Monday, July 6, 2015

Mental Fitness: Meditation & Mindfulness - Why you have time to practice it daily and don’t even realize it!

               Let me start by admitting that I suck at meditating.  In fact so do most of my colleagues and peers.  Ask a working father if he has time to meditate and most will simply laugh:  “Yeah right, you mean sit around and do nothing for 30 minutes? - not a chance!”  And even those of us who are willing to try often find that we are so busy, suffering from attention-deficit or obsessive-compulsion, that we find it nearly impossible to not let our ‘to-do’ list creep into our mind, that is supposed to be void of thoughts, or at least witness to our thoughts.  Or, we are so chronically sleep-deprived, we simply fall asleep 5 minutes into it.  Did I mention that even finding a quiet space to meditate in is often impossible?  But ironically, those of us who seemingly can’t find a spare second to meditate in our hectic lives are usually the ones who could benefit from it most.  Because it is proven that meditating even just 10 minutes a day can reduce anxiety, sharpen focus, help control impulsiveness, plus a myriad of physical health improvements.  This is even measurable through brain imaging & MRI scans, and simple brain wave monitoring.  Trust me, if there wasn’t tangible proof I wouldn’t be getting involved with it.  I’m not into glib gurus.  I’m into results.

               As you may know, I am a big advocate of holistic health.  Yet, like most Trainers and fitness enthusiasts I spend 90% of my effort and learning on the physical component of fitness.  Improving lean-body mass and optimizing body composition.  Building muscle, burning fat, sculpting abdominals and strengthening the core, and improving mobility and athletic performance.  These are my go-to areas where I thrive, and honestly it is what most of my clients are concerned about.  But holistic health inherently implies the whole-body, mind and spirit, so mental fitness is at least a third pillar upholding ideal health.  Ask any warrior, professional athlete, Yogi, or Special Operations soldier and they will all agree that mental fitness is more like 80% of the success formula.  They will tell you with complete certainty that training and preparing the physical body for ‘battle’ is the easy part.  Preparing the mind for challenge, risk and adversity is where the real effort is required.  And as far as Nature-versus-Nurture is concerned, it is our minds that can be nurtured, or altered and improved the most through training, as there are less genetic limitations.  The mind is where our greatest potential exists, virtually untapped by most of us.  Many of us are born with an impressive level of baseline motivation, resiliency, competitive-edge and focus capacity.  But no matter where you think you’re at with you mental game, the act of meditation will take you to the next level.  A level you didn’t even know existed.
The 'Amygdala' is the also known as the mind's 'fear-center'.  Meditating regularly can help quiet the Amydala from hi-jacking the more thoughtful Pre-Frontal Cortex.

             We athletes already have the precious, present-moment, state-of-mind wired, because every time we are immersed into our game or sport we are there, fully present in this proverbial place of true happiness, also known as Flow in sports psychology.  This is very similar to the concept of Mindfulness already.  But while you may be fully present, mindful and even meditative while in state of flow, meditating is also a distinct practice, or training exercise for your brain that can be accomplished in many ways – so many that there is no excuse for you not to find time to incorporate it into your daily fitness regimen.  Meditating doesn’t mean you need to be sitting in a stagnant yoga pose for 2 hours, chanting an ancient, Hindu mantra.  You can practice it almost anywhere I have learned, and there are even convenient and free smart-phone apps to help get you started immediately upon download.  There are even high-end video games you can play on your iPad while wearing a headset that monitors your brain waves (EEG headset), ensuring that you are in fact, in a state of meditation.  If your brain’s electro-magnetic waves aren’t ideal, you lose or crash.  If your brain waves are optimal, you win.  Using high-tech gadgets as tools to help you meditate may sound counter intuitive and against what they taught you in Yoga class, but brain waves are brain waves, and real-time neuro-feedback that you are there in the proper mental state to alter your grey matter and shrink your Amygdala (fear-center), is helpful, if not essential to some of us beginners, or to those athletes who are used to competing in everything they do, or to many of us who have lived our entire lives in the analytical realm of results-oriented assessment and tangible feedback.  When one is a beginner to meditation, it is very hard to just sit there, in silence doing absolutely nothing.  Using an app or video game to achieve the same meditational states can help us learn more quickly.
Screen Capture from one of Versus' virtual neuro-feedback iPad games, using a EEG headset - 'NeuroShapes' (Make them converge!)  

