Mindful moments

Just as physical exercise develops muscles, meditation reshapes your brain. According to brain testing, people who meditate regularly produce more gamma waves and gray matter in their brains. These changes help protect and prolong the vitality of the brain and enhance cognitive function.

The frontal cortex of our brain is responsible for memory and decision-making. As we age, our brain cortex shrinks. However, studies show that people who meditate regularly develop more gray matter in their frontal cortex, placing them at low risk of developing age-related dementia. Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazer, found that eight weeks of meditation practice can change your brain, for the better. According to Lazer’s study, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

If you want to sharpen your mind, decrease stress and improve the quality of your life, meditation or mindfulness can help you achieve those goals. It’s a drug-free way to control and prevent anxiety and depression. A recent research shows how mindfulness can also help older adults cope with chronic lower back pain.

For several months now, my husband John has been practicing meditation for 15-20 minutes a day through the guidance of Headspace – an online training program that you can download on your phone or laptop. Since he started the program, John feels more focused, productive and present. He even wrote about meditation and analyzed the speech of Andy Puddicombe who founded Headspace. You can read about it here.

Personally, I’m not fond of sitting down to meditate. I’ve done it many times and I still go back to what I prefer, which is to meditate while I walk. For some reason, this just works better for me.

Last week I did some mindful forest walking with Headspace – it has a guided session on mindfulness and walking that I found very helpful. In this session, Andy guides you step by step. Literally. He tells you to walk naturally and feel the weight of your body weighing downwards. He reminds you to feel the soles of your feet against the ground and to notice how your body moves while you walk. He directs you to your toes, your heels, your legs, your arms, your gate and your pace.

As you focus on your body and your walk, you don’t exclude what is happening around you. Instead, you have a broad awareness of what is going on around you and you notice things that are very present, such as smells, sounds, insects, flowers, houses, birds, trees, clouds, cars, buildings.

When you meditate in the sitting position, the focus is on breathing. However, in mindful walking, the focus is on walking, moving and feeling your body instead of breathing. You’re also looking outwards at the space around you and you feel connected with your immediate surroundings. You are moving, noticing, exercising and meditating all at once. This form of meditation appeals to me, and so, I’ll stick with it.

As reminded by Andy in the walking session, when you feel your mind wander, that’s fine because that is what the mind does. It wanders. The mind is designed to wander and think about the past or plan for the future. Meditation, however, is not about suppressing your thoughts. It’s about catching yourself wandering or thinking and gently bringing your focus back to your body and your walk. It’s about going back to that sensation of your feet against the ground. And it works. As you continue with your walk, your mind will be calm and still again, at least for while, until you catch yourself wandering again.

Mindful walking is a simple exercise that you can do with or without guidance. However, from time to time, professional guidance, as in Headspace, can give you the support and confidence that you need to be more aware and more present in the process of walking.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. You can do it sitting, walking or while doing some easy repetitive tasks, such as raking the leaves in the yard or doing the dishes. It only takes 10 minutes a day. When you practice mindfulness, you will experience a greater sense of calm in the mind and less tension in your body. Mindfulness evokes feelings of gratitude, even for the smallest things. As a result, you experience more harmony and peace with yourself and in your every day relationships.

Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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