Meditation is growing in popularity as awareness increases concerning meditation health benefits. I have experimented with a variety of meditation techniques, with various personal results. In this post, I share the different techniques I have come across, and hope to hear from you regarding techniques you have tried!
Meditation: Why bother?
Meditation feels awkward at first. I remember thinking “what am I doing? This is pointless, I’m just laying here, what a waste of time.” However, after reading about the benefits of consistent meditation, I was determined to honestly try it for eight weeks. That was several years ago, and I have been meditating consistently since that initial experiment!
I often wonder what motivated people to meditate before the health benefits were researched and documented. For example, why would someone randomly decide to sit there in silence for 20-30 minutes (or longer), trying to redirect their thoughts back to their breathing (or other focal point) without first knowing the benefits? There is a bit of a learning curve in terms of feeling comfortable doing it.
The benefits, like exercise, tend to accrue with time and practice. Certainly, the first several times I tried it, I do not recall finding it necessarily relaxing. I recognize that it is utilized by various world religions (including Christianity). Still, as an individual, simply sitting there for 20-30 minutes?–I needed to know what I could hope to gain from doing such.
Meditation health benefits: in case you need some motivation!
Meditation has been linked to a number of mental and physical health benefits. A recent literature review evaluating research findings on meditation has noted remarkable findings. Findings during meditation include the following:
- Reduction in “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system activity,
- Increase in the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” parasympathetic nervous system as evidenced by reductions in heart rate, reduced respiratory rate, reduced oxygen consumption, reduced body temperature, improvements in heart rate variability, and other physiological measures, at levels superior to resting control groups
- Neutralization of extremes of emotions as measured by increased galvanic resistance of the skin (reduced electrical conductivity due to reduction in sweat gland activity)
- A dominance of alpha brain wave patterns consistent with an awake but rested states, measurable using electroencephalogram (EEG)
- Activation of brain regions responsible for creation of a the “tonic alert” phase, defined as “a state of optimal vigilance where attention is sustained for a prolonged period of time” (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015, section 1, para 2); Sampaio, Lima, & Ladeia, 2017; Sciencedirect.com, 2007).
Health benefits from routine practice of meditation include:
- Improved self ratings of having a sense of psychological wellbeing, improved life satisfaction levels, decreased perceptions of stress, and a more positive state of emotions from mindfulness meditation training–superior to a control group performing muscle relaxation and breathing techniques of equivalent length of time
- Reduction in anxiety levels
- Measurable improvements in brain thickness in regions associated with attention and focus (such as the insula and prefrontal cortex) as measured by MRI
- Measurable improvements in brain thickness in additional brain regions associated with learning, memory, regulation of emotions, and ability to empathize with others–such as the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction and cerebellum as measured by MRI–this doing just 30 minutes of mindful meditation a day for 8 weeks!!!!
- Improved antibody response to influenza vaccination showing improved immune response in an intervention group with 8 weeks of meditation training versus a non-meditating control group
- Reduced arterial pressure and reduced risk for stroke and heart attack (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015; Sampaio, Lima, & Ladeia, 2017)
The list goes on, but you get the point. The benefits are not magical, though they are amazing. By reducing our “fight and flight” response, calming our emotions, and training our resting state nervous system, we better enable our bodies to enter into a repairing, restorative state. Note, as I cover in another post, stress and anxiety are not always “bad” for us so long as we can alternate exposures to stress and anxiety with resting states. See my post “Stress & Anxiety can be…Good?” for a more thorough exploration.
Think of meditation as a tool for restoration, healing, and brain training. As Jim Kwik notes in his book “Limitless,” we practice distraction all day long every day, thanks to our addiction to technology. Meditation is an exercise for the brain, it helps us to practice focus.
Meditations I have personally tried & my experience
What is Mindfulness? The past is gone, and the future is uncertain. There is more to life than the anxious thoughts in your head! Experience life as it is happening to you right now!
Mindfulness meditation is all about focusing on the present moment–letting go of judgments–“this is good, this is bad, that is ugly, that is pretty, I’m this, I’m that, I wish, I don’t want…”–just noticing thoughts but letting them pass like clouds, noticing feelings, and noticing sensations as they come and go. As your mind wanders off on a tangent (as minds always do), notice that wondering without judgement or frustration, and bring your attention back to your chosen area of focus. Repeat this as many times as necessary during the duration of your meditation.
