Think You Need to be Stretch Armstrong to Do Yoga? Think Again.

Think back to a time before you ever set foot on a yoga mat. When you thought about yoga, did you imagine svelte athletes twisting themselves into pretzel shapes? If that’s the case, you weren’t alone. When most people think about yoga, they picture all the most complex and advanced poses and immediately consider themselves too inflexible to keep up.

Let’s put this myth to rest once and for all. You don’t have to be flexible to enjoy yoga. You don’t need to touch your toes or do a hand-stand to enjoy all the health benefits that yoga has to offer.

Flexibility is a Result of Yoga, Not a Prerequisite.

Some people are naturally more flexible than others, and others have gained it through dance or gymnastics. But flexibility is something that comes with practice and improves over time.

A marathoner would never simply get up one day and run 26.2 miles. Distance runners spend months training, lifting weights, and building endurance before they even attempt to tackle such a feat. Likewise, flexibility is a result of a consistent yoga practice. It takes time and commitment to become more flexible and build the endurance necessary to take on advanced movements.

The best way to use yoga for flexibility is to begin today. Work on one pose at a time. Stretch gradually and slowly, protecting your muscles and teaching your body to move in a new way. Make it challenging, but don’t rush the process. Even 5-10 minutes a day of practice will help soften your muscles, and you’ll see improvements within a few practice sessions.

Don’t Skip Breathing and Meditation

Flexibility is only part of what yoga is all about. Breathing, or pranayama, and meditation can reduce your stress and anxiety, relaxing your mind and allowing you to see things from a new perspective. Yoga is the connection of mind and body, so you should cultivate mental flexibility just as you work on your physical flexibility.

Not Flexible Enough to Touch Your Toes? We Don’t Mind.

Yoga instructors agree – it doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes or not. We mean it.

The best way to begin a yoga practice and work towards improving your flexibility is to find the right teacher and the right class. Maybe a beginner’s yoga class will make your transition into yoga easier, or maybe you have a friend who can go along and provide support.

Yoga instructors provide modifications that allow anyone to participate at their own comfort level, so feel free to use whatever works for you. If you aren’t ready to take on an advanced pose, that’s fine. Use a modification whenever necessary, and go at your own pace.

Yoga is About Honoring Your Body.

Your body is amazing. Think of all it does for you every day. Honor your body in your yoga practice by challenging it and recognizing its limits.

Every body is different. Even your genetically-determined skeletal structure can impact your ability to move in certain ways. Your movements in yoga will also reflect your other daily activities. Cyclists, for example, typically have tight hip flexors that need extra attention on the mat.

Yoga isn’t just for the flexible, the skinny, or the active. Yoga is for everyone. Including you.

How to Use Meditation Methods to Help Improve Your Daily Focus

It seems that the whole world is now meditating, which is wonderful news, as meditation does so much for us on all levels: body, mind and spirit.

On a physical level, meditation allows the body to stay stress-free. Mentally, it helps the mind feel peaceful and less attached to the outcome of each individual task we undertake. Spiritually, this practice takes us beyond the mind, where a whole inner universe is awaiting us. The possibilities are endless.

But with so many different meditation teachers and techniques out there, how would a beginner know which one to try? How would you know whether or not you’re practicing the right method for your own body and mind?

Allow me to explain some of the main ways to practice meditation for you. Before trying one method, though, first understand that each method will feel slightly different to each of us. When trying to find the meditation technique that’s right for you, try to fit the practice to your nature, not the other way around. When you find the right meditation method for your natural nature, you will feel a certain ease and comfort in your practice. You will flourish.

Without further ado, here are seven simple meditation methods I recommend.

1. Using sight

When following this method, we are using our sense of sight to silence the mind. Gazing at a static object — such as a still candle flame in the dark, for instance — helps the mind to become very focused.

2. Visualizing an image

This method involves closing the eyes and going within. Picture an object, like the Chakras or the heart, and hold onto that image as an object of meditation.

3. Chanting mantra

By chanting a short mantra or sentence over and over again, you can focus and calm the mind.

4. Focus on one part of the body

Try focusing on a part of your body, like the third eye between the eyebrows, to bring awareness to your center. This focus brings stillness to our whole being.

5. Use mala beads

Using mala beads brings an extra layer of activity for the very busy mind. As you are doing your chanting or gazing, run a string of mala beads through your hands to keep the mind super focused on the task at hand.

6. Following the breath

Simply following the breath is an easy way to start your practice before moving on to other more in-depth methods. Because the breath has such an impact on our whole being, focusing on breathing can lead to a restful and calm state of mind.

7. Staring at an image

Find an image that is meaningful to you and stare at it while trying to clear your mind. When using an image to meditate, you evoke the power and strength that image represents. If you choose an image of a guru, saint, or religious figure, for example, whatever energy they carry will be with you in your meditation. This practice is good for people who already have a spiritual practice and follow a certain path.

So there you have seven methods to choose from which will either enhance your method of meditation, help you to choose a new and effective technique or it will help you to correct an existing practice, which is not correct for you.

