Scott Klasen, MS, CSCS, Co-Owner Peak Performance Training
Last month my wife Stacy and I traveled to Sedona, Arizona for some much needed mellow-yellow time. For us, there is nothing like heading out west to take in the breathtaking scenery (in this case, the red rock mountains), get into nature, and breathe some fresh air. The peacefulness of it all never fails to recharge our batteries from the everyday demands of life that builds up throughout the year.
Considering that Sedona is prime hiking land, it was our plan to start off each day with an early morning hike before getting into the rest of our day. However, five days before we were about to leave, I stepped on a brick that was embedded sideways on a trail while running and badly sprained my ankle.
Remarkably, it healed fairly quickly to the point we went out for our first hike six days later on the Teacup Trail. All was going well until we were about a mile from the trailhead and I stepped on a rock, tweaking my ankle again just so. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but the next morning I woke up and had a very difficult time walking. It remained that way for the rest of the trip.
So here we were on a hiking vacation and by day two, I knew for sure there would be no more hiking on this trip. While a bummer at the time, this single event turned out to be a monumentally important moment for me because I realized I was neglecting to learn and take seriously something that could improve not only my health and well-being, but also that of my clients.
For years I have read that meditation can help reduce chronic pain, blood pressure, headaches, anxiety, and depression. It can help you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, increases sports performance, boosts immune function, relieves insomnia, increases serotonin, improves creativity, optimizes brain waves, helps in learning, focuses attention, increases productivity, and enhances memory.
It kind of sounds like a wonder drug, doesn’t it? There’s definitely something in there for everybody. So why didn’t I ever take it seriously? I guess because it seemed weird, too easy, and ultimately, I didn’t think it would work.
Well, since doing anything active while on vacation was out of the cards, I needed to find something else. You can only eat and drink so much each day! If you didn’t know, meditation is really big in Sedona. In fact, there seems to be a place about every half mile or so. My thought was to drop into any one of these and take a lesson or two from a professional.
The problem for me was the “new agey” feel these places had to them. I was willing to expand my horizons with meditation but had no interest in having my palm read and future told. I just couldn’t get past the weirdness of it all, so we wound up just staying in the car and eventually headed back to the resort. However, I was still inspired to give this meditation thing a chance and eventually downloaded an audiobook, Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. It was perfect. In just under 2 1/2 hours on my own, I was able to learn the basics of meditation and, through some guided teaching, even put it into practice.
By no means am I an expert on meditation, but here are some of the basics that I have picked up so far:
Most of us are “on” all of the time dealing with all kinds of daily demands – professional, family, errands, a constant stream of emails and texts, and all the various forms of social media, to name a few. We have so much going on and have gotten so used to it that we don’t even realize it anymore. A problem arises when these become stressors and the body acts accordingly.
It is true that we need some stress in our lives. Some stress is good. It leads to excellence in our careers, on the athletic field, or whatever might be your chosen endeavor. It just can’t go on ALL the time.
When we become stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which triggers our fight or flight response. This is what gives you that burst of energy when you are in the middle of a cross-walk, see a car speeding at you, and are able to sprint out of the way – sprinting far faster than you ever could have under normal circumstances. This mechanism is available to us for one reason – survival.
Unfortunately, many of us live our lives in a constant state of survival mode and our bodies eventually break down under the onslaught of all the stress. Of particular importance to me in my work with my clients is that when someone is in fight or flight, the body produces cortisol. This is a hormone that encourages fat storage, which makes it extremely difficult to lose fat/weight even in the presence of eating well and getting adequate exercise.
The point of meditation is to quiet and calm the mind and create an awareness so that you are able switch out of sympathetic and into parasympathetic nervous system dominance. Over the past few years I have noticed that my mind has become more and more active. Many times I have so many thoughts bouncing around my head at once that it is extremely difficult to make sense out of anything.
There are many ways to meditate, but to get started, sit in a comfortable position either on the floor or in a chair with your spine straight and back long. Relax your shoulders downward, keep your neck long, head looking straight, and face relaxed.
Begin to breathe normally through the nostrils, feeling the belly rise and the ribs expand. Watch and focus on one aspect of the breath – the movement of air in and out of the nostrils or the lifting and falling of the belly.
When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and the aspect you have chosen to focus on. Don’t worry about how often your mind wanders or the number of thoughts you have. Just make note of the thoughts, let them pass, and then go back to concentrating on your breathing.
Consider starting with just 5-10 minutes and then increase the time until you can sit for 30 minutes.
Here’s the thing. Had I not sprained my ankle last month, I would not have given meditation a chance. I had been interested in it for a while, but something always seemed to get in the way. Had I been healthy in Sedona, we would have hiked every morning, come back and relaxed at the pool, had some lunch, taken a nap, and start to think about where to go for dinner. The point is, I’d of done just about anything except meditate because that’s what I’ve always done.
Since I first listened to Meditation for Beginners just over 4 weeks ago now, I have missed just one day of meditation. Let me just say that it is not as easy as I thought it would be and that I don’t consider myself to be very good at it. I’ll sit for just 10 minutes a day and it’s astounding the number of thoughts I can have in that period of time. Many are random thoughts of seemingly little importance that do nothing but cause my mind to be busy and take away the attention and focus that is needed for the big stuff. However, so far it has been more rewarding for me than I would have ever imagined.
Going in, I thought I would shoot for 3 days per week, but I’ve liked the results I’ve seen so much that I make time for it every day. I feel as though I’m starting to think more clearly, I have better concentration, and my memory seems to be improving. When my mind starts to race, I’m better able to recognize it and can stop it. Most notably, I have a greater level of patience, especially while stuck in traffic, and I now somehow react in a calm manner when another driver does something totally stupid on the road. Having to be in the car all the time, this has always been a huge source of stress for me.
So had it not been for my sprained ankle while on vacation, I would have returned home with my wild-running thoughts and emotions still getting the better of me. No doubt this would have turned into stress with me once again swearing behind the wheel of my car the next time I was cut off. This is just another one of those instances of wishing I had listened and taken action sooner.