Changing habits is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be painful.
Dr. Jud Brewer – Neuroscientist and Mindfulness Researcher
As gym members, we understand the concept that hard work produces results. Through strength training and conditioning (and with the help of the great TDAE coaches), we can develop our physical fitness. The better, more smartly and efficiently we exercise, the more likely we are to see growth in line with our fitness goals: more defined muscles, the ability to run a 5K, a smaller waistline, or improved flexibility. Without training, we can’t expect to increase our strength and stamina, but with commitment, even if it’s just a couple of days a week, we know these conscious steps that will improve our health and wellbeing.
This training builds on itself. We don’t start by lifting the heaviest weight on the rack, but instead progress incrementally, acclimating our bodies with exercises that become second nature the more that we train. Over time, those muscles that were at first sore and angry at the newness of weight and movement, become stronger and more accustomed to the challenge. They may even crave it. This makes sense to us, and we inherently understand that adage “use it or lose it.” When we fall out of a routine and neglect exercise for a period of time, there is a re-learning of those skills and strengths.
Our bodies can change and adapt to physical exercise, but did you know that our brains are also capable of positive growth and change? While scientists once believed that our brain development stopped when we reached adulthood, we now know that the brain can continue to change and adapt throughout our lives as it is exposed to different stimuli and experiences. This is called neuroplasticity, or in other words, the ability to teach old dogs new tricks.
This is particularly exciting when it comes to understanding the positive effects of meditation on the brain. Dr. Sarah Lazar’s lab at Harvard studies the impact of both meditation (and yoga) on practitioners. Overwhelmingly, her research suggests that “meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain” and there is “evidence that meditation may slow down the age-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain” (Lazar Lab, Harvard University, 2021). Specifically, meditation exercises certain parts of our brain, namely the pre-frontal cortex, used for higher level thinking, reasoning and perception, while quieting the areas of the brain responsible for reactivity, most notably the amygdala, the source of our pre-evolutionary fight or flight instinct.
When we meditate, we activate the mental muscles of focus, concentration, and awareness. Meditation also teaches us to consider ourselves and our experiences with more kindness and compassion. It turns out that this can be part of a powerful program of neurological training, allowing us to build our mental muscles in much the same way we build our physical ones.
While researchers are beginning to understand the mechanics of these changes to neural pathways more specifically using diagnostic tools such as fMRI technology and other brain scans, simultaneously they are amassing a growing body of survey and anecdotal data that shows meditation can also improve emotional self-regulation, reduce stress, manage anxiety and generally support a more positive outlook on life.
So, consider adding a meditation practice as another workout. Even a few minutes a day, a few days a week can be beneficial. The brain is likely a muscle you’ve been overlooking in your training, but it will respond to practice and routine.
Meredith began exploring mindfulness over six years ago when an injury sidelined her yoga practice. It was not until stepping away from the mat that she realized how much she valued the mental benefits of yoga as much as the physical ones, and the mind-body connection inherent in practice. She discovered she could replicate and cultivate that same sense of calm and ease in seated meditation practice, and through continued study and practice has an even greater appreciation and understanding of mindfulness as a tool to support and enhance all aspects of daily life. Her current study of mindfulness practice is through Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program, the only M.A. of its kind. She will complete her degree by Summer of 2022, focusing on the integration of mindfulness in physical fitness programs. While Meredith is beginning her journey as a Mindfulness Coach, her background in Communication and Education informs her philosophy of teaching and learning. She strives to embody compassionate, mindful practice in engaging with students of all ages, recognizing that learning is a lifelong endeavor, and everyone is capable of personal growth. Meredith’s mindfulness practice has helped her to better manage stress and anxiety, become a more effective and compassionate communicator, and enjoy each small moment with much more focus and calm. It is both Meredith’s privilege and purpose to share mindfulness practices that support overall health and wellbeing with others. Meredith’s personal interest in mindfulness practice has been bolstered by her study of traditional Buddhist philosophy. She is also certified in Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness practice and Advanced Mindfulness Based Interventions for Children and Teens, as well as being a certified Reiki Level 2 practitioner.