More than ever before, researchers and scientists are studying the health benefits of mindfulness practices for a wide variety of conditions. And they’re discovering overwhelmingly similar results: mindfulness decreases mood disturbances, enhances coping skills, and promotes wellbeing. Enter “benefits of mindfulness meditation” into your search engine and you’ll find dozens of articles and studies published in The New York Times, Forbes Magazine, and Psychology Today, among others. This Huffington Post piece presents 20 reasons why mindfulness is beneficial for both mental and physical health.
So what is mindfulness and what can it mean to you? Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness, chronic pain, and stress
Mindfulness is the process of slowing down, eliminating distractions, and observing yourself, completely, in the present moment. It can be especially beneficial for individuals with anxiety, chronic pain, inflammation, depression, and other health conditions in which stress plays a big role. People with chronic diseases can experience a feeling of being out of control, at the whim of symptoms, and this sort of psychological stress adds to the physiological stress of the condition itself.
But there is hope. According to a study in Health Psychology, increased mindfulness resulted in decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Much of the stress we experience comes from reacting to our internal and external environments, and to our own narration of untrue thoughts. Mindfulness focuses on acknowledging everything you’re feeling in the moment, noticing thoughts as just thoughts without the need to react or attach yourself to them. This heightened state of awareness provides a sense of self control and relief from cyclical, overwhelming stressors.
As WholeHealth Chicago’s yoga therapist, I’m typically not the first person our patients see. Most of my patients have tried “everything” or close to it, and have experienced decades of chronic pain on top of the frustration that no treatment has helped. They’ve received diagnoses ranging from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue to thyroid problems, autoimmunity, Lyme disease, depression, anxiety, and even stroke.
Physical symptoms are one piece of the whole, though they’re not always the loudest voice in the room. My patients also have real concerns about not being able to work again, tension with a partner, financial pressure, and the overwhelming idea that their life might turn out to be one of pain, fatigue, loneliness, and hopelessness.
Mindfulness alone will not cure a disease. However, it can reconnect you to the forgotten parts of yourself that have been buried under trauma and pain. Your physical symptoms may not disappear completely, but you can experience your life with a greater sense of understanding and ease. Just carving out a few moments each day during which you don’t consider anything or anyone but you can be immensely healing.
Mindfulness and your brain
One astonishing fact about mindfulness is that it causes physical changes in your brain. You don’t even have to be in the act of mindfulness meditation to notice its benefits in everyday life. In Dr. E’s Health Tip Digital Excess and Cognitive Decline, he notes that no matter how old you are, mindfulness meditation rewires your brain by activating the prefrontal cortex, increasing connectivity in areas affected most dramatically by the cognitive decline of aging and Alzheimer’s.
A Harvard research study compared the brain MRIs of people who meditate and those who did not. They found that with just eight weeks of consistent practice averaging 27 minutes per day, mindfulness meditators had significantly increased areas of grey matter, areas of the brain where synapses connect, neurotransmitters fire, and where higher activity such as memory, self-control, attention, learning, and emotional regulation occur. Conventional belief that the brain is done growing at 25 or 30 has been proven wrong. The more you use something, the stronger it gets.
There’s more here in an article entitled This is Your Brain on Mindfulness.
How to practice
Mindfulness, like any skill, is developed through practice. There are many forms of mindfulness, from walking meditation to sitting meditation, journaling, and even mindful eating. In the end, any activity can be made an occasion for mindfulness practice. When you’re washing dishes, for example, truly immerse yourself into the experience, feeling the different textures, water temperatures, and other sensations that come with doing the dishes. Be present, be open, be aware of everything. Practicing in these little moments helps us regulate bigger moments of high stress or anxiety, when our fight-or-flight mode kicks into high gear.
Probably the most compelling reason to practice mindfulness is that it brings us back into our bodies, back into our experience, and back into the present moment. It allows us to enjoy each simple moment of life that would otherwise be overshadowed by stress, presumption, or hypothetical scenarios: sunshine resting on your face during an afternoon walk, a delicious cup of tea in the evening, or a conversation with a friend.
Mindfulness allows us to rediscover the life that we’re already living, but at a deeper, more fulfilling level.
WholeHealth Chicago hosts its own mindfulness group
Join us on the third Monday of every month, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Each session is paired with a form of yoga movement and breathing led by Renee Zambo. This gentle yoga segment, designed for all levels, reduces chronic tension in tight muscles and provides comfort in our physical and energetic bodies. Bill Epperly follows with a unique mindfulness meditation practice, including guided meditations while lying down, seated, or standing as well as other awareness practices.
To learn more about how to register and what practice will be offered each month, email Renee Zambo at firstname.lastname@example.org. All levels are welcome and preregistration is required. Yoga mats, blankets, and blocks are provided, but you are welcome to bring your own.
Third Monday of every month at WholeHealth Chicago, 2265 N. Clybourn
$25 per month or purchase six months for $125
Renee Zambo is an Integrative Yoga Therapy 500-hour yoga teacher. From a young age, Renee was drawn to yoga as therapy for its all-encompassing mental, physical, and emotional benefits. She works with individuals and groups to explore how yoga therapy can bring wellness into everyone’s life.
Bill Epperly, PhD, has been teaching mindfulness meditation and embodiment practices for more than 15 years. He teaches mindfulness at Loyola University and is on the faculty at Infinity Foundation in Highland Park. Bill is a lifelong student of eastern and western spiritual traditions as well as contemporary approaches to stress reduction and healing.
In good health,
Renee Zambo, RYT