Health Benefits of Meditation: Explore To Restore
By Adriaan Zimmerman
Written by Maxwell Barna, a writer in the men's lifestyle space, covering everything from food and booze, to auto, tech, and the Great Outdoors.
Explore to Restore is a content series documenting Ned's search for the world's best restorative traditions and natural healing modalities. We'll be sharing our experiences of the good, the bad, and the just plain... well, you'll see.
Life is getting faster by the minute, and it seems like we’re hurdling through space and time at unprecedented speeds. While the ride sure has been fun, we’re certain we aren’t alone in saying that it sometimes feels like we’re moving too quickly. Every aspect of our lives is scheduled and catalogued down to the minute, from the time we wake up in the morning, to the time we eat lunch in the afternoon, to the time we go to bed at night. Hell, some of us are even wearing watches that tell us when to stand up because we’re all so damn busy living.
The sheer pace of our lives is stressful, which means for a lot of us, it wreaks havoc on our psyches.
That’s where meditation comes in. It’s a thousands-years-old art that’s been practiced by modern and ancient civilizations all over the world, designed specifically to help us slow our bodies down, relax, and help do things like reduce stress and anxiety, center ourselves, recharge our batteries, and even help with things like physical pains and depression (But more on that later).
I wanted to learn more about meditation—and the practicality of being mindful in our busy everyday lives—so I took a trip out to Vitality Meditation, a boutique studio in Philadelphia owned and operated by two sisters, Jasmine and Anastasia Bailey.
We sat down and talked about meditation, its benefits, achieving mindfulness, and how to keep being mindful on even the busiest of days. I also sat in for a session to experience first-hand what mindfulness is all about.
Anastasia tells me that she and Jasmine noticed the benefits of mindfulness and, after realizing their Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown didn’t really have any options for people looking to meditate in a safe, tranquil, and controlled environment.
“We encounter a lot of stressors throughout the day, and I found that when I do meditate on a daily basis, I notice how I’m able to identify those stressors and triggers, deescalate them, and even turn them off,” she says, on the couch inside the clean, simple street-level lobby of the studio. “Your brain is a muscle, so it takes a lot of practice. And if you’re taking just a few minutes in the morning to be mindful and kind of prepare your brain for the day to come, you’ll notice it just gets easier.”
More specifically, meditation is about finding center. Benefits of meditation also include higher energy, more focus, more creativity, a better overall mood, better overall physical feeling, and even better sleep if done before bed. It can help reduce stress and anxiety, enhance self-awareness, and is even said to help reduce age-related memory loss among adults.
The idea is that if our bodies are whizzing and vibrating in every direction and we’re focusing on the millions of things we’re bombarded with from the moment we rise to the moment we go to sleep at night—like our emails, our jobs, our families and friends, our leftover to-do’s, etc.—they’re not getting the time they need to slow down and relax.
That’s problematic for a lot of obvious reasons, but the most important, according to Jasmine, is that these stressors throw us off kilter.
“I notice that when I’m not meditating, I feel off-balance,” she says. “And we try to incorporate the idea that we have these busy, hectic lives into the classes that we do. We use old Buddhism structure into some of the wording that we use, but we don’t pretend we’re living in this serene place, surrounded by mountains and calming waterfalls. We live in a high pressure city that’s constantly moving—and constantly forcing us to move.”
The interesting thing about meditation for me is that it can be done in more than one way, depending on each individual person. So long as you’re keeping that tenet of slowing down, and focusing on one object or idea or process to achieve that lull in momentum (physically and psychologically), then you’re technically already meditating. For some of us, that might include vacuuming. For others, it might include going for a long drive. And still for others, it might include putting together a puzzle. At the end of the day, the things that relax us and center us, and the act of making a concerted effort to participate in those things, means we are being mindful.
“Just because you live in a city doesn’t mean you can’t achieve mindfulness,” Anastasia says. “In fact, where and how we live means we need to make the effort to be more mindful.”
The problem, of course, is that a lot of the benefits of meditation are things that need to be felt and individually observed, rather than scientifically quantified. It’s a large reason why people are skeptical about it. And that’s why I opted into a session; to see firsthand whether or not I could feel some of the benefits I’d read and been told about.
When it was time for our session, we left the comfort of the lobby and made our way downstairs to, well, more comfort.
The lights are low in the meditation studio. Candles are lit, and plants adorn the front-facing wall, where Jasmine takes her seat on a cushion. We sit on ours, legs crossed and draped in blankets. Jasmine queues up some relaxing music, and we close our eyes and begin. I am instructed to place my hands on my lap, palms facing either out or in (In if you want to re-circulate the energy you already have, and out if you want to receive energy from the world).
The session begins with a couple of deep breaths, in through the nostrils, and out through the mouth.
“Right now, we’re just preparing ourselves—agreeing to self—that we’re going to become the observers of our thoughts and mind,” Jasmine says, sitting on the mat with her eyes closed. “We’re not telling the mind to do anything or forcing it to do anything right now. We’re just observing.”
We then move on to what’s called a “body scan,” which is essentially a section-by-section mental “audit” of the body. Jasmine begins by asking us to focus on the very top of our heads, and then moves down to our foreheads, and then the space between our eyebrows, our temples, and then down to our jaws. We’re even asked to relax our noses. From there, we move on down to the neck, the back and hips, arms, fingers, legs, feet, and toes.
It might sound a little excessive, but there’s a method to the madness.
The body scan, by design, forces us to stop thinking of all the outside stressors and distracting elements of our day, and shift focus onto ourselves. After shifting that focus onto our physical bodies, the goal is to then look inward for the second part of the session, which places focus inward, on our brains.
“Repeat inside your head, ‘My entire body is relaxed,”she instructs. “We’re gently starting to switch our awareness back onto our mind and thoughts, looking at where our thoughts are right now, and viewing this moment.”
From there, Jasmine reminds us that we’re still the observer of our thoughts, to imagine our minds as the sky, and our thoughts as our clouds.
“While we’re doing this, we’re also understanding that when we take the seat of the observer of our thoughts and minds, we can take on any situation the way we want to, being in control of and understanding where our mind is, how our thoughts work, how they take shape, and in turn, how we choose to extend ourselves once we’ve deepened our understanding of our minds,” she says.
I have one more good stretch before I open my eyes, and just like that, the session is over.
Again, it probably sounds a little strange in text, but at the end of the 13 minutes, I was definitely feeling focused and relaxed. The body scan worked perfect in shaking me from my outside distractions (of which there were many) and allowing me to focus on the session. And from there, it allowed me to focus on my individual thoughts and stressers, and ultimately relieve myself from some of the pressures being placed on me by them.
I felt relaxed, if not a little tired, though that may have had something to do with the fact that it was also 9:30 a.m. on a Monday.
Either way, I did feel a sense of calm, and gained a sense of happiness and tranquility. I felt more focused, and once I got a cup of coffee in me, I felt a spike in energy that lasted all day. By all honest accounts, starting my day with meditation absolutely lead to a more productive, happier, relaxed, focused day.
I don’t know what the science behind meditation has to say about it all, but I can definitely vouch for it.
There are other ways to achieve mindfulness, too. Even if you can’t make it into the studio, there are a ton of useful apps out there that can supplement your classes. Jasmine and Anastasia recommended the Eternal Sunshine app, as well as the Calm app because it offers adult bedtime stories to help users step away from their real lives. Some others include The Mindfulness App, Headspace, and 10% Happier.