May 22, 2015
Different meditation methods
As described by Cathy Desfosses of Mandala Yoga Studio at Full Spectrum Wellness (modified slightly). Desfosses, who teaches Kripalu yoga, has been meditating for about 10 years. She is a cancer survivor living with emphysema and says that yoga and meditation found her when she needed them most.
• Guided – usually in a group setting, a person actually guides you through the meditation, through breath awareness, body awareness, surroundings, thoughts, etc., inviting mindfulness and relaxation. May offer visualizations, inspirational readings, etc.
• Silent – alone in one’s own quiet space or in a group setting where a facilitator may open or close the session with a reading and chime after a certain period of time. Some sit with eyes closed and either focus on the breath, a mantra or visualization, or with a soft gaze on a focal point such as a candle, picture or something sacred to them.
• Mantra – “mantra” is a Sanskrit word meaning “tool of the mind” or “instrument of thought.” It uses sounds, a word, phrase or positive affirmation repeated silently as a focal point for the mind to stay present and alert.
• Walking – awareness of your surroundings outdoors, nature, sounds and sights. Focusing on each step, feeling each step and part of the foot as it hits the ground, how the ground feels under your feet, etc.
• Meditation in motion – Kripalu yoga is a type of mindfulness meditation in motion. Staying in the present moment by focusing on your body or breath and noticing sensations that come up.
• Meditative activities – not formal meditation but activities that can bring about similar benefits, such as knitting, jogging, horseback riding, gardening, etc. Something that you love doing and gives you joy and freedom. Time seems to pass by quickly when you are engaged in activities that are meditative to you.
What science has to say
Researchers have been studying meditation’s effects on the brain since the 1950s and 1960s. They’ve used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain and body activity of meditators. Monkeys, engineers, college students and Buddhist monks have all been subjects in studies related to meditation.
In 1975, Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, literally wrote the book on the relaxation response, which involves the physical and chemical changes in the body that meditative techniques elicit. The relaxation response can be thought of as the opposite of the body’s “fight or flight” response. In his book, The Relaxation Response, Benson includes observations from his studies of practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, whom he found had lower blood pressure, decreased breathing and heart rates, and a reduced risk of heart disease. The book was groundbreaking and continues to be a trusted guide today.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness at UMass in Worcester has found “consistent, reliable, and reproducible demonstrations” of reductions in medical and psychological symptoms including chronic pain over the eight weeks of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. One study co-authored by Kabat-Zinn and described in the journal American Psychosomatic Society in 2003 found “that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function.”
Dr. James Carmody, associate professor at UMass Medical School, has studied mindfulness meditation and the brain. Carmody says that once meditation training started to enter the field of medicine — “once it started being used to support people in reducing their symptoms” — the research took off. “People meditate because they want to feel better,” Carmody said. Carmody said clinicians can support patients in reducing their stress through the practice.
Meditation classes and resources
Here are some area sites that offer guided meditations, workshops and classes.
• Amala Wellness (152 S. Mast St., Goffstown, and 80 N. High St., Derry, 231-5189, amalawellness.com). Yin and Restore: Fridays, 5:45-6:45 p.m. at Derry studio. Walk-in rate is $15. Complimentary meditations with Stacy Williams: Offered once per month in each studio. Call for dates and times.
• Aryaloka Buddhist Center (14 Heartwood Circle, Newmarket, 659-5456, aryaloka.org). Half-day (4-hour) classes on various Saturdays and Sundays. There are also 6-week series offered at different times throughout the year. Calendar available on website.
• Donna Melillo (20 Madbury Road, Durham, 868-1241, firstname.lastname@example.org. Drop-in meditation group sessions Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Call or e-mail for details.
• Elliot at River’s Edge (Conference Center, 185 Queen City Ave., Manchester, 669-5300). Meditation for Health with Dr. John Pettinato, Informational Evening: Tuesday, May 15, 6-7:30 p.m. To register, call 663-4808, or e-mail email@example.com.
• Full Spectrum Wellness/Mandala Studio of Yoga (55 S. Commercial St., Manchester, 296-0830, fullspectrumwellness.com)
Meditation 101: Mondays, 6-7 p.m. Walk-in rate is $8 (or four classes for $25). NH Silent Meditation: Tuesdays, beginning May 8, 5:45-6:45 p.m. Cost is $5. Meditation/Stress Reduction for Kids: Wednesdays, May 9-30, 3:15-4:15 p.m. Cost is $60. Space is limited. Also periodically offers MBSR workshops.
