Meditation, yoga nidra, mindfulness – what is the difference?
While these are all quite similar they employ slightly different approaches to the same goal. The aim of each one is to bring an increased feeling of happiness and contentment into your everyday life.
Meditation has been practiced all over the world by different groups of people, for thousands of years. Traditional meditation is practiced in a sitting position; we picture a serene and slightly austere figure, sitting upright, eyes closed, hands resting on the knees.
The meditation practice may involve gazing at a candle flame, visualizing a relaxing place or object, allowing your attention to rest on images, counting the breath, or other similar ideas. Some meditation practices involve the use of sound, setting up vibrations in your body. There are stories of monks and swamis sitting in silent meditation and going without food for extended periods of time; these people gaining enlightenment from their experience. One popular meditation practice is the Buddhist practice of sending compassion to yourself and to others.
Yoga nidra is a yogic relaxation practice. At the end of any yoga class there will always be a period of lying on your back concentrating on the breath. The length of this varies according to the teacher’s style. Yoga nidra is practiced lying down in a position known as shavasana, or “corpse pose”. Your yoga teacher will guide you through the steps to set up in shavasana for the practice of yoga nidra. Once you are settled on the floor, you will then do a practice to feel into your senses and scan through your body to achieve a sense of total relaxation. You may then be guided through other stages, such as watching your breath, moving your attention to different parts of the body, bringing thoughts of compassion to mind, or working on an idea to bring it to fruition.
Mindfulness meditation is used to bring your attention into the present. Too often we are thinking about the past or the future, wasting the most precious moment that is the present. When learning mindfulness you will usually begin doing a seated meditation, often in a chair to make it more accessible to all people. The meditation practice will focus on bringing your attention to the present moment, to your internal thought processes. You will be taught how mindfulness can be brought into and used in almost any aspect of your day to day life.
The three are similar. Each one aims to bring you into the present moment, to put you in control of your feelings and your life, and aims to bring you and others happiness and contentment.
Our busy lives, striving for perfection, for more possessions, a better job, a smarter car, all get in the way of simply being. Our expectations make us unhappy rather than letting us enjoy what we have, right here, right now. It doesn’t matter whether you use meditation, yoga nidra or mindfulness, just start with one, here and now, and feel your life improve.
The relaxation you achieve through these meditation practices is far more than the relief from tiredness you may achieve by simply sitting down and resting, or taking a nap. It is bringing you back home to your body, using a profound level of relaxation.
I recommend you try them all, do each whenever they suit the circumstances. Even when you find a favourite, you will probably want to go back to the others now and again. As with anything, your meditation practice will change and mature over time. You may find you prefer one type of practice now, but later may change. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you find contentment and growth through your practice.
How to Meditate
Meditation is a skill that can be learnt like any other. Of course, as with anything, when you first start it isn’t easy! You need to persevere to let it become a habit. The good news is that it is a very pleasurable, happiness-inducing activity so it shouldn’t be too hard to keep on practising. Once you have found the way to get yourself into a relaxed meditative state you will be able to induce this state in times of stress and deal with any bad situation more calmly.
First you should ask yourself "Why do I want to meditate?" It may be as simple as wanting to know why so many people now meditate and seem to become so much happier if they meditate regularly. When you take your eyes off your problems and put them onto something beautiful and relaxing, even for just a short time, it clears problems from your mind. This gives you a chance to breathe deeply and relax, and to recover from built up stress.
How do you start meditating? To be able to meditate, you need to get away from distractions. That is not always easy! If you do not usually get time alone, tell your partner or children that you will not be available for a period of time. It doesn’t have to be for long - you are better off having fifteen minutes where you know you can relax and not be disturbed than to ask for an hour and then have to deal with interruptions, so start with a small request and then, as people get used to you disappearing for a short time, you can build up the duration.
Shut the door to your room and set yourself up a relaxing position. You might want some cushions to sit on or to support your back, or a blanket to keep you warm. Light some candles or burn some fragrant incense. Sit yourself down on your cushions in a comfortable position; you may want to have a wall behind you for support. The traditional cross-legged pose may feel a bit strange, but it is a good pose to use and as you get used to it, getting into that seated position will be a trigger to your body that this is time to start meditation. Have your hands in a comfortable position in your lap or resting on your thighs with the thumb touching the index finger of each hand.
