This is post 3 in a series of posts on meditation. In part 1, I described my stubborn refusal to accept that the state of my mind could have any affect on my physical health, until I was forced to accept it when I experienced it in action. In part 2, I described some of the science I researched to help me understand why our minds can affect our bodies.
It wasn’t enough for me to read articles from studies proving meditation has health benefits, I needed to experience it firsthand
I was participating in a Facebook group for chronic fatigue and chronic pain sufferers. Someone posted a link to a video, a guided meditation for chronic pain.
In the past I would have ignored this post, but given my recent research, my skepticism gave way to curiosity.
It was essentially a visualization where you imagine the pain being soothed by warmth as you exhale, and then the pain is sucked away and cooled as you inhale.
I followed along, imagining the color red, warmth, softness in my back as I exhaled, then a blue-white coolness as I inhaled the pain away.
And the weird thing was… it worked!
My back was flaring up at that point with a throbbing, tense series of knots between my shoulder blades. Doing this exercise for a few minutes took the bulk of the throbbing, flaring sensations clear away.
This was mind-blowing. I can’t find words to describe how completely and utterly transformed my thinking became on this subject. I was so stubborn and resistant for so long. I was debilitated by this pain for so long.
It’s tempting to feel angry sometimes thinking like, all I had to do was a few minutes of breathing and visualization, and this wouldn’t have such a negative impact on my life? Why didn’t someone tell me? (Ha ha)
But instead I try to focus on the feeling of being empowered by this new tool. There are times when I forget, and the pain flares up, and I feel sorry for myself and wallow for a while before I remember that I can do something about it. I have a magical superpower that works better than ibuprofen! And I didn’t even need to dedicate a lifetime in a monastery to get a little relief. It worked the first time I tried it.
And the thing is, people have been trying to tell me — tell the world — about this stuff for ages. Unfortunately the society I’ve been raised in has a tendency to be jaded and cynical about anything religious, spiritual, or “new age.”
Even the word meditation is so loaded with spiritual and religious connotations.
Given the world we live in, I wish there was a way to just say, forget all that other stuff. Maybe we can call it something new. We need a campaign to reclaim the word meditation.
It’s just a practice. Like doing pushups. When you repeat the exercise of focusing your mind away from its relentless chatter, quieting that voice and just focusing on your breath, over and over, your brain, like a muscle, begins to change.
When you do pushups, the muscles in your body become larger and denser and stronger. When you meditate, the areas of your brain related to pain, fear, and emotional response become stronger and more regulated.
So okay, I’m convinced. But I’m still me. I still don’t own any tie-dye t-shirts.
I still have back pain when I sit on the floor for more than a few minutes. I still have relentless thoughts chattering through my brain that I’m constantly working to refocus and quiet. I’m not trying to propel my consciousness to a higher plane, man, or become one with the universe or whatever. So what’s my practice? What do I do?
They call it a personal practice for a reason. What works for me may not work for you.
I tried Headspace — an iPhone app that does a very nice job of introducing you to meditation and guiding you through simple 10-minute sessions with none of the spiritual, religious, or new-age connotations. I usually practice leaning back against a couch or in a chair, or often lying down (just not when I’m sleepy.)
There’s nothing mind-blowing about this for me, it’s just a nice peaceful time. It’s relaxing. But honestly hard for me to motivate myself to find time for it.
Something that works very well for me is free writing. I’m not sure if this is a form of meditation per se, but sitting quietly and then writing down stream of consciousness thoughts works really well when I’m upset about something and can’t seem to quiet my mind.
I tried a few other things, and then it got weird
I’ve always enjoyed yoga, dabbling here and there in different styles. My new interest in meditation led me to Kundalini Yoga. This was, to me, more like meditation than yoga, with repetitive, often calisthenic movements, mantras, different breathing exercises, all kinds of strange and different things than what you generally think of when you think of yoga.
Unlike the practice of sitting quietly, attempting to quiet all thoughts and just focus on the breath, this practice proved to be a much easier, but also harder, and much more impactful way to meditate.
Easier, because sitting still and quieting your mind is actually very difficult for most normal people to do. Kundalini yoga gives you things to do. You’re often given somewhere to focus, a mantra to think about or chant out loud, breathing to concentrate on, and often a simple motion to repeat or a pose to hold.
Harder because there are movements and poses that you have to hold or repeat until you really don’t want to anymore, and that’s the point. To take your brain to that place where it wants to stop and then use strength of will to keep it there anyway.
More impactful because, after a simple sitting meditation session with Headspace, for example, when I’m done I feel quiet, content, relaxed. Most of the time when I finish a Kundalini yoga session, I feel lit up. I may be completely exhausted physically, but I still feel vibrant, excited. I get in the shower and it’s the most amazing shower I’ve ever had. I go outside and colors look brighter. I’ve made myself stop looking at Facebook right after a Kundalini class because I tend to want to “like” every single post in my feed.
I know, it sounds kind of ridiculous
Four days after I started doing Kundalini yoga every morning, I went to a concert. (I saw Stars, they were great.) After the show it occurred to me, I stood in the audience for the entire 2 hours and my back didn’t hurt. I’m usually complaining of lower back pain after 15 minutes at concerts.
Going into the office in the few weeks after practicing Kundalini yoga pretty regularly (and only like 20-40 minutes a day, a few days a week), people started asking me what was different. In an “I’ll have what she’s having” kind of way.
Yeah, this is pretty weird. I don’t understand why it works.
My instructors tell me this pose is good for the adrenal glands, or this exercise stimulates the thyroids, but I don’t know how or why. Apparently ancient yogis developed such great awareness of the workings of their bodies that they could sense these things, and they experimented and experimented until they could reproduce the effects. I don’t have any way to verify any of it. And that is difficult for me to swallow. But there’s something to this. Whatever it is, something about it is working for me.
I have to admit, I don’t really like how Kundalini is presented.
I’m not looking for transcendence or a psychedelic experience. I think these are artifacts from a different time, when people needed something to aspire to beyond just awareness and optimization of the true health of their body and mind. And I think continuing to present things in that way, despite our changing culture, intimidates and alienates a lot of people who would otherwise be interested and would benefit from trying it out.
What I do know is that some form of meditation and some form of exercise is much needed in my life. I know that it’s beneficial for me to do exercises that keep my spine flexible and strong. Kundalini yoga lets me do all of that at once, sometimes in as little as 11 minutes a day.
So I’m going to keep exploring. I’m considering signing up for Kundalini yoga teacher training in a few months. I want to learn as much as I can about the science(?) behind it. And then I’d like to teach it in a straightforward non-woo-woo way.
During my first Kundalini yoga class, day 1, I started getting visions of myself teaching it. I thought about what I would say, what I would wear, what kind of music I would play. This kind of thing has never happened to me before. It just came out of the blue, vividly. So I guess I’m going to teach.
I’m going to try to journal my experiences as I experiment with this more. If you’re interested in following along, please sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send out occasional reminders to check back in when I have updates. Thanks for reading my story, and please let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts to add.
As they say in Kundalini yoga, sat nam!