• Judith Moyer (Community Church of Durham, Lower Level, Room 15, 17 Main St., Durham) leads a drop-in meditation group, MBSR workshops, mindfulness discussions and more. Schedule changes each month. Call 868-3538, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Judy Gross (672-3224, judygross.com) leads a monthly “2nd Sunday Sit” session at Yoga (10 Northern Blvd., Suite 15, Amherst). Dates are Sundays, April 22, May 13, June 10, etc., 9:30-10:30 a.m. (optional discussion to follow). Arrive at least five minutes early to settle in. Chairs/cushions available, or bring your own. Cost is by donation.
• Living Energy Works (614 Nashua St., #140, Milford, 321-6763, livingenergyworks.com). Karen Kallie and Tony Pace create recordings for stress reduction, including various types of meditation. E-mail email@example.com.
• NH Bodhi Meditation (Marion Gerrish Community Center, Room 6, 39 W. Broadway, Derry, 425-2380, puti.ca). Meditation and Health Classes: April 20, May 4, May 18, June 1, June 15 and June 29, at 10 a.m. Free. E-mail Daphne Chien at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Office of Health Education Promotion and Health Services UNH at the University of New Hampshire in Durham (862-3823, unh.edu/health-services/ohep/meditation.html). Individual guided meditation sessions as well as group classes (Tuesdays, 12:45-1:15 p.m.) are available for students. Additionally, anyone can download guided meditation tracks and other meditation resources from the website.
• Riverflow Yoga (198 Londonderry Turnpike, Hooksett, 935-9822, riverflowyoga.com). Yoga Nidra: Wednesdays, 5-5:30 p.m. Yin Yoga: Mondays, 7:30-8:45 p.m., and Wednesdays, 9-10:15 a.m. and 6-7:15 p.m. Walk-in rate $12.
• Sahaj Marg - Raja Yoga Meditation (sahajmarg.org)
Experienced practitioners Narendra and Jyoti Sharma are available to those interested in beginning this system of meditation. Call 978-378-0882 or e-mail them at email@example.com.
• Sharing Yoga (3 Pleasant St., Concord, 630-5576, sharingyoga.com) Series classes: 7-week courses in beginning meditation. Call studio for dates, cost and registration.
• Wednesday Meditation Sangha (Derbyshire Farm in Temple). Wednesdays, 5-6:15 p.m. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
• Yogamatters (1 Rowell Lane, Sandown, 887-6254, nhyogamatters.com). Yoga Nidra: First Friday of each month, beginning in May, 6:15-7:15 p.m. Tibetan Bowl meditation: Second Friday of each month, beginning in May, 6:15-7:15 p.m. Walk-in rate is $10-$15.
• Yoga Sanctuary (25 Indian Rock Road, Suite 21, Windham, 537-0588, yogasanctuary.com). Periodically offers iRest Yoga Nidra classes and Sunday evening meditation group sessions.
• The Yoga Center (South Main St., Concord, 226-0680, nhyogacenter.com). Intro to Yoga Nidra: 8-week series on Mondays (began March 26, no class April 30), 7-8:45 p.m. Cost is $150 for all sessions.
It’s a windy Monday evening in Manchester. We sit in a circle in an airy room of the Langer Place mill building. Outside the room’s high windows, seemingly far away, someone’s heels click against the parking lot pavement. Inside, we settle into the calm, still sunny bubble of a room at Full Spectrum Wellness, a holistic health center.
We are 15 in number and varied in age, occupation and experience: a mother and teenage daughter, a competitive cyclist couple, a handful of female (and one male) baby boomers, and a few mid-20- or early 30-something women (myself included). Some of us are seated in “back jacks,” slim black structures that form the letter “L” and rest on the floor, providing back support. Colorful woven blankets cover our laps, and large cylindrical pillows are tucked under our knees. Others around the circle are seated on regular chairs. They settle in with blankets and pillows as well.
The blankets, pillows and props may seem gratuitous, but they are meant to make everyone comfortable — to limit distractions — for the next hour. The owner of the center and instructor of the class sits to my right, resting her weight on a small wooden bench, her knees under her on a plush pillow.
