- Personal Development -

Beyond Meditation

Sitting in silence isn’t for everyone. But there are plenty of other practices that offer profound calming benefits.

Man with open arms at sunset

It was an autumn morning at my city’s lakeside Zen Center, where I spent a lot of time during my mid-20s. I’d been on the cushion meditating for about 45 minutes, breathing, observing the internal swirl of thoughts and feelings, until — miraculously — it all began to quiet down, if only a little. It was my first taste of freedom from a relentless internal monologue.

Back when I began meditating, I had a humble practice yielding positive effects that carried into the everyday. Still, my practice didn’t survive the transition to what renowned meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “full catastrophe living”: career, parenthood, and all the associated gravity of adult life.

A couple of decades after I stopped meditat­ing, I discovered a local company offering ­sessions in a sensory-deprivation float tank, something I’d always wanted to try. Inside that dark, warm space, suspended weightless and alone with my thoughts and feelings, something came to life again — the textures of my abandoned practice, stronger and easier to grasp, an open pathway that felt as if it led me home.

We know the physical and emotional benefits of meditation are considerable: greater mental and physical resilience, better impulse control, and healthier aging, among others. But there are plenty of reasons why most of us don’t meditate. Our lives are overscheduled. We have relationships or family to tend to. We feel too restless.

Sometimes the very anxiety or memories of trauma that meditation might heal are what make it feel impossible. “There are people whose minds are so distractible that traditional sitting meditation might just seem too hard. They might struggle to have that kind of mental focus,” says Minneapolis-based integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm. “And there are times when people are in such a state of distress that sitting and being present is too difficult.”

Yet there are plenty of ways to find calm, Emmons notes. If meditation feels out of reach, we can still gain many of its benefits from other sources.

Mindful Movement

Sitting meditation is often seen as the gold standard for calming and centering the mind, but practices that incorporate focused movement can deliver the same rewards — and potentially more.

“Part of our problem with the modern mind is that we’re so head-oriented,” says William Prottengeier, a longtime St. Paul, Minn.–based yoga teacher. “We live in these bodies and have these senses, and the tendency for living in our heads too much creates a real hunger for body-based practices that can ground us.”

Just as many meditation techniques foster awareness of the breath, many movement practices promote an intense awareness of the body that both stimulates and calms the brain. Research even offers provocative evidence that movement practices may positively stimulate the brain in ways that sitting meditation doesn’t.

Psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky, MD, director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, led a study measuring the neurobiological effects of yoga in older adults with memory issues. “Yoga practice showed the same changes in memory as memory training,” she says. “We also saw improvement in executive function, mood, anxiety reduction, and resilience, changes in concentration in the brain, and demonstrated improved connectivity in different areas of the brain.”

Some of the results Lavretsky describes are similar to the benefits of sitting meditation, which include lower levels of stress and anxiety, a better-regulated parasympathetic nervous system, and more functional aging-related chromosomal enzymes.

“Yoga is a great way to enter or learn mindfulness, or to precede a sitting practice,” says Mirabai Bush, cofounder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society in Northampton, Mass. “Yoga is basically bringing your attention to different parts of your body as you move.”

Yoga encompasses a wide array of practices, some slow and passive, others active and strength-based. What they all have in common is the concentrated effort to link the mind and body, which may have a pacifying effect because it helps break down the artificial distinction between the two.

Lavretsky notes that meditation and movement activate some of the same areas of the brain, but yoga and tai chi stimulate several additional regions. “Mindfulness trains focus, and more is done in yoga than mindfulness,” she says. “If you do more, more areas of the brain are activated.”

Tai chi is a movement practice derived from Chinese martial arts. Lavretsky’s research has found that, in addition to activating important parts of the brain, it also improves cognitive function, helps treat depression, and reduces levels of inflammatory CRP (C-reactive protein).

Of course, movement and meditation coexist in mindful exercise practices such as tai chi and yoga.

“Moving in yoga has a calming and de-stressing effect on the body,” Bush points out. “By the end of that practice session, there’s a perfect opportunity for deep relaxation. Instead of jumping up from the mat, you can sit for a while and allow yourself to watch the natural flow of your breath.”

Lavretsky, a certified yoga teacher, favors the practice as a tool for those who find sitting meditation difficult. “For people who can’t steady their mind to sit in silence and pay sustained attention, a sequence of movements or chanting can focus and occupy their minds,” she says. “This can be very helpful for those who can’t sit still.”

Combining his teaching of Iyengar yoga with a longstanding meditation practice, Prottengeier links the points on the contemplative continuum. “You have to bring all the components of who you are with yoga,” he says. “The breath, the heart, and the mind come together. Yoga as a conceptual practice becomes more internal and intuitive when you slow it down.”

Contemplation

Henry Emmons’s psychiatric practice takes a whole-body approach to mental health that includes nutrition, therapy, and mindfulness. He’s long promoted meditation as a tool to address some emotional dysregulation, though his position has evolved over the course of a decades-long career.

Emmons once viewed sitting meditation as the benchmark. “I’m not so sure I believe that anymore,” he now says. “What I think is really key is that you do whatever you’re doing with attention, and be present to it.”

He now feels there are many ways to achieve this state of presence.