          The purpose of this article is certainly not teach you how to meditate, as I am not qualified.  It is simply to raise awareness that it is something you should look into further, and, to tell you that there is real neuro science backing the benefits of meditation.  Also, I want you to know that while Yoga is amazing, as well as traditional, transcendental meditation practice, you do not need a guru to teach you, and you do not need to drop thousands of dollars on a fancy retreat to learn the basics.  The fact of the matter is, you can begin meditating today – right now – by focusing on your breathe in a quiet place for 10 minutes, or by using an app on your phone, or by going for long, quiet, walk or run where you enter the ‘zone’ - or even playing a special video game that uses your brain-waves only, via a special EEG sensing headset.  If you’re suffering from bouts of rage, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction, obsessive compulsion, attention deficit disorder, or are very uncomfortable in social situations, then you can benefit from meditation.  But what’s more, research now shows us that even if you don’t have any problems or concerns holding you back, you can still use meditation to take your mental capacity to the next level.  Most studies I read say it takes about 8 weeks of practice or 11 hours of meditating before actual physical changes start taking place in you grey matter – your brain.  It took me about 20 sessions to finally get it: To finally feel like an outside observer of myself and witness to my thoughts.
          In a nutshell, meditating quiets the ‘fear-center’ of your brain.  The fear-center of your brain known as the Amygdala, starts to shrink in the right hemisphere, as well as the fear-based, fight-flight-or-freeze connections between your Amygdala and your Pre-Frontal Cortex begin to weaken.  The primal, fight-or-flight response to stress is down-regulated and replaced by higher order, more thoughtful response to stress.  The Amygdala no longer hi-jacks our Pre-Frontal Cortex during stressful situations.  That’s the neuroscience.  But the time-tested cliché the gurus tell us, is that through meditation we learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts.  Instead of judging them, we become “witness to them”.  They say we can detach from our thoughts and emotions and so that we don’t become so consumed by them and simply observe neutrally, without any ego-bias.  I’m not there yet either folks, but again, the gurus say once you learn this, it is very liberating.  In fact the most liberating experience you will ever have.  It is my understanding we will be less judgmental, experience less anxiety, be able to focus longer, and will be able to let go of things we cannot control more easily.  So I’m giving it a go.  I am in week 8.
In all my research for myself and this article, I did realize something encouraging.  That I was already experiencing meditative-like mental states in various physical activities I had been doing for quite some time.  I knew I was very good a focusing under stress.  20 plus years of being a military and commercial pilot has sufficiently trained my brain for this familiar situation.  Repeated exposure to your stressors is another path to conquer them and diffuse fears and phobias from past traumatic experiences, but a lot more challenging.  Pilot simulator training is a lot like the new Versus performance brain-training video game I recently purchased.  There are few times in life when I am more mindful than when flying the airplane – but in aviation we always labeled this as Situational Awareness.  Also I slackline about once a week and noticed the same type of clarity of mind that comes with the present-moment focus required during balancing on the line and this is also what once hopes to experience during meditation – clarity, calm and quiet mind.  I share this background, because it brings me to my next point, which is that some of us are so busy, almost franticly obsessive, or in a constant state of attention-deficit, (i.e., most working parents of young kids!), that asking us to sit down to quietly meditate for 20 or even 10 minutes just is not going to happen.
Think of most of the self-proclaimed, grounded gurus you know of, espousing the virtues of meditation and how it has enlightened them.  Do they have young children running around with a spouse that also works full time?  No, they don’t.  Their life is typically a borderline selfish one, with the luxury of pursuing self-mastery that allows them to focus on themselves all day, every day.  I am here to tell you that there are other non-conventional ways to practice meditation that still provide the same benefits.  Many times you can incorporate meditational moments into your solo workouts, especially the longer endurance-type ones amongst nature.  Start simply by becoming aware of your breathing.  If you practice Yoga, then almost always at the end of class the instructor will allow for time to meditate.  But if all else fails, you can begin by downloading an app. on your smart phone to be your catalyst.  To save you time, ‘Head Space’ is the best one, and millions of folks just like you are already benefiting from it.  All you do is download it and hit open, with some headphones on, alone.  It takes 10 minutes and walks you through the exercise, step by step, until you learn how to do it on your own.

          Mindfulness is another easy way to get you headed in the right direction.  Mindfulness is more like a chosen method of life, where you simply try to become more aware, or mindful, of everything that is going on around you and with you – without judging!  That last part is where the challenge lies.  You accept and do not judge.  Mindfulness is a useful tool when you happen to be trying to lose weight as well.  You must be mindful of every food choice you make!  Mindfulness helps us be more compassionate as well, as we become more aware of the people around us and what they are experiencing.
If no other tool is available to you, or you don't know how to meditate yet, 'Box Breathing', as shown here from CDR Mark Divine's Unbeatable Mind book, will give you a simple de-stressing/relaxtion exercise.
Well I hope you will now go on to explore more about meditation, whether it is the traditional, transcendental based form, or even trying it out with an app on your phone.  I do know the time has to be right for you, in order for you to be ready to try.  I will share with you that I basically ignored meditating as a daily beneficial practice in the traditional sense, for the first 40 years of my life, even though I was surrounded by people who used it to help them.  It wasn’t until I started doing sports psychology research for my daughter who competes at a very high level that I discovered how many professional athletes were using meditation of some form or another every day to take their mental game to the next level.  The same was true of Navy SEALs and other warriors – they all meditate to some capacity.  Their results back it and the science does as well, via MRI scans revealing changes in the brain.  Lastly, I will leave you with a few other leads to explore here in San Diego.  Right here in North County’s Encinitas is based former Navy SEAL, CDR Mark Divine who runs SEALFIT and US CrossFit.  He is also the author of Unbeatable Mind.  His book taught me a lot about mental resiliency and his facility offers daily warrior yoga sessions, meditation, CrossFit workouts and life-changing camps.  You should check it out if you are ready for a change and want to tap into your mind’s unlimited potential.
            Looking for something a little more traditional and a little less testosterone?  North County has you covered there too:  Deepak Chopra’s center is located right at the La Costa resort & spa which offers a weekend crash course in meditation.  Encinitas also is home to the Self Realization Fellowship temple located at our famous Swamis name-sake surf break!  What are you waiting for grasshopper?!

Perhaps you're not ready for all this yet.  You have to be 'ready' and intellectually mature enough to realize there is something to all this.  Nobody, not even myself can tell you what is best for your mental training and performance, but trust me, you will KNOW when you are ready, and need something next-level to help you master life or at least calm down enough to focus and not become a worry wart.  Next chapter in Mental Fitness and training your mind-muscle, I will look at positive self-talk, visualization, the importance of time off and sleep, and hypnosis (the power of suggestion).

The HeadSpace App is FREE and is so simple to use, only 10 minutes a day, yet a life-changer.  Available on iPhone and Android!

With the VERSUS EEG Headset you play virtual games using only your brain waves, requiring the restless athlete to focus and calm down or they will lose the game!  For the beginner and athlete alike, the real time neuro feedback the game provides will keep you engaged and feeling productive.  This brain-game could literally be a game-changer!

No comments:

Post a Comment