We are ready to meditate.
At its essence, meditation is focused attention.
Jean-Marie Belzile, owner of Amala Wellness, which offers yoga, meditation and massage services in Derry and Goffstown, describes meditation as “learning how to sit comfortably” and quiet the mind.
“It’s sitting without putting pressure on yourself, sitting to watch the breath and to notice the sensations coming up in your body and to see what happens,” Belzile said.
Belzile says most people come to meditation for stress reduction. But the practice also puts people in a place of having a clear and present mind that can help them make better decisions, she says. “It can induce qualities of joy in a person’s whole life. It comes down to really letting go.”
Belzile suggests trying different styles to start and seeing what makes the most sense and feels best: “Sit down and ... find a comfortable position for you. You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor or in a traditional [cross-legged] pose on the floor. Just notice how your body is feeling,” and try to focus on the present moment, Belzile says. Before you know it, five or 10 minutes pass by.
“People might expect some kind of epiphany, but every time you sit down, you use the tools of focus,” Belzile said.
You don’t have to be perfect
Greg Larkin and Sherrill St. Germain, a couple who live in Hollis, are fairly new to the practice of meditation. Competitive cyclists, Larkin and St. Germain own their own small businesses and work from home, with their elderly cat. Larkin is a computer software engineer, and St. Germain is a financial planner.
Larkin says the first time he was exposed to meditation was late last year when he started following different guided meditations online. Larkin, whose company has clients all over the world, says he needs to be accessible to those clients nearly 24-7. This results in a good deal of multitasking between short- and long-term projects as well as some stress, and Larkin decided to turn to meditation for help.
“I was looking at meditation as a way, once I am done with short-term projects, to refocus [my] thinking, move forward and continue to work on long-term projects, for help with that,” Larkin said. “Meditation is really about trying to stay focused, clear your mind — what they call the ‘monkey mind’ with everything going in 50 different directions — and move forward. That’s been effective.”
Larkin said it takes some time to form what he calls a “good habit” of meditation. When he was starting out he began to meditate daily, but then he started to skip days when work piled up or holidays came around. But he and St. Germain made a commitment this past January to start again, fresh and invested.
This new habit includes separate, short meditation sessions each morning and a session together at the end of the day. Larkin and St. Germain started their evening practice for relaxation, and it can sometimes be hard to stay awake, Larkin admits. Being competitive cyclists, they often go for 3- or 4-hour rides and might come home exhausted.
“So sometimes you say, ‘I’m just going to go to bed,’ and that’s fine,” Larkin said. “There’s no rigidity to it. Rigidity is just one of those things that steals your energy. If you’re not feeling it that day, that’s fine. But we’ve found that during the work week, we get a lot of benefit by meditating before bed.”
Larkin and St. Germain usually work with guided meditation tracks that have non-verbal music in the background or plain musical tracks with mellow, ambient sound. On any given day, they might spend five to 30 minutes meditating per session. One of the most helpful things Larkin has found has been focusing his mind by counting his breaths.
“We’ve found that if we pick a certain time in the morning before we start work and get pulled into everything, if we take that number of minutes and sit quietly and do the meditation, it prepares you for the day,” Larkin said. “We have good luck with that.”
More recently, the couple decided to supplement practice at home with formal classes. Earlier in the year, Larkin and St. Germain underwent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training with instructor Deb LeClair at Full Spectrum Wellness, and they just recently started attending her Monday evening meditation class for a sense of community.
“I’m not one of those people who starts talking about energy and the universe yet,” Larkin said. “But [a formal class can] validate your practice, and you feel more connected.”
Consistent meditation has also helped Larkin and St. Germain with their cycling. Taking five to 10 minutes to gather their thoughts before races, they are better able to focus on their own performance during races, Larkin says. They no longer worry as much about the other cyclists around them and are able to zone external things out and deal with whatever physical pain they might be feeling at the moment, he said.
Additionally, with continued practice, Larkin says he hopes to improve his ability to reduce the effects of trivial incidents that naturally happen during the day. He says he is already beginning to notice this in his life.
“As Sherrill and I are becoming more aware of meditation, it just seems like there is more and more focus on mindfulness and meditation” now in general, Larkin said. “It’s out there more and more. It’s something we’ve noticed in the last six months. Maybe it has something to do with the ‘new car’ phenomenon ... [but] I’m hopeful more people are getting something out of it.”
