Brain gym – exercise to tone the brain

I’ve just had the great fortune to have been to a wonderful Mindfulness and Yoga retreat, where we had daily guided meditation and soothing yin yoga, to nourish body and mind. And I’m now at the beginning of an 8-week course in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with the British Mindfulness Institute, so that I can weave in more mindfulness benefits to my Pilates teaching – and my life! I’ve found recently that I’ve allowed myself to become a bit weighed down by worry and stress. A Chinese Medicine-based treatment at my recent yoga retreat revealed to me that I was depleted generally and taking on too much worry about the world and my place in it. So, it’s divine timing it seems that I am starting this course now, to help me combat the effects of cumulative over-worry.

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It’s fascinating, truly fascinating, the tangible benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. Increasingly I think we need to look inward, not outward, in terms of validation and proof of our contentment. Not the stuff, the Pinterest-worthy house, the car…but how you feel day to day. Whether your mind is cluttered and jangly, or whether you genuinely experience a sense of calm and pervasive sense of peace. We’re human: “inner peace” will always be a recalibration day to day and there will always be stress in our lives, but it’s the overwhelming sense of balance and the response to stress that brings that sense of contentment rather than depleting angst, I think. And even just two weeks of practising mindfulness consciously every day has lent me a sense of space. increasing the space between stimulus and response.

We have to be kind to ourselves: as women, our mood will wax and wane with hormones and the moon, and this flux has to be taken into account. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts defines Mindfulness as: “The awareness that comes from paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” It’s the “non-judgmentally” bit that resonates most with me. We are so hard on ourselves! There is no “getting meditation right”, there is simply giving it a try and placing it firmly within your regular daily toolkit. It could be meditation = breathing. Meditation = looking up at the sky for a moment. A snack, rather than a full 3-course meal.

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Here are some things I have discovered:

  1. Mindfulness improves focus, empathy, emotional control and increases happiness:

After 8 weeks of Mindfulness training researchers were able to show through brain scans there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain which has been identified as being key in attention, memory, emotional regulation and empathy for others (Holzel et al).

This is borne out by a study known as “The Waiting Room Study”. People who had attended an eight week Mindfulness training course were brought into a waiting room, along with an equal number of people who hadn’t attended Mindfulness training. A woman entered on crutches, a medical boot on one leg. She winced, sighed uncomfortably, and leaned against the wall because there were no free seats. The researchers found that 50 percent of people from the Mindfulness training group gave up their seat, whereas only 15 percent of the non-Mindfulness trained people did.

  1. Mindfulness increases generosity:

Neuroscientist Helen Weng took individuals with no prior Mindfulness training and offered them two weeks training. This experiment was conducted to determine whether this short training would result in an improvement in their abilities to become more compassionate towards themselves and others. The training was conducted over the internet and lasted approximately 30 minutes each day. Each participant was required to make responses over the 30 minutes and listen to what is known as ‘Loving Kindness’ Meditation. This form of meditation asks the participants to extend feelings of compassion towards a loved one, an acquaintance and someone with whom they have had difficulty.

Before and after the two week training, the participants had fMRI brain scans. While undergoing the scan they were shown a series of images depicting people in pain – a child crying and a burn victim. At the end of the two week training the participants were asked to play an online game to measure altruistic behaviour. The participants who underwent the training were twice as generous as those without training.

  1. Mindfulness improves mood and boosts immune system:

In a research study entitled ‘Alterations in Brain and Immune Function’ researchers studied participants who had undergone an 8 week programme of Mindfulness meditation. fMRI scans of brain activity were taken before and after the programme. At the end of the programme the participants were injected with a flu virus. From the fMRI images participants were shown to have significant increases in left-sided anterior activation (brain circuitry related to a positive mood). The participants also had a higher white blood cell count. The conclusion of this study was that after only 8 weeks of Mindfulness training, participants had more positive moods and a more positive immune system.

  1. Mindfulness in the Workplace:

Mindfulness has also proved extremely beneficial in workplace settings. A mindfulness-based programme offered to workers at Transport for London resulted in major changes to the level of health-related absenteeism. Days taken off due to stress, depression and anxiety fell by over 70% in the following three years. Course participants also reported significant improvements in their quality of life – 80% said their relationships had improved, 79% said they were more able to relax and 53% said they were happier in their jobs.

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Worth a try, right?

Have you got a mindfulness/meditation practice in place? Even if not a formal one – do you notice day to day how you’re feeling? Do you breathe, fully and deeply, as a way of consciously combatting stress? I’d love to know. Feel free to comment with your thoughts and experience! xxx

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