What Does Science Say About Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years. But today, in our electronic, distraction-filled world, the ancient practice seems to be having an unlikely moment of trendiness — so much so that it’s the focus of a new app that recently garnered a New Yorker profile.

The app, called Headspace, claims that by emphasizing attention on the present moment, “regular mindfulness practice, through meditation, is an effective treatment for stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, addictions and more.”

It’s tempting to dismiss all this as a pseudoscientific sales pitch. But we actually have scientific evidence that some of these claims are quite real.

“Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause distinct changes in brain structure and brain function,” says Yi-Yuan Tang, a Texas Tech neuroscientist who studies meditation and recently reviewed the state of the research for the journal Nature. In experiments, he and others have found that regular meditation seems to improve people’s focus and emotional control, in particular.

There are plenty of caveats to this research. It’s early on, and some of the studies include relatively few people. Many are controlled trials(which track how a period of regular meditation affects people, compared with a comparison group that doesn’t meditate), but others involve people who’ve been meditating for years — so they don’t prove that meditation caused the effects, but simply show an association. Moreover, they vary person to person.

“Some people may overstate what meditation can do,” Tang says. “But it does have some real benefits.”

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation originated in Buddhist traditions and was first popularized in the West in the 1970s and ’80s. In essence, it’s any exercise that encourages you to focus on your sensations and thoughts in the present moment. As Henepola Gunaratana puts it in Mindfulness in Simple English, “One’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of one’s own existence.”

In practice, this can take a huge number of different forms. Most often, people begin meditating by sitting upright for 10 minutes or so and focusing entirely on their breathing. The idea is to concentrate your attention on the many physical sensations that accompany each breath: the flow of air through your nostrils, the expansion of your chest cavity, the movement of your diaphragm.

It’s okay if your thoughts wander — at first, they almost certainly will — but it’s good to be aware of their wandering. For most people, daily practice makes this sort of meditation come more naturally over time.

Meditation improves your ability to focus even when you’re not meditating

Researchers have used a number of different tests to assess how regular meditation affects people’s ability to control their attention. One review of 23 different studies found that in general, people who’ve been meditating for just a few months perform better on tasks that test their ability to shut out distractions, while longer-term meditators show a markedly improved ability to maintain focus for especially long periods of time. Fifteen of these studies were randomized controlled trials, which compared the changes non-meditators underwent after a period of meditation with those of people who never meditated.

Many of these sorts of experiments test meditators’ ability to ignore one set of stimuli and focus in on another. The Stroop test, for instance, requires you to report the color a word is written in but ignore the actual word. After a period of regular meditation, people are better at rattling off many colors correctly — and doing other tasks that require shutting out distractions.

Interestingly, meditators also show an improved ability to intentionally split their attention among multiple things. One experiment, for instance, showed participants two photos in extremely rapid succession. After a three-month training period of intense meditation, people showed an improved ability to pick out details from the second photo. A comparison group of non-meditators were much more likely to only notice details from the first. There’s also evidence that meditation can improve people’s working memory — the ability to retain and recall new information.

All this is especially interesting because typically attention control and working memory decline significantly as we age. But research suggests that long-term meditation can slow down this decline.

Meditation also helps you better control your emotions

Apart from focusing your attention on the present moment, mindfulness meditation preaches accepting and letting go of negative emotions. Practicing this sort of behavior, scientists say, seems to improve meditators’ ability to control their emotions even when they’re not meditating. It seems to give meditators more emotional ballast, making them less easily swept up in the ups and downs of the present.

In experiments, for instance, meditators are less thrown off by emotionally unpleasant photos (say, showing a car crash or a violent scene) while completing an unrelated task. FMRI-based studies show that after two months of meditation, these sorts of images trigger less activity in the amygdala, the brain region involved in sadness and anxiety. In survey-based studies, people report being less afraid of their emotions and experiencing less anger and stress in their daily lives after a multiweek meditation course, compared with people who didn’t take the course.

Consequently, there’s some hope that meditation might be a useful tool in treating things like anxiety disorders and addictions. It’s very early on, but a few small studies have suggested that it can reduce cravings in long-term smokers and improve the symptoms of people with general anxiety disorder, compared with non-meditators. Still, we need longitudinal studies that track and compare meditators versus non-meditators over time to have a better idea of whether it really works.

Meditators’ brains look different from non-meditators’

To learn more about the brain mechanisms underlying these changes, about a decade ago, neuroscientists began using fMRI machines and other brain scanners to look inside the minds of people who’d been regular practitioners of mindfulness meditation for years. When they did, they found that their brains looked noticeably different from non-meditators’.

More than 20 of these sorts of studies have been conducted since. Some of their conclusions have varied, but a recent meta-analysis led by Kieran Fox of the University of British Columbia found that on average, practiced meditators tend to have distinct differences in eight brain areas compared with non-meditators.

