Take a Breather

Take a Breather

Can meditation really help busy people?

There is no denying it—we are busy. Overscheduled, multitasked and continuously taking on more than we can, or should, handle. And it’s taking a toll on our minds and bodies, making it difficult, if not impossible, to focus and stay sharp. Our busy lives can eventually lead to sheer exhaustion, which can manifest as feeling sick or depressed.

This isn’t just in our heads. According to a report released earlier this year by the American Psychological Association (APA), more than 9 in 10 adults (94 percent) believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses such as heart disease, depression and obesity. Ninety-two percent felt that some types of stress can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death, particularly in people who already have cardiovascular disease.

But this is the world we live in, and slowing down is not an option, right?

Well, it is—sort of. We most likely won’t clear our schedules of responsibility, but making a little room for daily meditation can improve our mental and physical health. It can rebalance our hectic lives.

Another recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that both mindfulness-based and therapeutic yoga programs may provide viable and effective interventions to target high stress levels, sleep quality and autonomic balance in employees. Compared with the control group, the mind-body interventions showed significantly greater improvements on perceived stress and sleep quality.

Karyn Pettigrew, founder of Chicago-based Beyond Blind Spots, regularly coaches busy professionals and sees firsthand the benefits of mind-body work. A particularly effective exercise she often recommends is focusing on breath work. “If you can’t think straight, you need to stop and breathe,” she says as if stating the obvious.

“When your mind chatter is [at] 10, or you feel off-kilter or anxious, breathe in through your nose but imagine you’re breathing through your heart,” she says. “Exhale through your mouth but imagine you’re exhaling through your heart. By focusing on your breath, you’re giving your intellect something to do, and it distracts your mind from the clutter.”

To appeal to the professional’s brain, she advises setting a timer on your phone so that it goes off every hour to remind you to take deep breaths, even if you don’t need them. Just 5 to 10 breaths for a few minutes is all it takes. “After a period of time, it will become a habit,” she says. “Initially, it will take practice and patience. Baby steps.”

Pettigrew may be on to something. According to the APA, although most Chicago residents believe that stress can have a strong impact on our health, the majority also believe that chronic stress is treatable and are taking steps to reduce it.

Amona Buechler, co-founder of Inner Metamorphosis University in Chicago, (IMU) agrees that, for some, the idea of meditation is more difficult to grasp than for others, and that it takes patience, like anything else, to master. In fact, she goes so far as to say that some people aren’t ready to embrace it.

“Without practice it may take a while for some people [to appreciate what meditation offers],” Buechler says. She recommends that beginners “practice acceptance of whatever it is that you feel, think, experience—be a friend to yourself. You are not making the changes to learn to relax; you are just preparing [your mind and body] for relaxation to happen as you take time to be with yourself.”

Buechler adds that meditation is more than relaxation. “Meditation is transformation; it is learning to see what is rather than being blinded by our own projections and interpretations that arise out of unconscious conditionings,” she says.

Both Pettigrew and Buechler agree that morning is usually the best time to meditate, “before your feet hit the ground and the chaos of your day begins,” says Pettigrew. However, both are quick to add that taking time throughout the day, in regular intervals, provides optimal results.

Pettigrew recommends that the breathing exercise be done throughout the day, on the hour. Also, if your workplace isn’t conducive to relaxing, she recommends going outside for a walk. “Although we live in a large city, we’re surrounded by a beautiful lake and a lot of greenery,” says Pettigrew. “Take a break and go outside. Walk around the block if the lake isn’t in your backyard.”

Buechler notices that those who meditate regularly begin to experience time differently. “Meditation helps us learn to move [back and forth] whenever we want between activity and relaxation physically, as well as mentally and emotionally,” she says. “We are capable of learning this skill the same way it may be easy for us to take a hot shower and feel more clean and refreshed afterward. The inner relaxation and cleaning can become just as easy after some practice. When that’s the case, we will start enjoying waiting in line at the post office, or for a website to open.”

People and employers are beginning to recognize the negative impact that stress from feeling overworked and busy can have on our health and well-being, and that working toward achieving balance in our lives is more important than ever. Employers are responding with work-life balance programs in the workplace and are encouraging their employees to seek out services and therapies to help them better manage or reduce stress.

While greater emphasis and increased value is being placed to effectively manage our stressors using mind-body therapies, and while more research is being done to understand the benefits to our overall health, it seems that the first step in this direction needs to come from within.


How to Meditate: 5 Steps to Getting Started

1. Find a space where you’re comfortable. Sit upright; if you’re in a chair, keep your feet flat on the ground, or sit in a full lotus position (Indian style).

2. Close your eyes, take three deep, cleansing breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Continue to focus on your breathing.

3. When thoughts enter your mind, dismiss them and go back to focusing on your breaths.

4. Spend 5–10 minutes breathing.

5. Relax your body from your head down to your toes. Relax more and more with every breath. Concentrate on areas that may be a bit tight. Release your aggravations from the day—your fears, your frustrations. If you meditate in the morning, consider the day ahead of you. State an intention, such as something you want to accomplish that day.

Realize there are different types of meditation practices (active and passive) and that you may need to try a few to see which one works best for your needs. The ones offered at IMU include active parts such as dance, emotional expression, breath awareness, visualization and sounds. All of those practices are followed by periods of silence. Others find silence through yoga, the Feldenkrais method (Chicago Health columnist and life coach Kathleen Aharoni employs this method) or Tai Chi.