you’ll gain experience in being present with what is happening right now, that is, mindfulness.

How

Stand tall with your feet under your knees and your knees under your hips. Experiment with the most comfortable distance between your feet. Hold your weight even across your feet. Level your pelvis so you feel your core muscles lightly engage. Lift through the crown of your head. Relax your shoulder blades down, and try rolling your thumbs out, as in the photo above, then keep that broadness across your chest and drop your arms by your sides. Take several breaths while feeling the groundedness through your feet and the lift through your spine.

Variations

Mountain pose is portable! You can and should do it anywhere. Shake things up by:

  • Closing your eyes. If that’s too destabilizing, blink in long intervals.
  • Lifting your arms. With your arms lifted, tuck your lowest ribs in so you aren’t arching your back.
  • Lifting your heels. Challenge your balance by creating some space between your heels and the floor. This could be a millimeter or six inches, depending on your balance. Keep breathing!
  • Finding mountain pose in a chair. Keep your ankles and knees in line as you reach your spine tall from your pelvis.

—Sage

A Simple Fix to Save Your Wrists

Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.

If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.

Problem

As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?

Solution

First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.

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A blanket under your wrists decreases the bend, making it significantly sweeter.
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If class is moving quickly or you don’t have a blanket nearby, fold up your mat for wrist support.

Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.

—Alexandra

Share Your Questions

Alexandra and Sage
Alexandra and Sage

We are in the home stretch of drafting Lifelong Yoga, our book to be published by North American Books next summer. Our goal is to tell and show you how to develop and modify a practice to take you through your forties, fifties, and far beyond. We’re covering adaptations for common age-related conditions, appropriate expressions of poses for various bodies and needs, and yoga philosophy.

Here’s your chance to help direct the book. What are your biggest questions around making yoga a lifelong practice? How has your practice changed, and how did you adapt? What would you most like to learn about yoga through the years?

Please let us know in the comments and on Facebook. Thanks in advance!

—Sage