Meditation Gains Popularity While Helping Mind and Body
The idea behind mindfulness seems simple— but I learned from firsthand experience that the practice takes patience. The brain is a vast sea of thoughts and experiences and the mind can quickly get tangled up in other tasks. Grocery lists, chores and your kids’ homework can consume your thoughts quicker than you realize.
While meditation isn’t a cure-all, it can certainly provide some much-needed space in your life. The benefits are great and it’s about using your mind independently for the person who needs it the most—you.
There are many forms of meditation, as explained to me by Dorcas Quynn, owner of Sol Yoga. Quynn teaches yoga but strongly believes in mindful practice and explains to me how the two go hand-in-hand. Yoga is movement meditation and is good practice for the body and soul but not all forms of meditation require limber muscles.
“Meditation is not limited to age. If you have a mind and spirit, you can meditate,” Quynn explains. She also notes that you can meditate just about anywhere. Being in a silent space is a misconception and although helpful to some, she teaches that getting into your own headspace can be easy in places like the park or on a bus or train. Her children, who also practice meditation, sometimes find time at school or around friends. Her favorite place to escape is in nature, but some people prefer or require a soft chair, a comfortable cushion or blanket, or a more physical space like a dimly lit room.
Admittedly, I was skeptical, but in researching this subject, I took my own seven-day meditation challenge, employing more of a traditional approach by sitting in a silent space and using a combination of breath awareness and body scan to relax and search my thoughts. Yes, there are those who prefer movement meditation practices, like tai chi, freedom dancing, yoga and even walking, where connecting the mind to an active body creates physical and mental awareness. But for many of us, the challenge with movement meditation is that our minds wander and it can be difficult to train the mental switchboard to only allow in those thoughts that achieve the desired outcome of relaxation, peacefulness and clarity.
Quynn also explained a few non-traditional forms of meditation such as trataka meditation, where the practitioner’s eyes are open and focusing on an object like the flame of a candle, and yoga nidra, the practice of psychic sleep, where a teacher directs your awareness throughout your body, breath, senses and emotions into a dreamlike state between consciousness and sleep.
Whichever method you choose, Quynn describes that consistency is key. Always consider your comfort, always pick an anchor, like breath. Deep breaths are used in most forms of meditation and are great anchors. Concentration is the goal and allowing your thoughts to just be, she says.
The number of people who use meditation practices are astounding and growing all the time. The business of meditation has grown exponentially over the last 10 years and in 2019 was valued at $1.2 billion and predicted to go over $2 billion by 2022. Driving this growth could be the benefits of meditation. Quynn says in addition to reduced anxiety, help with trauma and improved capacity for connections, meditation has also been shown to help digestion, blood pressure, swelling and pain. She says meditation is becoming a staple in professional sports and with business executives wanting to up their games.
As my research on this subject dug deeper, it led me to the James M Stockman Cancer Institute where I met with Shelly Pentony, a certified yoga teacher for Frederick Health’s Integrative Services. Pentony specializes in oncology trauma and uses yoga instruction to improve her patient’s physical, spiritual and mental health during and after cancer treatment. Pentony has found that blending yoga with mindfulness is a savior for many.
Mindfulness can be described in many ways, but for Pentony it’s about paying attention to the inside and the outside at the same time. She concentrates heavily on breath, movement and relaxation. She enjoys finding out what is interesting to the patient and uses their interest to get them to concentrate on the here and now, feeling more present in the moment. She uses breath as an anchor, which she calls belly breathing. This practice moves lymphatic fluid upward in the diaphragm, relaxing the vagus nerve and calming the body. Pentony softly speaks to her patients in a soothing, tender tone, leading them through an ethereal process of feeling the floor beneath them, the sounds around them and the temperature of the surrounding air. She concentrates her words around love and kindness, using phrases like, “May I be healthy, may I live free from self-doubt.”
Pentony also uses visualization, teaching how to use the mind as a tool to take her patients to a place of peace and serenity. The goal is to put the mind at ease so the body will shortly follow. Cancer’s grasp does many unnatural things to the body and can create a disconnect between mind and body. The relaxed state that meditation brings allows body temperatures and heart rates to lower, creates saliva in the mouth and improves blood flow to the extremities, helping patients undergoing treatments to feel relaxed while also revitalized. It helps them notice sensations and awareness that they might have missed before.
Mary Ellis, a patient at the Stockman center, turned to Pentony after feeling lost and having so much uncertainty following her cancer diagnosis. She was seeking a way to clear her mind. “It was something I couldn’t live without. It helped me get in touch with my body, how to release tension and stress through movement and thought,” Ellis says. She appreciated how it allowed her to “work out” even when her body wasn’t physically able. “It was a perfect blend of mind and body exercises for me that was irreplaceable.”
Through Pentony and Frederick Health there were many patients excited to speak about their mindful experience, but I wanted to include one very special testimony and quote. This came from Dee Dolan, whom I did not meet, but I believe her words sum up the importance of finding your own headspace in a time of great need: “While my post-ovarian cancer surgery experience involved all manners of recovery, the most healing effects come while lying on a yoga mat under the sage and mindful guidance of Shelly Pentony. Shelly nurtures, and has grounded my belief in her assertion that, ‘Everything we need to heal is already within us.’ She helps me exercise and develop both the physical and emotional muscle to continue on a forward path with hope and happiness.”