With so much to do in so little time, it’s hard, seeming next to impossible sometimes, to squeeze in some TLC. But, especially for the on-the-go types, creating Zen space is not only good for de-stressing, it’s also good for maintaining good brain health.
A recent study shows that starting from the mid- to late 20s, the brain begins to wither and starts losing some of its functionality. “The brain starts to get smaller from the mid-20s onward,” says Dr. Florian Kurth of UCLA’s Department of Neurology. “It’s probably not something that we notice for a long time. People start to notice this later in life when they start to forget things.”
His team, headed by Dr. Eileen Luders, ran a test between 50 meditators against a control group of 50 non-meditators. The meditators beat out the non-meditators in keeping their brain mass, whereas the non-meditators showed less brain mass in the scanned images.
Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazur and her team also did a longitudinal study on meditation. It showed that meditation changes the brain after eight weeks. A scan image showed increased thickening of four brain regions in the non-meditators after just eight weeks of participating in the meditation program.
A healthier brain is good reason to start a meditation practice if you haven’t begun already. So what first steps can you take?
1. Find a meditation style and make it a habit.
“Meditation has been associated with improved cognitive abilities and reduced stress levels,” Kurth says. “While we may not immediately notice the long-term protective effects of meditation on normal brain atrophy, one may still get these quicker benefits from meditating.”
He suggests finding a style that works for you (whether that be something like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] or yoga) and keep up the practice rather than find a perfect style and not keep it up. Lazur mentions doing even a little every day is a good thing, and some studies suggest 5-10 minutes a day.
2. Schedule time for it.
As busy as we are, who has time to meditate? Think of it like brushing your teeth—you take five minutes to brush every day so your teeth won’t decay. In the same way, think of it as a way to preserve your brain’s health. You can spare a few minutes either at your desk, in your car, on quick walk outside or sitting on a park bench. Think of spaces in your schedule where you can take a few minutes off.
3. Start with these simple exercises.
Certified Yoga and Meditation Instructor Alexis Pierce suggests breath awareness helps focus the mind and concentration over time. “It’s incredibly effective to gently bring the mind back to the breath and the body. It connects you to this moment, which allows you to release the stress and anxiety of the past and future. You may discover calmness, feelings of lightness and elation, and a quieter mind.”
V-Shaped Breath Exercise
Close your eyes. Focus on the point between your eyes and imagine air coming in and out in the shape of a wide “V.” Bring it above the forehead, and as you’re inhaling the breath in, have it come wide across the forehead as a “V.” Then exhale it down across the forehead to that point between the eyes.
By starting and ending at this point between the eyes you’re activating the command center calming along the frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making. You’re getting oxygen to that area and helping it feel calmer by focusing on the point between the eyes.
Close your eyes. Start inhaling deep in the belly, air rising to the chest then upper chest near your upper collar bone. Hold briefly, then exhale three counts out the upper chest, chest and belly.
Feel the air moving into the belly, chest and upper chest as you’re breathing in and out through the nose. Relax and feel all the movements. Do this for a few minutes, feeling the breath pass throughout the body, similar to an ocean wave moving then receding as the body softens.