Alternatives to Meditation
If you want all the wonderful benefits of meditation but the thought of sitting cross-legged under a lotus tree chanting “ohm” has you running for the door, don’t fret! Meditation can take many forms, and it's not hard to find an activity that works for you in the same way.
Meditation changes the brain
A wealth of clinical trials and research continues to show that meditation can help improve many health conditions including mental health concerns, cardiovascular disease, cognitive function, as well as help our nervous system cope with and become more resilient to stress. It is not surprising then that neuroimaging and brain scans show that meditation can literally change your brain. A number of areas in the brain change in response to meditation but the most important may be the amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for anxiety, fear and stress. People who practice regular meditation have been shown to have changes in the amygdala that result in a reduction of stress levels as well as an improved response to stress.
Alternatives with meditation-like benefits
There are many ways to achieve the benefits of meditation through other activities that create similar positive changes in your body and brain.
Breathing exercises are often a part of a meditation practice but can also be used on their own for positive health benefits such as decreased stress, anxiety, muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate. Diaphragmatic, or abdominal breathing is the most basic technique and involves breathing deeply through the nose while expanding the abdomen or belly outwards. It can easily be done in just a few seconds while waiting in traffic, grocery shopping, to 'reset' during a busy day, or before bed to promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Left nostril breathing (known as chandra nadi pranayama in yogic terms) is another technique that has been shown to decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for rest and relaxation.
Get a move on
Exercise is truly foundational to overall health and physical activity of any kind is effective at reducing stress and its detrimental effects. However, rhythmic or repetitive types of physical activity, such as hiking, skipping, or running seem to offer the most similar benefits to a meditation practice. Many runners report a meditative “in-the-zone” experience, or “runner’s high” which translates into both physical and mental benefits. Perhaps more than other types of exercise, yoga boasts benefits that create positive changes in the brain that mimic meditation. Yoga has also been shown to be effective in treating a variety of mental health concerns (including anxiety and depression), cardiovascular disease, as well as improve cognitive function and mental focus.
Be in nature
Just like meditation, time spent outdoors can improve energy levels, mental health, and help the brain process information and think more clearly. Being in nature can also help enhance creativity and attention span. A walk in the park or woods while you engage all of your senses, gardening, or merely sitting out in your back yard can help to increase your resilience to stress and improve recovery from illness. These benefits can be seen in as little as 5 minutes a day so enjoying a quick walk around the block or enjoying your lunch outside are easy ways to integrate more nature into your day. Better yet, take your exercise outside and reap double the benefits.
Fuel your creativity
Creative hobbies and passions such as music, painting, and photography can yield effects similar to meditation. Hobbies such as these help people achieve a state of mental flow, focus and relaxation. Repetitive hobbies in particular help to active the parasympathetic nervous system, just like the practice of meditation. In a study conducted on over 3500 people, frequent knitters reported feeling more calm, happy, and had higher cognitive function. Other activities that require similar mental focus such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku’s can have comparable results. Adult colouring books have become extremely popular over the last year for these exact reasons and are being used as a therapeutic tool for everything from anxiety disorders to recent cancer diagnoses.
A traditional style of meditation isn’t the only way to achieve the positive physical and mental benefits! Pick an activity or hobby that is both enjoyable and sustainable for you and make it a regular habit. In as little as 10 minutes a day you can begin to see the positive effects. Whatever you choose, it’s important to unplug and be completely present in order to reap the rewards.
Louv, R. The Nature Principle. 2012. Algonquin Books. New York City, NY.