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Whether it's via a break between errands or a more deliberate setting (Mercy by the Sea in Madison, pictured, has a popular seaside labyrinth), all mediation has this goal in common: clear, calm awareness. (Photo by Andrew Sullivan/Zip06.com )
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When it comes to reducing stress or adjusting to change in life, there is an ancient practice with mainstream appeal. Meditation has been around for centuries through endless variations and evolutions, and you don't have to be a Buddhist monk or be able to sit still while cross-legged to make it work for you.
Whether meditation is practiced accompanied by quiet chanting in a religious setting or by a smartphone app in a parking garage over your lunch break, the goal is the same: a mind focused on not emptiness, but simply clear, calm awareness. Getting there is straightforward for some, though most if not all can use a little expert assistance.
"Prior to having formal training, I was doing my own thing by guided meditations here and there," said Jacqueline Piazza of The Healing Room in Madison.
Piazza has been teaching for a year and half, and meditating solidly for three years. She noted that newcomers' experiences can be marred by not knowing what to expect.
"When I went to school to be a certified meditation teacher, I realized that a lot of times you stop doing it because you think you're not doing it right because you can't stop thinking," Piazza said. "The thoughts are always going to be there, but it's taking your attention behind the thoughts."
Another potential pitfall is the expectation that the benefits will be immediate—and dramatic. Alan Franzi of Shoreline Center for Wholistic Health and Creative Edge Yoga in Guilford said that's not always the case.
"Someone's not going to go at [meditation] because they're feeling good. They'll do it because they're stressed," said Franzi, who has been practicing meditation for 40 years and teaching for nearly 30. "So, they may feel a lightening to some degree in the initial experience. It can be quite an amazing shift or a little more subtle, depending on expectations."
For many, the appeal of meditation may be the slew of benefits that it can bring with as little as 10 minutes per day, such as lower blood pressure and reduced stress—or better reactions to stress—among others.
"You're changing your relationship to your thinking and feeling," Franzi said. "You're less reactive and the physical body can relax. Your mind is actually quite a bit more clear."
"It calms the nervous system so it makes you less reactive and more responsive," Piazza agreed. "It has helped people with anxiety, depression, and changed people's lives in that they're not so reactive. Relationships, moods are better. They start to see life and enjoy life because they're being mindful. Things look more colorful."
Enhancing/Improving Your Practice
Whether you've never tried it or you practice often, meditation is rarely the same experience twice. While you may be able to hold longer sessions the longer you've been practicing, you may still encounter some disruptions.
"Meditation is a practice," Piazza said. "The more you practice, the longer you can go. To try to get to a higher level doesn't mean anything except to the individual. What you get out of meditation is what you get out of meditation—there is never any expectation."
"For some people, sitting practice isn't what they want to do," said Franzi. "Maybe try it during cooking or cleaning. Cleaning rice, what Buddhists would do, can be a meditation—you're absorbed in the process. It's all about being in the moment."
Both Franzi and Piazza agree that the best time to try it when you start is in the morning.
"Rolling out of bed is a little easier to meditate, away from the conditioned sleep place, but the mind is still a little quiet," said Franzi. "It's easier to start before the mind has kicked in."
"You don't want to meditate on a full stomach or right before bed, because you don't want to put yourself to sleep—unless you're doing that type of meditation to relax the nervous system, which is yoga nidra, done lying down," Piazza cautioned.
Shutting Out Distractions
Float tanks are another way to change your meditation environment. The tanks, which fit a single person and can be closed to outside light and sound, are filled with highly concentrated salt water at body temperature to allow the body a chance to relax.
"The idea of being able to feel weightlessness while meditating is really appealing, since it allows you to reach a meditative state which is normally not possible," said Matt Donafrio of Massage Savvy in Guilford. "Each person's float experience is different."
Some of the benefits, according to Donafrio, include relief of pain from arthritis, migraines, or injuries; total calm and peaceful relaxation; improved sleep; mental and physical stress relief; and a feeling of energy, rejuvenation, and revitalization.
So, what if you're claustrophobic?
"The design of our float pods allows for almost a full 50 percent of the top of the pod to remain open during an entire float session," he said. "Anyone with mild to moderate claustrophobia can still enjoy the benefits of float therapy without worrying about feeling anxious or uncomfortable."
Between local studio options and apps, there is a way for everyone to try meditating and even the short-term benefits may make it worth a go.
"It doesn't make life go away," said Franzi. "The challenges still exist, but...you're able to have a little more perspective. A long-term meditator doesn't not react...but it's a process. [You find] more solutions to the challenges of life. What happens is you start to live it. You start to come up with your deeper core self. You're still busy, you still have stresses, but they're just different."
Siri, Help Me Meditate
If you're not ready to hit the studio, here are what three popular apps have to offer:
Calm: This app offers a scenic image, gentle nature sounds, just a few buttons to choose from, and starts with a nine-minute guided meditation led by a soft female voice. It offers seven trial sessions and then offers some other unguided, guided, and paid options.
Headspace: With a simple display, this gives a guided tour and the first meditation is 10 minutes led by a male British voice. (The voice is Andy Puddicombe, a meditation and mindfulness expert and ordained Buddhist monk.) This one offers 10 trial sessions before offering other paid options.
Insight Timer: With more options to choose from, beginners may benefit from choosing guided>playlists>first time, relax, or stress. For more frequent meditators, choices are endless.
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