Now simply close your eyes. Listen for any sounds inside the room, then outside the room. Notice the sounds without questioning what they are, what they mean, who is making the sounds – just notice each sound and then move on to another sound. Then put the sounds to one side and take your attention to your breath. Simply watch your breath going in and out of your nostrils. Internally scan your body from your feet up and see where there is tension. As you scan each part of your body consciously relax each area. If there is an area that won’t relax easily, take a breath into that place and tighten all the muscles in that area, then on the out breath let go of the tension and totally relax the muscles. Think about every small area of your body, like your eyes, eyebrows and mouth and make sure they are also relaxed.
After scanning your whole body, come back to watching your breath. Each time you find external thoughts coming into your mind, simply acknowledge your thoughts, be aware of the thoughts coming and going without trying to analyse them, or trying to solve anything. Then take your awareness back to watching your breath.
If you are having difficulty staying focussed, count along with your breath, one on the inhale and two on the exhale, or count the length of each inhalation and exhalation. It may not be easy to stay focussed to start with, but it will gradually become easier.
Keep doing this for as long as you can manage. If you have not meditated before, it may only be a couple of minutes. Try to build up to at least fifteen minutes, ideally half an hour. When you decide to stop, simply open your eyes slowly and give yourself a minute or two to bring your attention back to the present before you get up and go back to your busy life.
That’s it! That is how to begin to meditate.
Do you want to keep your neck looking trim, taut and terrific? These exercises will help to prevent the development of a double chin, tighten up loose skin on the neck and assists in toning the neck muscles.
For all of these exercises you can either sit on the floor or sit on a chair. Try to sit as upright as you can. If sitting on the floor, you can put a folded blanket or cushion under your buttocks and sit forward towards the edge of the blanket, to allow your pelvis to tip forward. This will assist you to sit upright.
When you tilt your head up, don't tilt it too far back. Any discomfort should be avoided, and you must ensure you continue to breathe. If your breath is not smooth and comfortable, bring your head forwards a little, bringing your chin more towards a position that is level with the floor.
Tilt your head back to look up at the ceiling. Keep your lips closed and start a chewing movement. You will be able to feel the muscles in your neck and throat working. Stay in this position for a count of 20 breaths. Bring your head back to level and take a few deep breaths, filling your lungs completely, then emptying them fully. Repeat 10 times.
Keeping your head level with the floor and keeping your lips closed gently and relaxed, drop your jaw, then push the lower jaw forward. Stay in this position for a count of 10 breaths. Release your jaw and relax. Repeat 5 times.
Tilt your head back to look up towards the ceiling. Keep your lips closed gently and relaxed, then open your mouth to stick your tongue out as if you are trying to touch your chin. Keep your tongue out for a count of 10 breaths, then relax, retract your tongue, bring your head back to level and take a few deep breaths. Repeat 5 times.
Tilt your head back to look up at the ceiling. Keep your lips closed gently, then bring your lips into a kiss and stretch your lips forward towards the ceiling. Keep your lips puckered for a count of 10 breaths, then relax, bring your head back to level and take a few deep breaths. Repeat 5 times.
Tilt your head back to look up at the ceiling. Have your lips closed gently and relaxed. Move your lower lip over your top lip as far as possible and stay for a count of 5 breaths. Relax, bring your lips back to the gentle closed position, your head back to level and take a few deep breaths. Repeat 5 times.
This exercise is a little more stenuous, do not attempt if it causes any pain or strain in your neck.
Lie down on a bed or (armless!) sofa, with your head hanging down over one edge. Slowly bring your head up towards your chest and stay there for a count of 10. Relax and lower your head back down towards the floor. Repeat 5 times.
The video will have quite a bit more content than the above exercises.
Studies on the Benefits of Yoga
The many benefits of yoga have been the subject of a wide range of studies. Yoga's benefits are well known to people who practise regularly, but to others, sometimes it seems too simple a way to improve your life, outlook and health. From stress relief, to assistance with dealing with life's many challenges, growing older, back pain, arthritis, addictions and many other conditions can be improved by a regular yoga practice.
I am always interested to read these studies, and I have attached a selection below. Click on the blue writing to open the articles.
Whenever you look at anything on the web, you need to make sure it is from a reputable source. Many of the research articles below are published on PubMed, which is a very reputable website for sourcing research articles.
Yoga is not purported to cure any disease - cancer, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disease, diabetes, etc - but it can do a lot to help people deal with their reactions to diagnosis, their attitude to treatment, and their long term outlook. Also partners, family members, friends are often just as shocked and stressed by what is happening in their loved ones lives - yoga can be a great support for everyone.