My experience with mindful meditation
My experience with mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation is the first meditation I ever tried, learning about it and following the guided meditation exercises presented by the book “Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” (Williams & Penman, 2011). I am not going to lie. As I sat there doing my first few guided meditations, such as doing body scans or focusing on the breathing, I couldn’t help but think “what am I doing? what is the point of this?” Not only that, but I felt VERY distracted, even anxious during the process truthfully. Maybe meditation is for “other people…not me.”
However, meditation indeed is a PRACTICE in focus. Over time I have found it easier to redirect myself away from my random thoughts (though they still occur) during meditation and back to my chosen area of focus. I have found myself during mindful meditation sessions entering into a deep state of relaxation during 20 minute sessions.
A profound sense of calm will come over me, my body will automatically begin breathing slow and deep, and I develop a sense of emotional and mental peace during and after the session. This practice has spilled over into everyday life. At work, during stressful moments, or outside work during moments of boredom (like a doctors office!) I will find myself bringing my thoughts to the immediate moment and away from mental tangents.
Am I perfect at this? No way! But it definitely has helped me during stressful situations…its another “tool in the toolbox” for coping with stress and anxiety.
While I still do guided mindful meditation exercises at times, I have also learned to do mindful meditations in total silence, or while walking, or even incorporating “mindful moments” such as 30 second to several minute focus efforts during routine, daily life activities. While mindful meditation is said to also help with sleep, it did not help me during my severe bout of insomnia. Overcoming insomnia required a total lifestyle overhaul, which I cover in my series “My Insomnia Experience” parts 1-3.
Wim Hof breathing techniques and cold exposure
WARNING: THE WIM HOF METHOD CAN INVOLVE RISKS SUCH AS FAINTING, DROWNING (if practiced in water deep enough for you to be submerged should you become unconscious) AND HYPOTHERMIA. More on risks and benefits of his methods can be found here. Practice his method at your own risk, and avoid if you have underlying cardiac, blood pressure, or other health issues!!!!!!!!!
Wim Hof is a fascinating person. Known as “the Iceman,” he is an embodiment of mind-over-body principles after years of practice. Wim Hof has run a half marathon barefoot in snow wearing nothing but shorts above the arctic circle, set records for swimming 66 meters under a sheet of ice, has run a full marathon in the Nambi desert with no water, submerged himself in ice for record lengths of time while stabilizing his body temperature, climbed some of the worlds tallest mountains wearing only shorts, willed his immune system to calm its response during an endotoxin immune challenge, among other amazing feats of self control and discipline! (Wimhofmethod.com, 2020).
Wim Hof has been the subject of numerous books, articles, and even research studies. Even more fascinating, Wim Hof has demonstrated that others can follow his techniques and accomplish similar feats. I read about his methods in the book “Becoming the Iceman” (Hof & Rosales, 2011).
Wim Hof’s training methods include meditation periods involving rapid breathing to induce a state of hyperventilation, followed by breath-holds for a duration as long as you can manage–repeating the cycles of hyperventilation and breath holds several times for a period of 20 minutes or so. Following these sessions, a series of exercises (such as push-ups while holding your breath or cold exposure using an ice bath or cold shower is encouraged. During the stressors of the breath-holds as well as the cold exposure, you practice calming and quieting the mind–you are to avoid shivering through calming and focusing your mind and body. You are cautioned to never force your body, rather to listen to your body and to only push it as far as it will allow you at a given moment.
My experience with the wim hof method: the breathing technique
I enjoyed the Wim Hof method breathing sessions. When you first do them, you find your body literally tingling all over from the hyperventilation (you must do it seated or lying down, as fainting is a risk). While it can scare you a little initially, the sensation is somewhat interesting and actually kind of pleasant.
In fact, I found myself disappointed to find that with routine practice, these tingling sensations go away. The breath holds were also pretty interesting…the more distracted and active your mind, the less length of time you are able to accomplish when practicing the breath-holds. Conversely, totally quieting your mind allowed you to stretch the breath-holds longer.
