By Rachael Pacella
Do you know what you’re getting your parents for the holidays? Oh, and whose house is the family dinner at this year? And what are you bringing?
The year is over — did you do everything you wanted to, or miss out?
The holidays can be stressful, filled with worries about the future and regrets about the past. But practising mindfulness — defined simply as being present in the moment rather than thinking of the past or future — can help take your stress level down a notch this holiday season.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation are backed by science — according to the National Institutes of Health, there is moderate evidence that meditation is useful for treating symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“It’s relatively difficult to concentrate on nothing,” Bowie resident Fran Stetina said at a meeting of the Mindfulness Practice Group of Annapolis, Md.
Stetina has been meditating with the group weekly for the past year. When they gather at the Unitarian Universalist Church Sundays and Thursdays, it’s not a class — it’s a practice group, which does just that. Practice.
It can be tough to clear one’s mind and be present in the moment while meditating, Stetina said. “You start thinking about what projects you want to work on, jobs you have to do at home.”
Member Lee Weimer has been meditating for more than a decade, and said this is often the case. The brain is a thinking machine, she said, so thinking isn’t the problem. It’s letting the thought carry you away.
“You can see that thought and you can let it go on by,” she said. You don’t have to dwell.
Weimer said bringing your focus back to your body by paying attention to your breath — feeling it go down your throat, feeling your stomach moving — can stop that cycle.
“We use the bodily sensations to bring the mind back from wandering,” she said.
When it comes to swirling thoughts, longtime practice group member Phyllis Cullham said she’s been there — she has faced a cancer diagnosis.
“Sometimes if you can just break the cycle of pacing and engaging and just sit physically, even if the mind is spinning, that opens the door. And doing that for a few consecutive days works,” she said.
Mind and body have to also be together during mindful meditation, she said.
“If you’re not an integrated whole person, the mind is never going to be free,” she said. “It’s always going to be resenting and complaining and quarrelling and not settling in the body.”
Phil Vendemmia starts each day sitting up in bed and meditating. He sits up straight and keeps the phone off.
For beginners, he said, using a guided meditation is a good place to start. He suggests listening on iTunes to Siddharth Ashvin Shah, who offers a 21-minute morning resilience and stress prevention meditation. During the guided meditations, a person’s voice calmly tells you where to place your focus while meditating — focus on your breathing, focus on your environment, or in more complicated guided meditations, focus on a certain subject like grief.
“Bringing your awareness under greater control is a habit to cultivate everyday,” Ashvin Shah says in his guided morning meditation. “Start by using your senses to become aware of your environment.”
Sometimes people wake up angry or scared, Vendemmia said. Maybe they had bad dreams.
“The idea is that you’re taking time to bring your mind into a more centred place instead of letting what might be a bad way of waking up last any longer than it should,” he said.
Bringing your mind to the present and meditating sounds simple, but can be difficult, he said. Don’t get frustrated, and remember that everything takes practice.
“If for one minute you were in the moment, that’s one minute more than most people do every day,” he said.
Though many people exercise while listening to music or watching a TV in the gym, in yoga classes they’re expected to focus solely on their body — hand and foot placement, alignment and how it all feels.
“If you’re doing that, it allows you to stay in the moment,” Vendemmia said.
He said that through yoga he learned to be more patient, which prepared him for fatherhood. He also said people have told him they’ve used yoga to get through difficult times in their lives.
Evolutions health club programme director Pam Blum, who has taught yoga for more than two decades, also stressed the importance of taking some quiet time.
“That’s what yoga usually offers people,” she said.
They disconnect from the world and look inward. And in a time when people spend a lot of time in cyberspace, taking the time to reconnect with your body is also key.
“Moving your body is a way to reconnect,” Blum said. “For people who think with their heads all day long, they need to get into their body.”
Blum said that if you’re a high-energy person, a slower, more restorative yoga session could benefit you; if you’re a low-energy person, take a more rigorous class to energise yourself.
You can come up with a mantra or mission statement to say to yourself to make sure you, and not someone else, are prioritising your life, she said. Your mantra is who you are and what you stand for. Saying the mantra aloud to yourself will help you follow-through with that intention.Blum suggested picking a meditation mentor, either in real life or on paper through books by Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer or Paulo Coelho.
“If you’re all productive and you’re not present, at some point that’s going to come crashing down,” she said.
According to Mary Kay Connerton, wellness co-ordinator at Annapolis High School, mindfulness is adaptable to any lifestyle. She uses her own life as an example:
Connerton had a baby in May. Before that, she spent 20 minutes every morning meditating and another 40 doing yoga. After her son was born, she found chances to meditate while walking him in his stroller. She paused to take two minutes to reconnect and focus on her breath.
Connerton suggests that beginners start a mindfulness practice by waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual each morning to mediate or do yoga.
She also suggests using cellphone apps to help mediate, such as Insight Timer, which is available for free on the Apple and iOS stores. Insight Timer tracks the time you spend meditating, she said. It also offers nearly 13,000 guided meditations, music, talks and courses, all free.
“It helps people feel accomplished before they jump in the shower,” she said. “You’ll start to see that you crave it.”
And while she has heard people say they don’t have time to meditate, the reality is you make time. Doing so could give you more time, as meditation can increase focus.
“You’ll see this shift of being more aware,” she said. “When you’re more present in each moment, you live every moment of your life.” —The Baltimore Sun/TNS
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