Meditation helps doctor and patient
Dr. John Pettinato, a doctor of osteopathy for Elliot Neurology Associates in Manchester, says he has been a consistent meditator for the past three or four years. His outpatient practice is headache management, which he has specialized in since his residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Pettinato’s outpatient practice revolves around complementary medicine and therapies, which can include acupuncture, herbal medicine, Tai Chi, Qigong and, yes, meditation. Pettinato doesn’t use the phrase “alternative medicine” because he doesn’t think it’s accurate, he says. The non-traditional therapies he works with are not necessarily an alternative but can be used “in conjunction with what our medical system uses more traditionally,” Pettinato said.
He found meditation by way of his professional interests. He is trained in Chinese medicine and has been practicing osteopathy for 15 years.
“I treat my patients with acupuncture, and part of my interest in meditation stemmed from that,” Pettinato said. “I don’t remember what the original [motivating] event was, but it all fit together.”
Pettinato practices Zen, a centuries-old Buddhist discipline that originated in China. He got into Zen meditation by reading about it and visiting a Zen monastery in New York. He says getting started with Zen meditation was very simple. Though some weeks are more consistent than others, Pettinato uses meditation to reduce stress, which he sees as the biggest problem threatening Americans’ health. He doesn’t have a formal meditation teacher at the moment, though he said he’d like to find one.
“It’s a very straightforward practice,” he said. “I don’t think meditation, as you get advanced, is simple, but Zen is very simple in beginning. You sit down and meditate without anything attached to it. … You simply follow the breath. You count your breaths and try to get to [the number] 10 without any thoughts interrupting you. And if a thought does interrupt you, you just start counting all over again and repeat the process.”
A lesson in mindfulness
Deb LeClair’s dark brown hair frames her face in a bob. The founder and owner of Manchester’s Full Spectrum Wellness, LeClair is warm and direct and accessible. Her wellness center, which will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this fall, offers services including yoga, health counseling, life and business coaching, and meditation, all for beginners.
LeClair, the instructor of the Monday evening meditation class in Langer Place, hails from New Jersey and holds master’s degrees in clinical and applied psychology and a doctorate in applied psychology from Rutgers University. She became licensed to practice psychology in New Hampshire upon opening the center in 2002.
“My model was a holistic center that had everything under one roof,” LeClair said. “We had yoga but not meditation right away. No one was really doing it then or at least not strictly meditation. It would be integrated into yoga classes.”
Full Spectrum Wellness has been offering meditation for the past six years. A gymnast in high school, LeClair was familiar with a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, which, simply put, involves tensing and relaxing different parts of the body one by one. She calls the technique her gateway to meditation.
“I always used it, and it changed my life,” LeClair said. “If the body is relaxed, the mind is relaxed, and the same goes for the reverse.”
She decided to undergo training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mindfulness meditation program developed roughly 30 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., where Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus. MBSR courses are now taught worldwide. Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness at UMass says that more than 18,000 people have completed the eight-week program, which uses meditation techniques to cultivate “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.”
LeClair describes MBSR as follows: “Instead of worrying about the future and the past, you try to stay in the present moment and to do that without judgment. We see emotions come in [to the mind] and let them go, so we don’t get swept up in them. We can choose how we want to respond [to external things] so we’re not hijacked by our emotions.”
She explains that with practice of mindfulness, things begin to change for people. Things that once would have upset them might not matter as much anymore.
“The emotional centers aren’t quite as activated,” LeClair said. “An example is if your coworker snaps her gum and it drives you crazy. You may not care about that so much anymore [after consistent meditation]. You might say, ‘Hey, maybe she is a nervous person and is doing that out of nervousness.’ You might find it’s not that big a deal.”
Another change LeClair says consistent meditators experience: compassion.
“Compassion for yourself develops, the observing part of the brain gets stronger, and it becomes easier to tap into peace and calm.”
But these brain changes have to be reinforced to be maintained, she says. “It’s very similar to muscle tone. If you stop [weight training], you will lose muscle tone. It has to be used to get the benefits.”
Why it’s easy to be in the moment
Dr. James Carmody, associate professor at UMass Medical School, has studied mindfulness meditation and the brain.
