The science behind the health benefits of meditation

One of the main findings that I became fascinated with was neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to change and create new neural connections throughout your life, and the most powerful way to do this, you guessed it: meditation. I appreciate that as a yoga and meditation teacher it is so easy for me to say this, but even if this resonates with one person, it would make me so happy.

It is incredibly easy for me to talk about the benefits from my subjective point of view yet when there is scientific proof about the effects that it has on us, people start to listen. I’m not saying that it’s like proving gravity or that the earth is round (how is this still in dispute) but in proving that meditation can change the way your brain functions daily is something not to be taken lightly.

mindful brain

A study that grabbed my attention the most was by Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar. Her 2005 findings were groundbreaking and showed a brain similarity with someone who I think you might know. Dr. Lazar discovered that experienced meditators had much more neural density, folds, electrical activity and thickness in their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for cognitive behaviour and essentially our personality).

Fear, anxiety, and stress are often a catalyst for so many people to start meditating. For me, my own experiences with anxiety are what led me to yoga in the first place.

In addition to this study, there are numerous findings that show that meditation “thickens” and grows the prefrontal cortex. This type of brain function is what made Albert Einstein’s brain so unique: needless to say the ability to create this through neuroplasticity and meditation is phenomenal.

When I read about this brain functioning, I went on to search for the part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions, survival instinct and memory: the amygdala. The simplest way to understand this is the fight or flight process with fear and how we both perceive and deal with any situation controlled by the amygdala.

mindful table

In 2016, a team of Spanish and German (Yang et. al) fMRI imaged the brains of meditation beginners before and after 40 days of mindfulness training to see the differences. Naturally, after the six weeks, their anxiety and depression scores had decreased. The part of the study that is truly phenomenal is that the participants had dramatically decreased their amygdala in size and volume- in only six weeks!

The implications of this study show that we can learn to control our primitive brain and teach ourselves to build up a protective layer against the negative effects of stress and anxiety before they take control of us. Interestingly, this study also found out that we can strengthen the Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ) associated with our emotional intelligence (EQ) through meditation.

Our intelligence is not set the day we are born, we have the power to take control.

We know ourselves that meditation gives you the tools you need to deal with your emotions but this finding proves that no matter how deep you may be suffering from depression, we can use tools to begin feeling better.

When delving further into neuroplasticity there is one more part of the brain that I wanted to mention and that is the Hippocampi. This part of the brain is responsible for learning and memory and again I wanted to see if, through neuroplasticity, the way we meditate would physically effect this. In another study by Dr. Lazar her research shows that meditation dramatically increased Hippocampal cortical thickness, with a magnitude determined by experience.

downard dog

In essence, this means that meditation has the power to shape the learning and memory centre of the brain into something phenomenal. If you want to create a strong memory capability and become a super learner… start with meditation.

I believe that meditation is the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves that can be done anywhere, anytime and it costs us nothing but time.

If you are tempted to give meditation a go, begin by trying out the box breath method:

  • Inhale for 4, pause for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4.
  • Imagine the breath moving across the body in this way and visualise it creating a box shape reaching the four corners.

When you use your mind to visualize these techniques it becomes even more powerful.

LINE_divide

About our Community Expert

04_COMMUNITY_02_KIRSTY

Kirsty Raynor

#TeachFit programme lead

Kirsty is a yoga teacher on a journey of empowerment, building confidence and pushing the boundaries of what traditional yoga is and can be.

She leads the TeachFit Yoga workshops in our partner schools.

 

 

10 ways to look after your wellbeing as a teacher

Having spent up to two days a week in schools for the last 18 months I have seen how much pressure teachers are under daily and I can only begin to imagine how much it could affect your personal wellbeing.

You are shaping the lives of thousands of children every single day and believe me I truly think that is the most important job in the world. I cannot stress enough how important it is to not feel selfish to say that you need time for yourself or create habits that are just for you.

brain and heart

I have put together 10 tips that I really think will work specifically for you, even if you try one, it is all about starting somewhere!

1. Acknowledge your importance

Know that you are the most important person in that classroom. When you are feeling motivated and energised the children will feel it and you deserve to feel like that.

2. Accept that we feel different every single day

I teach Yoga 6 days a week (on average) and I keep an energy diary to work out how I am feeling. Even a scale of 1-5, that simple, so that you can start to understand how things in your life are affecting you daily and perhaps where you may need to change some patterns in your life.

