Optimizing our health really comes down to good daily habits. We have all really become our own ‘coaches, ’ and know that a balance of healthy food choices and nutrition, cardio-vascular exercise and stretching/yoga for joint mobility and flexibility are vital. So what about our mind, and why is ‘mind fitness’ so important?
We have ample empirical research to verify that habits of mind–that is, our subconscious out-of-view patterns of thought and behaviour—elicit a cascade of neuro-bio-hormonal effects in our bodies. For example, over-worrying, which is related to a higher set point of anxiety in the basal ganglia region of the brain, brings with it a domino effect of mood and impaired brain function. Our ‘rational brain, ’ the prefrontal cortex region, is what helps gives us an overall sense of control and well-being. When cortical function is well regulated in the neocortex, it has a soothing effect on the rest of the emergency centers of the brain and nervous system. One critical example of this is impulse control—this is the ability to regulate the stimulus for perceived need from chemical, emotional and neuronal cues from the system. When we are calm and focused, with good neocortex function, we exercise good regulation of our (sugar, food, sex, booze!) cravings and unconscious urges.
Another key aspect of neocortical function is managing perceived or real external threats. When the neocortex structures have ample blood circulation and smooth neuronal activity, the conscious, rational mind that exhibits ‘executive control’ makes calmer, more reasoned decisions. So you can see how vital it is to our physiological, psychological and spiritual balance to have good ‘mind’ health!
Luckily, we can achieve this simply and instantaneously with great effect–through meditation and breathing. Even a couple of minutes of mindfulness meditation–calmly and patiently observing one’s thoughts as part of a ‘stream’ of mental events, each with no more or less importance—has a profound effect on regulating activity in the prefrontal region of the brain. Slow, deep breathing from the diaphragm (the muscle band in your abdomen which contracts/expands the lungs) detoxifies the blood of CO2 gas, increases red blood cell oxygenation to the brain, thus regulating calm normalized activity and ‘state.’ It also slows down your metabolism and perceived level of threat/anxiety. Here’s a simple instruction:
- Sit comfortably on a chair or cushion, legs/arms at 90 degrees to the floor, feet on the floor. Lift your chest up (this naturally brings in the small of your back and aligns your spine). Let your head ‘float’ on the pin-bone connecting it to your spine.
- Eyes softly closed or loosely ‘gazing’ open at about 45 degrees down, mouth closed but lips slightly open.
- Follow the natural rhythm of your breath, in and out, through your nostrils. As thoughts, emotions, body sensations, urges race through your mind, just observe, let go, and come back to your breath. Adjust posture as necessary without fidgeting too much.
Like any fitness regime, don’t be put off by the challenging prospect of simply sitting with your mind/breath by making it about extended sessions, and thus the challenge of making time to do it! Even a minute or two of mindful awareness or breathing, even while sitting at your desk, on the bus, or in your car, has a powerful effect on your mind/body state. As you go, this new state of calmness permeates your daily routine and ripples into your life. YOU are in control of YOU!
Michael A. Gordon, MSc is a psychotherapist, Aikido teacher, consultant/writer/speaker, actor and recording artist based in Vancouver, Canada. You can find his blog, Spiritual Psychology For Daily Life at mindfulyou.com, and his other activities at mindfulyoutherapy.com, senshinkiaikido.com, and mykgordon.com. Michael is working on the upcoming book: Mindful You: A Guide To Living & Loving Fearlessly, Consciously And On Purpose.