Lifestyle Area #2 -- Add Meditation to your daily ritual

A few weeks ago, I started a 3-part blog on the 3 key Lifestyle areas to achieve peak performance on the SATs/ACTs.  In my first blog, I addressed Nutrition.  In this blog, I address Meditation.  In my final blog, I will discuss sleep.  These three elements are the foundations for a balanced, healthy lifestyle that leads to peak performance in testing and other life events.

Meditation:  Archeologists and scholars agree that Meditation has been around for almost 5000 years, although it did not start to become popular in the West until the 1960s when Hatha Yoga and Transcendental Meditation grew within the U.S. and Europe. In 1990, Jon Kabat-Zinn put Mindfulness Meditation on the map when he founded his Mindfulness for Stress Reduction program at UMass for treating patients with chronic pain. In 1997, Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, advocating the use of meditation as one of its three foundational tools. Today, many people, including top executives and celebrities, have adopted a consistent practice of meditation in their daily lives.

Why is meditation important?

There are many benefits, but let’s focus on the top 3 for high school students who need to experience peak performance on their SATs/ACTs and high school academic exams:

1) Meditation improves Concentration and Attention. Research dating back to the 1970s showed that Buddhist monks who meditate extensively perform far better at concentration tests than does the average person. A more recent 2010 study published in Psychology Today followed 60 people who received 3 months of intensive meditation training. The results showed dramatic “visual discrimination” improvement among those who participated in the meditation training. The researchers concluded that meditation greatly improves the way that we process visual stimuli.

But it doesn’t take this type of intensive training to produce improvements in concentration and focus. Many have found benefits after practicing as little as 5-10 minutes daily during the first week of starting a program. Meditation causes the brain waves to change to a “de-concentration” state. This results in more focus and concentration when performing daily tasks which require concentration; it gradually shifts the “wandering mind” into a more organized, connected state.

2) Meditation reduces anxiety. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University published a meta analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine of over 49 meditation studies that met specific scientific research criteria on size, control groups, double-blinded, etc.; the researchers concluded that meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. Mindfulness meditation that focuses on the breath and on remaining present stops the constant mind chatter that causes many people to believe their emotions and projections when they are really fantasies of the mind. The practice of meditation helps all of us to remain present with more non-judgmental perspective on our daily tasks.

3) Meditation improves memory recall. Harvard Medical School published a research study in 2014 looking at subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation over an 8- and 12- week period. Catherine Kerr at HMS concluded, “Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall…Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the (alpha) brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”

With these amazing benefits of meditation, every high school student (and adult) should have a goal to begin a meditation practice now!

For those who feel that “I don’t have time”, you can start with as little as a few minutes a day to 10 minutes a day. The key is consistency and getting started. Since the benefits improve concentration, focus and memory recall, you will find that meditation allows you to be "in the flow” more often during your daily tasks, allowing you to accomplish more in less time. This will give you back the time to consistently meditate.

How to Get Started?

There are many ways to practice meditation, and some are as simple as just closing the eyes and focusing on the breath or on repeating a mantra. The myth that you have to focus on “clearing your mind” is just that; the practice of meditation helps you to focus on something else – for example, your breath – so that when you have thoughts, you are able to recognize them, not attach to them, and simply let them float away. For teenagers who are more prone to use technology, there are exciting apps and “helpers” that can encourage you to begin meditation and stick to a routine.

Here are several interesting ideas – some I have tried and some that were recently reported in Mindful magazine:

Zen12 – Musical meditation “helper”. Inspire3, the creators of the MP3 program, claims that “each 12-minute session brings the benefit of an hour’s regular meditation.” Its MP3 programs use “brainwave entrainment” to actively help shift the users’ brainwaves into the relaxed states much more quickly. I have personally used this program over the past nine months to finally help bring my meditation practice to a daily ritual.

• Deepak Chopra guided meditations: Some of these meditations are as short as 9 minutes; others are 25 minutes. Deepak Chopra also has many CD offerings for purchase with themes for a consistent mantra-based practice or guided practice.

Stop, Breathe and Think app. This app for both IPhone and Android recently won the 2015 Webby People’s Choice Award. It offers the basics of meditation and provides a sampling of different types and different lengths of meditations.

Mindfulness Training App. This app helps provide a newbie to meditation with some background and training from the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn and some of his followers.

Insight Timer. This is a combination meditation timer and trainer as it provides guided meditations.

• Two other four-star-rated options: Headspace and Calm. Both apps offer free 10-minute starting training meditations along with more advanced services for a fee.

Have you started meditating on a regular basis? What benefits have you noticed? Which apps or tools do you use?

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