The most dramatic difference is an increase in tissue in the anterior cingulate cortex — an area of the brain known to be involved in maintaining attention and controlling impulses. Other studies have found that meditators have thicker tissue in several other regions of the cortex implicated in attention control and body awareness. Extremely long-term meditators (in one study, Buddhist monks), meanwhile, appear to have stronger connections between various brain areas, which could further contribute to focus.

Interestingly, regular meditation has been associated with a reduction in the size of the right amygdala, a region of the brain linked to the processing of negative emotions, especially sadness and anxiety.

Some studies suggest that meditators have reduced activity in the insula — a brain region responsible for the perception of pain — which could explain why they report feeling lower levels of pain when exposed to the same painful stimuli (say, putting their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water) than non-meditators. Results in this area, though, are somewhat mixed.

Although the fine details of how these changes occur are still a mystery, they reflect a broader fact about the brain: a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. In general, the neural circuits that you use most are reinforced and strengthened over time, and those you don’t use gradually atrophy.

Still, these brain scanner studies largely compare people who happen to have been already meditating long-term with those who haven’t, unlike the experimental studies. That means these studies can’t prove that meditation caused these changes: It’s possible that people with larger anterior cingulate cortices, for instance, flock to meditation in the first place.

Scientists still have lots of questions about meditation

Despite all these findings, we’re still in the very early stages of research into meditation as a whole — and in many areas, scientists still have more questions than answers.

One big question is how much these effects vary person to person, and why. “People respond to mindfulness meditation differently,” Tang says. “These differences may derive from experiential, temperamental, personality, or genetic differences.” Still, he and others aren’t exactly sure.

The amount of meditation necessary to trigger these sorts of behavioral and neurological changes is also a big question. Some studies look at meditators who’ve only had a few hours of practice, while others involve lifelong meditators, and we don’t have a great sense of when these benefits really start to occur.

Finally, there’s the pressing question of how useful mindfulness meditation might be for medicine. Can it really be a treatment for depression, anxiety, and drug addiction — or is this a totally unrealistic dream? And if it works, how exactly should it be prescribed to patients?

“We’ve found that mindfulness meditation could help with deficits in self-regulation, which is associated with things like addiction and mood disorders,” Tang says. “But we need to replicate and expand upon these findings to figure out how it’d work best in treating people.”

Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation

Since I started meditating two years ago, my practice has been shamefully sporadic. When I do manage to stop what I’m doing and sit down, device-free, I find following my breath to be a relief from—and a contrast to—what happens at work. But as David Gelles observes in his new book, that contrast is dissolving, perhaps for the better.

In Mindful Work, Gelles, a business reporter for The New York Times, catalogs the nascent trend of establishing employee well-being programs that promote mindfulness, an activity that is perhaps best described as doing nothing. More precisely, mindfulness means drawing one’s attention to the sensations of the present moment, and noting, without frustration or judgment, any mental wanderings that get in the way. It can be done anywhere—at your desk, on the subway platform—and at any time. Decades of research suggest that setting aside time for mindfulness can improve concentration and reduce stress.

Gelles first reported on the rise of corporate mindfulness programs in 2012 for The Financial Times, when he described a rare but promising initiative at General Mills. In the years since, similar programs have popped up at Ford, Google, Target, Adobe—and even Goldman Sachs and Davos. This adoption has been rapid, perhaps due to its potential to help the bottom line: Aetna estimates that since instituting its mindfulness program, it has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs, and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity. Mindful employees, the thinking goes, are healthier and more focused.

Why Meditation and Yoga Are Recommended for Breast Cancer

Up to 80% of American patients with breast cancer will undergo complementary therapies to manage anxiety and stress after they receive a diagnosis.

Though there’s no clear consensus on which integrative and alternative therapies work and which are ineffective, more and more medical practices have incorporated practices like mindfulness and acupuncture into their offerings. But a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs conducted by several major oncology facilities has examined which therapies benefit patients the most. The answer? Meditation, yoga and relaxation with imagery.

The three methods are known to be calming for those who practice them, and the researchers gave the practices an “A” for treating symptoms of mood disorders that are highly common among people with a recent diagnosis.

To come up with the grade, the researchers parsed through clinical trials conducted from 1990-2013 on complementary therapies paired with routine cancer treatment, like chemotherapy. The researchers then graded each therapy based on efficacy. Acupuncture was given a “B” for controlling chemo nausea, and music therapy also received a “B” for anxiety and stress.

“Women with breast cancer are among the highest users [of these therapies]…and usage has been increasing,” the authors write in their study. “Clear clinical practice guidelines are needed.” The study involved researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, MD Anderson, University of Michigan, Memorial Sloan Kettering and more.

The researchers also gave some therapies low grades. For example, healing touch was given a “C” for lowering pain, and aloe vera gel was not recommended at all for preventing skin reactions from radiation therapy. The researchers also point out that while some natural products were shown to be effective, they did not have the safety data to back them up, suggesting more formal research is needed before some of the therapies can be officially recommended.

As patients with breast cancer and other forms of cancer continue to seek other ways to deal with some of the emotional side effects that stem from serious illness, it will become increasingly important for hospitals to find ways to answer their unmet needs—which might include a yoga class.