3. Breathwork is your new bestie

Seriously. Even close your eyes in the classroom while the students are on a break and take 10 deep breathes. Try to make the exhale longer than the inhale so that it works with your parasympathetic nervous system and calm you down.

brain thoughts

4. Create your own excitement

Create something first thing in the morning that you cannot wait to do! Something that inspires you to get up in the morning… maybe it is reading an amazing book for 5 minutes, meditating, doing a HIIT workout, something that you can do for 5 minutes that YOU deserve.

5. Know that you’re not alone

Know that being overwhelmed, not getting enough sleep and feeling anxious are all normal feelings that we all experience. After speaking to so many teachers I know that this is actually very common and I want you to know that you are doing GREAT. When I feel like this, I write things down no matter what time of day, and allow my emotions out onto the page and then look at it a couple of hours later for perspective.

6. Time block

This is my secret love. I am self-employed and my days can literally run away with me where I am “busy” but have accomplished nothing. I even block out time to have breakfast, when to shower etc. I know your day is laid out but once the school day is over, it is YOUR time and I think trying this out and blocking out time for self-care will truly make a difference.

palm tree

7. Move your body in some way every day

I do Yoga every day and cannot even begin to talk about the benefits and how much it will change your life (really) but I also get it’s not for everyone. Find something that works for you and that you enjoy, and just do it.

8. Do you

Set yourself a monthly goal that is nothing to do with work. Maybe it is to do a hike you have always wanted to? Or read a book a month that is pure fiction? Something just for you!

9. Talk to people

If you are feeling overwhelmed please do not hide away, share it with people in work, friends, us, we are here for you every step of the way.

10. Sleep

I cannot stress how important this is, you have to make sure you are resting enough, it is the key to recovery and mental wellbeing.

Breathe, drop those shoulders and remember you are doing just great!

 

LINE_divide

About our Community Expert

04_COMMUNITY_02_KIRSTY

Kirsty Raynor

#TeachFit programme lead

Kirsty is a yoga teacher on a journey of empowerment, building confidence and pushing the boundaries of what traditional yoga is and can be.

She leads the TeachFit Yoga workshops in our partner schools.

Classroom zen: Yoga for mind-body well-being

I have been working with Opogo to launch the #TeachFit initiative since September 2017. Our reasoning behind developing this programme was that we were seeing a real lack of opportunity within many schools across the country of children being exposed to health and wellbeing.

 

As adults aware of the rising growth within the fitness industry, we now understand how important this is; from sleeping well, to working out to getting our head-space. It is becoming more apparent that kids are just not privy to this whatsoever and, if they are, it is only through limited access and availability within many private schools.

With all of this in mind, we wanted to introduce Teach Fit into schools, either perhaps taking over PE lessons completely, by slotting out time for yoga within their regular lessons. Some schools have already taken this initiative after the Head Teacher had noticed just how important wellness has become. I’m incredibly proud to say that since the launch in September, we have managed to teach over 1000 children yoga, and it has since been thriving.

We have been teaching predominantly within primary schools but have also been lucky enough to be able to teach every year group from reception to year 6. What makes it so special is seeing how the children really start to gain an understanding of Yoga throughout the six weeks, from recognition and repetition of certain postures and techniques that we use within the class.

 

“What makes it so special is seeing how the children really start to gain an understanding of Yoga”

 

One of the core principles of Teach Fit is ensuring that the program is still fun for the children and that they feel stimulated and inspired. We begin each class by creating a relaxing ambience and reminding the children that they need to be calm and quiet. I get the children to repeat this to me each week before we begin our seated warm up, and believe me it doesn’t last long until the children are a bit wild! In all honesty, I absolutely love it because all the children are so unique and I get to see all of their personalities shine in those 30-minute sessions.

More often than not no two children are doing the same thing at the same time, and so I ensure that, through yoga, they can act both as a team and individually. The main lesson plan gives them a chance to try some really nice breathing techniques, postures, warm-ups, balances, and it’s the balances that you really see a difference in the kids. They learn how to concentrate, they’re silent, they’re either holding on to each other or perhaps individually.

We also work as a team where we’ll have a whole row holding hands with each other as they balance, and then we’ll get them to do it by themselves. I also get them to switch people that they are with, which are usually their best friends, to really show how they can build as a team, and as an individual, through yoga.

To keep them interested, we take yoga back to how relatable it is to sports, for example, for the boys, we tell them that a lot of footballers actually do yoga. For example, David Beckham is famous for doing yoga. Teach Fit is not about trying to keep the kids calm and quiet the whole class, because they’ll become bored and disengaged. It’s about showing them that these elements of yoga can be fun, completely different to anything that they do within the schools, as well as being applicable to anything they’re doing in school.