Carmody makes an interesting observation. When it comes to meditation, we often hear prescriptions to “be in the moment.” But Carmody explains that there is only one moment, and we are always in our minds.
“We perceive the world through our senses and then we have this cognitive process that comments upon it,” he said. “It’s a very important function that we have; it’s extremely valuable and helps us lead our lives and interact with the world to meet our needs.
“The problem is that our attention becomes fixated, it keeps defaulting back to … our interior monologue. Our delight in the world is largely sense-based. We look for sensory experience when looking for delight, and it’s always available to us, but our attention keeps defaulting back to the narrative. So it’s important that our attention has some fluidity to it” so that we can shift between what our senses are experiencing and our evaluation of these experiences, he said.
Our senses are part of our mind as well — they’re one and the same, he says. We are always in the moment; it’s more a matter of where our attention is focused, he said.
“If there’s some other moment, where is it?” said Carmody, with a soft laugh.
The door to Riverflow Yoga studio in Hooksett cracks open. It’s about 5 p.m., nine days after my Monday-night meditation session in Manchester. Feeling tired and somewhat agitated, I pass through a small waiting area to find a wide rectangular room that is warm and golden-hued. The air smells of sweat, and I learn that a combined yoga and strength training class is finishing up. Instructor Denise Holt welcomes me as I sneak in. She places a yoga mat on the floor against the wall for me.
Seven or so people lie on their backs against opposite walls, everyone’s toes pointing toward the center of the room. The movement portion of the class has ended, and Holt will lead us in a style of guided meditation called “yoga nidra” — which means “yoga sleep” — for the next 30 minutes. I slip my feet out of my shoes and try to settle into a comfortable position on the purple mat, as discreetly as someone who has just invaded a class-in-progress can. I feel my stomach grumble a little.
Holt tells us to relax and make any last adjustments we need to get comfortable. Despite its name, yoga nidra isn’t about sleeping. It is an ancient meditation technique used to fully relax the body and mind. It is supposed to cultivate a sense of deep awareness.
“Once we start yoga nidra, you shouldn’t be moving,” Holt says. And you must not sleep, she adds.
After a few moments of calm instruction that it is time for yoga nidra, Holt asks us to repeat our “resolve” in our heads three times. I make a mental note to ask her what a resolve is later.
Then she tells us we will begin a “rotation of consciousness.” Holt instructs us to focus our attention on the parts of the body she names, starting with our right thumb, second finger, third finger and so on. She calmly guides us to our forearm, upper arm and shoulder, our right side, thigh, right knee and foot. Surprisingly, I feel focused and alert. My body is relaxed, but I am actively following Holt’s words. My mind is not wandering, and I haven’t fallen asleep yet. I must be doing something right. I quickly realize these thoughts are evidence of a mind wandering, and I refocus my attention.
Holt gives us instructions to focus now on the left side of our bodies, finger by finger, shoulder to heel. What feels like minutes later, she tells us that our yoga nidra practice is over. She instructs us to wiggle our toes and fingers slowly, to gently wake up the body, roll onto one side and use our hands to push ourselves up to a seated position. I have trouble believing how quickly the 30 minutes went by.
I stay behind to talk to Holt as others quietly exit the room and another instructor sets up for the next class. She tells me the “rotation of consciousness” exercise is meant to give the mind something to focus on while the body quiets down and relaxes. I ask her what a “resolve” is, and she explains that it’s a specific thing you would like manifested in your life, such as a lack of fear of uncertainty, for example.
It’s usually stated in the present, as if it is already happening, and is always positive, she says. It’s better when a resolve just comes to you rather than forcing yourself to come up with one, she says.
When I get in my car a few minutes later, I am surprised to realize that I feel much more awake and energized than I did just half an hour earlier.
Just 10 minutes
On a recent drive home after a stressful work day, practically feeling the knots form in my back one by one, I took a cue from the meditation practitioners. I stopped myself from focusing on the stress by repeating to myself that I was OK and stress was only temporary. I plugged in some calming music for the length of the drive and went for a walk when I got home, and I felt better.
LeClair says leaving sticky notes around the house or on your desk can help remind you to stop and take a meditation break when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Her choice of sticky note mantras: “Just breathe.”
“Just see what happens,” LeClair said. “It’s 10 minutes when the brain is breaking the stress cycle; you can feel it.”
|®2015 Hippo Press.