My experience with the Wim Hof method: cold exposure
I practiced the cold exposure techniques as well, taking cold showers and baths in ice water (literally, the faucet set to the coldest setting, plus ice thrown in the water–this during the fall and winter in Pennsylvania) for 20 minutes, calming myself with a focus on breathing. For me, I found it easiest to lay in the bath and turn the cold water on while laying there, letting it fill around me. I added ice (from large cups set on the edge of the tub) as it filled.
I found I could calm my body to prevent shivering for the most part during the bath. For the showers I would start it warm for just a few seconds, then turn it progressively colder till I had it set all the way to the coldest setting. I was not able to do this immediately, but progressively built a tolerance to the cold discomfort and thereby was able to set the shower or bath temperatures to progressively colder settings.
Following the bath, my body would get racked with shivering which the book notes is a normal response. It would take a long time for me to warm up, though overall I did not necessarily mind this sensation. My wife would joke that it felt like she was laying next to a corpse as my body was so cold after an ice bath session–I can’t say she was a fan of my experiments with the Wim Hof method.
Are there downsides?
I stopped doing the method for two main reasons: the first and most significant reason was that I began reading articles noting that ice baths may interfere with goals of muscle building due to dampening the inflammation response that naturally occurs after weight training (Blaszczak-Boxe, 2015). While inflammation can frequently be a negative health factor, it also serves a role in signaling muscle building and repair following strength or hypertrophy workouts. Note: our body is about balance–its not so much about “good” and “bad” functions but instead about maintaining a balance of various functions like inflammation. I am naturally thin, I did not wish to lose what muscle I have.
The second reason was that I experienced a bout of bronchitis while following his method. If the method is supposed to boost the immune system, it did not seem to do so in my case. I have since abandoned the Wim Hof method as it does not support my current goals, though I enjoyed the breathing exercises and may try such again in the future.
Dk Yoo: Cham Jang Gong Training Technique
If you never heard of DK Yoo, I am not surprised–he’s not exactly a household name for many in the United States. However, he is pretty amazing in terms of his mind-body abilities. DK Yoo is a martial artist and author who trains special forces in his personalized techniques inspired by Korean Systema. He is not a large, intimidating person in appearance–but his ability to generate power along with speed and smoothness in his execution of self-defense tactics are remarkable to behold. Videos of him are widely available online, such as this one here.
Excellence in martial arts, like any sport, requires mind/ body nervous system connectivity, a strong ability to focus, the ability to act fast and reflexively, along with mastery of strength, balance, and endurance. DK Yoo’s book “DK Cham Jang Gong: The Training Technique” (Yoo, 2018) strongly emphasizes the use of various meditations involving balance and physical exercises as a method of enhancing these connections. DK Yoo takes little interest in philosophy, rather, he sees the techniques as exercises that build nerve connections, strengthen tendons, muscles, enhance circulation, and improve mental clarity and focus.
My experience with DK Yoo’s Cham Jang Gong Training Technique
I have enjoyed many of the meditation exercises outlined in DK Yoo’s book, though I have not completed nearly all of them. To be clear, his exercises are very gradual, require a consistent practice, and build very slowly over time. He frequently suggests one form of meditation for a month at a time before making small additions. These additions slowly accumulate. The descriptions I give below are just summaries, he gives far more detail in terms of instruction in his book.
Laying meditation: DK Yoo suggests you do this meditation before and after training. You lay flat on the floor on your back with no pillow, legs shoulder width apart, feet naturally falling outwards, arms at a 30 degree angle from your body with your palms relaxed and thumbs facing towards the ceiling. This position is maintained for 5-10 minutes. While lying, you focus on your breathing, simply noticing it.
Your muscles, tendons and joints relax–and according to DK Yoo, your body is able to ease areas of spasticity, improving muscle and skeletal function, as well as musculoskeletal alignment. After 5-10 minutes, you turn over laying flat on your stomach, thumbs facing down, arms out at a 30 degree angle, and feet relaxed outward from the body. Your face is turned to the side against the floor, switching sides as you need. You maintain this position for another 5-10 minutes.
Again focus on the breathing letting your body become heavy, pressing into the floor. This exercise I have found to be helpful when I have areas that are excessively sore or tight. It is also deeply relaxing.
