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The Benefits of Meditation, and the Easiest Way to Get Started

Even five minutes a day can make a difference.

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My meditation teacher sits cross-legged on the floor. In a soothing tone, she says, “Find your sitz bones.”

Also known as “sitting” bones, they’re part of the pelvis — and a body part I didn’t know I had. I’ve done my share of sitting, but I believed I was resting on my derriere. What a relief to learn that this body part is fleshy due to my gluteus muscles!

My introduction to the ancient practice of meditation begins with an anatomy lesson. The teacher advises beginners to locate their sitz bones by sitting up straight and rocking back and forth.

I find my sitz bones. I want to find calmness. Even enlightenment. But first I must find patience. I’m learning something new, hoping that meditation will reduce the anxieties that keep me awake at night.

My meditation studio is a welcoming community where I’m always greeted with an amazingly happy “hello.” At 65, I’m one of the oldest, but I soon realize that meditators of all ages are equal. I drink complimentary tea and start to unwind from deadlines, city noise, worries large and small. I request a chair rather than a floor cushion because of my arthritic knees, and I’m presented with one as if it’s a throne. I warm my lap with their cozy blanket. Others kneel, sit in the lotus pose or lean against a wall.

Why am I so fidgety? Why do I keep getting an urge to scratch an itch on my chin?

“Return to the breath,” the teacher guides us.

A few sessions later I enter what athletes call “the zone.” I discover that I keep my tension in my jaw, so I release it. My fingertips become light, my mind less scattered. The teacher’s words are hypnotic: “Thoughts will enter your brain, but just acknowledge them and let them go. It’s about tuning in, not out.”

A gentle gong alerts us that the practice has come to an end. There's a bounce in my step as I head home, unrushed. I hum aloud. I observe nature more closely. I’m less apt to snap at my husband when he annoys me.

“The biggest advantage to meditation is that it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system and regulates the body,” Yael Shy told me. She is an online meditation teacher at mindfulnessconsulting.net and author of the meditation book What Now? 

“Meditation puts you into contact with your mind and heart,” says Shy, who is based in Rhinebeck, New York. Many of us impulsively react to events, she says, adding that “meditation enables us to choose responses to what the world throws at us.”

Meditation exploded from a fringe idea into the U.S. mainstream in the 1960s, popularized by the Beatles. They began practicing Transcendental Meditation, trained by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Today meditation is found in corporations, schools, sports teams, prisons, gyms, and yoga classes. Studies conducted at the Pew Research Center estimate that 40 percent of Americans claim to meditate at least once a week.

There is speculation that meditation dates back to 5000 BCE. It wasn’t until 1967 that Herbert Benson, a physician and Harvard Medical School professor, linked meditation to health. In his book The Relaxation Response, Benson emphasizes that through meditation, we can reverse the harmful effects of stress hormones that can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rates and muscle tension. Stress hormones can surge from an everyday traffic jam to upsetting world events.

The two most common forms of meditation are mindfulness and TM. Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist tradition of sitting still for between 5 and 30 minutes, focusing on breath and being in the present moment. When thoughts enter your mind, you acknowledge them but redirect them, without judgment. Eventually you can practice mindfulness while doing chores, walking the dog, even riding the subway.TM transcends thoughts by using a mantra — silently repeating a word or short phrase. A common one is “om.”

You close your eyes and meditate for 20 minutes, twice a day. TM is a simple, natural, effortless technique, according to certified teacher Bob Roth, focusing on “an inward direction to a quieter level of the mind that is always there.”

Other forms include body scan (yoga nidra), which involves relaxing parts of your body and tense muscles, from toes to head or vice versa. Attention is directed toward individual parts of your body.

Loving kindness emphasizes positivity and compassion for yourself and others. A common mantra is, “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe.” Then you replace the “I” with “you.” “If you’re looking for stress or anxiety relief, mindfulness or TM is helpful,” says Yael Shy. “Body scans are effective for bodily pain or sleep problems.”

Shy urges beginners to start with guided meditation from a teacher. Once you learn the technique, you can sign into meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier and Happy Not Perfect.

How often do you need to meditate? A famous Zen proverb says, You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.

Yet five minutes a day has measurable outcomes, says Shy. “Anything you do more than the day before is a win-win, and the more benefits you will get.”

My noticeable benefit emerges on a visit to the ophthalmologist. I feel nauseated when my eyes are dilated. Once I fainted. Now I meditate on the way to the doctor, enabling me to open my eyes wide during exams without fear.

During COVID I transitioned to Zoom sessions, helping me to feel less alone when anxiety soared everywhere. Daily video meditations and nightly body scans helped my insomnia.

Today, instead of an afternoon espresso, a short meditation refreshes me like a nap, without that groggy hangover. And every time I silently reach out to difficult people in loving kindness sessions, I imagine someone, somewhere is doing the same for me. Meditation is usually done with eyes closed, but our breaths connect us to ourselves and each other, even in the darkness.

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