Fitness Guide

The Health Benefits of Meditation — And Where to Do It

Good health isn’t just about physical exercise: your mind and spirit also need some TLC from time to time


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So, you’ve become quite adept at Pilates and yoga, mastered tough roads and hills in spinning class, are actively gardening to grow healthy vegetables. What’s next? May we suggest meditation?

Before you pooh-pooh what may seem to be a lot of brouhaha about doing nothing but sitting or lying still, it’s time for a mindset correction. Meditation done mindfully can provide big prizes: inner peace, happiness, stress reduction, empathy for others, and lowered blood pressure. And this isn’t just based on anecdotal evidence; dozens of studies point to the positive effects of meditating. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, conducted a study using brain scans. The results showed that meditation over time can actually change the brain’s gray matter in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.

Stephanie Speer, an Ulster County instructor in mindfulness-based stress reduction says, “It teaches you to pay attention intentionally to the present moment. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf and respond rather than react through stillness and concentration.”

If you decide to try it, you’re in growing company, including many celebs such as Sheryl Crow, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Aniston, and Clint Eastwood.

More good news is that meditation doesn’t follow a single script: Sit down and turn off all lights, lie down and imagine calming waters, or chant "Om" multiple times. “There are many forms, with a thread of focusing on something — breath, body, chant, or mantra, all of which steady the mind and body,” Speer says.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf and respond rather than react through stillness and concentration”

While you can learn to meditate on your own using a book or CD, like Self-Healing with Sound and Music (Sounds True publishing, available on Amazon), you may prefer more formal instruction. the Hudson Valley offers many individual and weekend classes, even month-long retreats. Here are five favorites:

Tergar Meditation Community Garrison
This local chapter of the Tergar Meditation Community is part of an international meditation community. Their free meditation sessions are held Wednesday evenings (7 to 8:15 p.m.) at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center and focus on working with the challenges of day-to-day life to create a peaceful mind and open heart. www.tergar.org

Sadhana Center for Yoga & Meditation Hudson
Classes, workshops, and retreats include a one-day meditation retreat to deepen the practice as well as explore a variety of topics, with guided meditations often done lying down. 518-828-1034; www.sadhanayogahudson.com

Sky Lake Rosendale
A Shambhala Meditation and Retreat Center, the retreat offers a wide variety of classes with the opportunity to check out ongoing introductory classes and programs in a bucolic setting. 845-658-8556; www.skylake.shambhala.org

Stephanie Speer Dutchess County
Individualized mindfulness-based stress reduction. Among Speer’s lessons are how to integrate mindfulness into everyday life, create a personal daily practice, and increase your ability to relax and cope with short- and long-term stressful situations. 845-332-9936; www.stephaniespeer.com

Zen Mountain Monastery Mt. Tremper
Each weekend retreat begins on a Friday evening and allows participants to learn about Zen training with a taste of cloistered living, with a concluding talk by the abbot on Sunday, followed by a lunch. 845-688-2228; www.zmm.mro.org

How do you decide which method is best for you? Speer suggests asking friends for recommendations, deciding if you want secular or spiritual-based techniques, checking out a potential leader’s training and skills, as well as that illusive chemistry connection in person. “Many leaders, including myself, offer free workshops to see if it resonates,” she says. Her best tips: “You don’t have to like it to do it; avoid having expectations or hyper-focusing on the future; live in the present moment — and you’re likely to find (pleasant) surprises.”

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