Yoga Research Articles
US National Library of Medicine - U.S. Government website - Yoga in Australia - Results of a National Survey
US National Library of Medicine - U.S. Government website - Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life
Gaiam Life - Yoga Therapy, The Next Wave in Yoga
Yoga as Medicine - 75 Conditions Benefitted by Yoga, as Demonstrated in Scientific Studies (includes links to papers)
US National Library of Medicine - U.S. Government website - An evidence-based review of yoga as a complementary intervention for patients with cancer.
Yoga Journal, Timothy McCall M.D. - How Yoga Improves Health
Jen Reviews, Health - 18 Amazing Benefits of Yoga, According to Science
How to get healthy in 5 minutes
Do the right thing by your body and soul in five minutes flat!
Share a smile.
A smile is a great mood booster, both for yourself and those you smile at. Try smiling at someone randomly in the street and enjoy their smile in return – it is very hard not to smile when someone smiles at you. Spread some good vibes!
Research from the University of Massachusetts found that accident victims who had become paralysed were more hopeful than lottery winners. They realised not to sweat the small stuff in life. Smiling is also a key ingredient to a longer life.
Take unnecessary items out of your bag.
Carrying around a heavy bag can have serious effects on your posture and give you sore shoulders and a sore back. Get into the habit of taking unnecessary items out of your bag at the end of each day. If you have a lot of items to carry, get a well fitting backpack and wear it on both shoulders so the weight is evenly distributed.
Blow on your thumb.
Stressed out, feeling first date jitters or are you freaking out about work? When you feel your heart running at a hundred miles an hour, blow on your thumb. Try it now and feel how calming it is! It will slow down your heart rate and get it back to beating at a normal speed, helping to calm you down.
Make plans for some time out.
Anticipating a fun event can be good for your heart and soul. Make plans for the weekend such as a movie or picnic, so you have something to look forward to when you're struggling through the week. Make longer term plans for a weekend away or a holiday to keep you going through the humdrum day to day stuff.
Add some fresh flowers to your living, sleeping, work or study area.
Pick some flowers from your garden and put them in a vase where you will see them often. Studies show that seeing flowers in your living area will perk you up, whatever else is happening! Put some in your study area to perk you up while working.
It is a myth that it is not a good idea to put flowers or plants in your bedroom because they use up oxygen. While plants do use oxygen at night, they give off ten times as much oxygen during the day. During the night a one-pound plant will use 0.1 litres of oxygen in an hour, whereas a 68kg sleeping person uses around 70 litres of oxygen in the same time (www.snopes.com/oldwives/flowers.asp).
Let some fresh air into your bedroom.
Sleeping in a stuffy bedroom won't improve your health. Opening a window will release any chemical fumes and bring in some wonderful fresh air. Have a hot shower to generate high levels of negative ions which will help boost and rebalance your immune system
Declutter your life.
Cluttered rooms do nothing for your wellbeing and stress levels. Organise your bills and other "to do" items in folders. Try to deal with things as they arrive, e.g. use internet banking to schedule bill payments.
Go through your storage area and kitchen cupboards and throw out those things you haven't used in the last two years. Do the same with your wardrobe - if it hasn't been worn or used in 2 years, are you ever going to use it again?
For an extra boost sell any items that may be of use to others on eBay or Gumtree, have a garage sale or simply give your unwanted things away. Give your unwanted clothing to a charity so someone else can get some use out of it. Helping others is a great booster!
Contact an old friend.
We've all got old friends we haven't contacted for a while. Get on the phone, write an email, or send a card to someone you haven't been in touch with for a while and see whether you can get together for a coffee or a meal. Catching up with a friend can be a great morale booster for both of you.
Learn to Meditate
The benefits of meditation are now recognised by doctors and health professionals. It is a great stress reducer, can benefit you in handling difficult situations and can help you get to sleep. Start in a small way, don't expect too much of yourself, just go with the flow!
Join a Yoga Class
I couldn't leave this out! The benefits of yoga are accessible to everyone. Saying "I can't do yoga because I'm not flexible enough" is like saying "I won't go and learn to play the piano because I don't know how to play". A yoga class will build up your flexibility, along with all the other benefits you will receive. If you are unsure of your fitness, talk to the teacher. They should be able to direct you to a class suitable for your current fitness level.
There is yoga available for everyone, from chair-based yoga to power yoga, to yoga classes that simply offer gentle relaxation poses and yoga nidra (a profound yoga relaxation practice that is a treat for the body and soul!).