Therapeutic biofeedback, for instance, tracks the body’s automatic functions with electronic monitors to aid people in understanding and regulating them. It can help us connect with (and change) physical systems that directly affect our mental and emotional states.

Witnessing our breathing, heart rate, and sweating on display monitors can make it notably easier to consciously moderate those functions. And that can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, ease chronic pain, and improve concentration.

Tampa-based clinical therapist ­Penijean Gracefire, LMHC, has ­researched neurofeedback as a possible PTSD treatment and now pairs it with brain imaging to treat clients in her own practice. Gracefire ­believes that identifying and changing cognitive patterns can help promote resilience. She’s also quick to emphasize that ­basic contemplation is vital for recharging minds exhausted by contemporary life.

“What is low on the list for many of us is resting and repairing,” she says. Our bodies restore tissues as we sleep, “but if we want our brains to work optimally, we need to essentially be doing nothing for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day.”

Gracefire acknowledges that meditation, yoga, and tai chi can help us achieve this neurological restoration, though she notes that simply doing nothing is also restorative. She suggests simply sitting still without meditating — no electronics, no music or podcasts, no interactions — for a set period of time each day, focusing on breathing and staying awake. No other formal technique required.

For those who have trouble sitting still, there’s walking meditation. Requiring only a space where you can pace slowly back and forth, mindful walking involves looking straight ahead and keeping your attention focused on your breath and steps. Proponents contend that greater mindfulness develops without the stress that can accompany sitting meditation and that these effects can carry over into everyday life. (For more on walking as meditation, see “6-Week Meditation Guide for Athletes.”)

On that score, just taking a simple walk — especially in a natural setting ­— without the distraction of devices can also help settle the mind.

A prayer-based contemplative practice is another path to mindfulness for many people. In her book An Altar in the World, religion professor Barbara Brown Taylor, PhD, describes her own altar: a vanity with a mirror, icons, candles, and a box where she places slips of paper bearing the names of people who have asked her to pray for them.

She tries to maintain an attitude of prayer in everyday interactions, and she writes that her altar helps bring her to a state akin to transcendent mindfulness, where she can “no longer tell the difference between need, fear, thanks, and want.”

Restoration

Leigha Horton was camping in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota three years ago when a massive storm hit the remote area, claiming the lives of two other campers. In the storm’s aftermath, she spent almost an entire day hiking amid a labyrinth of felled trees before she reached safety.

The experience left her shocked and traumatized and, paradoxically, compelled to return to the forest. Today, she is an accredited guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and leads groups on mindfulness-centered excursions into the woods.

“People have retreated to the forest to reflect for millennia,” says Horton, “but in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, became solidified in Japan as a response to a national health epidemic among office workers, which had seen increasing rates of heart disease, cancer, and suicide.”

Japanese researchers found substantial evidence for the health benefits, she notes, “including compounds called phytoncides, which all trees and plants release to varying degrees as a communication method.” When inhaled, these compounds appear to boost the human immune system.

Other effects of forest bathing include improved heart and lung function, decreased depression and anxiety, and reduced cortisol levels.

“Humans are not apart from nature. Humans evolved with nature until the industrial revolution,” Horton says. “It’s then that people started spending loads of time indoors — and our health has suffered from it.”

She recalls a military vet who came along on a walk she led. He had seemed skeptical at the time, but later described how the experience changed him. He started to see the natural world as a place of pollinating bees and teeming life rather than enemy territory where he needed to scan the brush for someone with a gun.

When people connect with their senses in a natural environment, a profound form of mindfulness can awaken. “I invite them to open their eyes very slowly and consider that everything they are seeing is also seeing them in return,” she explains. “It’s a sense of place, a sense of belonging and interconnectedness with other beings.” (Read about a shinrin-yoku retreat at “The Benefits of Forest Bathing.”)

If forest bathing is about fully engaging the senses, the sensory-deprivation float is its polar opposite. The practice typically takes place in a horizontal tank, where about 10 inches of water and 800 pounds of Epsom salts combine to enable effortless floating. (Some newer facilities allow people with claustrophobic tendencies to float in a room.) The water is warmed to skin temperature, and the tank is dark and soundproof. The resulting experience is relaxing, deeply contemplative, or anywhere in between.

“As soon as I closed the door, discomfort and distraction were gone. I thought, Wow, this is great,” says health educator and artist Richard Bonk, who has floated almost weekly for more than 30 years. “Meditative states would happen, and I didn’t have to do anything. That’s how I fell in love with floating — it’s a reliable way for the body and the autonomic nervous system to relax without having to work at it.”

Research reveals a number of benefits to floating, including decreased stress, anxiety, and depression; reduced physical pain; better sleep; and increased mindfulness during daily life. The experience can seem intimidating at first, but many find it deeply restful — a sort of shortcut to the state in which mindfulness is sparked.

“I’ve found that floating is a way to directly experience what is being taught in meditative traditions,” says Bonk.

In my own personal journey, a couple of years of monthly floats laid the groundwork for a deeper and more effective daily meditation practice, building on the relaxation I experienced inside that place with no sights, sounds, or sensations.

Whatever tools you can use to achieve a calm outlook and a centered mind, whether in combination with meditation or alone, the benefits of equanimity are undeniable. Fortunately, many paths lead to that peaceful place.

is a Twin Cities–based journalist and novelist.

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