Standing balance meditations: These meditations are interesting. In the first step, you meditate in a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart, knees with just a slight bend/ not locked, arms hanging loosely at your sides, shoulders relaxed, and eyes closed for about 10 minutes. You will feel your body moving forward/ backward in space while your eyes are closed, and you simply use the muscles in your ankles and feet to gently keep you balanced, do not use any other parts of your body to maintain balance. Focus on your breath, focus on the slight adjustments your muscles make to keep you balanced.
As you progress after a month of doing the above, feet come together so your now more in a pillar type stance, repeat the steps above, using the muscles of your feet and ankles to maintain balance. After a month of this, you use your abdominal muscles to re-balance yourself instead of the ankles and feet. There are many further progressions, but that is as far as I got thus far.
I enjoyed the balance meditations. Interestingly, the movements and feelings of being off-balance with your eyes closed create minor feelings of discomfort and anxiety that serve as easy stimuli to practice calming yourself. The more calm your mind, the more steady your balance, so you get real time feedback on how well you are quieting your mind. I was skeptical that you could re-balance yourself by simply flexing your core muscles, but found such to be very effective.
The downside for the DK Yoo methods? I guess my biggest issue is having the time to perform his meditations–especially during the week. I enjoy them but have a hard time maintaining consistency.
Other meditations I have tried
I have also done alternate nostril breathing which has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure in persons with hypertension when performed for 10 minutes, twice a day after just 5 days of practice–dropping averages by 10 points systolic approximately (Kalaivani, Kumari, & Pal, 2019). I find it relaxing and have slept great on days where I have done it twice in a day–time is an issue though with my competing goals. I almost daily rely on a specific guided imagery to help me clear my mind of stressful thoughts from the day prior to bed–I cover such in my series on insomnia.
Meditation is a research-backed intervention for achieving a deep state of relaxation and provides a strong counter-balance to our stress response. By powerfully stimulating our “rest and digest” arm of the nervous system, our body is able to boost immunity, reduce blood pressure and cardiovascular strain, and quiet emotional extremes–these changes have been clinically measured and validated. Not only that, meditation produces physical changes with improved brain density in areas that regulate emotions, learning, and memory. Pretty amazing!!
I have experimented with a variety of meditations with various goals. These goals have included reductions of anxiety, improving mind over body discipline, and enhancing coordination between my brain and body in terms of balance and focus. I have only practiced meditation for a few years, but have found myself drawing on it–especially mindfulness–during the stresses of daily life and work. The biggest challenge? Time!!
So the meditation I do most consistently is the one that helps me sleep the best, which is the guided imagery I reference in my insomnia series. However, I still manage a few times a week to do other forms of meditation. What meditation practices have you tried? What has worked best for you?
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed! Feel free to sign up for my email list to receive notice whenever I release new posts! Thanks again, Donovan
Amihai, I., & Kozhevnikov, M. (2015). The Influence of Buddhist Meditation Traditions on the Autonomic System and Attention. BioMed research international, 731579. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/731579
Blaszczak-Boxe, A. (2015). Post-workout ice baths may weaken muscles. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/51883-post-workout-ice-baths-weaken-muscles.html
Hof, W., & Rosales, J. (2011). Becoming the Iceman. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press
Kalaivani, S., Kumari, M. J., & Pal, G. K. (2019). Effect of alternate nostril breathing exercise on blood pressure, heart rate, and rate pressure product among patients with hypertension in JIPMER, Puducherry. Journal of education and health promotion, 8, 145. https://doi.org/10.4103/jehp.jehp_32_19
Kwik, J. (2020). Limitless. New York, NY: Hay House, Inc
Sampaio, C., Lima, M., & Ladeia, A. (2017). Meditation, Health and Scientific Investigations: Review of the Literature. Journal of Religion & Health, 56(2), 411–427. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10943-016-0211-1
Sciencedirect.com. (2007). Alpha wave. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/alpha-wave
Williams, M. & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. New York, NY: Rodale
Wimhofmethod.com (2020). Who is “The Iceman” WIM HOF? Retrieved from https://www.wimhofmethod.com/iceman-wim-hof
Yoo, DK. (2018). DK Cham Jang Gong: The Training Technique. WCS Association