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Learn to meditate

Meditation can be a short-cut to relaxation, resulting in significant health benefits. When you’re calm and relaxed, you look better, too – no furrow-lines or frowns. Research shows that this technique, when practised regularly, can help keep at bay a wide range of complaints, from headaches to asthma, eczema, PMS, hypertension – even heart attacks. The physical effects of meditation are a significant reduction in the metabolic rate, the heart rate and in breathing speed, while circulation improves and muscle tension disappears. Stress ebbs away, leaving us better able to cope with forthcoming activities.

The idea of meditation is to clear the mind – at least temporarily – of extraneous thoughts which sap our energy, by focusing on just a single thought. That’s why we suggest learning to meditate during your ‘spa retreat’ weekend, a time which should be free from interruptions and when you should be quite relaxed in any case.

After only a few minutes, practised meditators can feel more clear-headed and rested. To the novice, however, even attempting to meditate can be stressful. Just as you’re trying to empty your mind, it seems to fill instantly with ‘To Do’ lists. Or your limbs develop Lotus-position-ache. So here is the experts’ advice on how to maximise the benefits of meditation, while avoiding the pitfalls.

  • Choose a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted. Insist, like Greta Garbo, that friends/partners/family leave you alone.
  • Don’t eat or drink for half an hour beforehand. Don’t meditate before a meal, either; hunger pangs will put you off.
  • Turn down the lights or draw the curtains/blinds.
  • Sit comfortably in an upright position, with your hands resting in your lap. Creaky knees or a painful back will make you fidget. If you still aren’t comfortable, lie down – although most meditation teachers prefer the seated position, to avert the danger of over-relaxation (i.e. nodding off). The idea is to remain calm but alert.
  • Imagine every part of your body relaxing: start with your scalp, moving down the body, and feel the tension ebb away from your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, stomach, legs, feet and toes.
  • Prevent stimulating ideas or niggling problems entering your mind by concentrating on one neutral or calmly pleasing thought: the colour blue, a cloudless horizon, a mountain vista.
  • Let breathing settle into a natural rhythm. Don’t try to change the pattern. One highly effective meditation technique is to focus on breathing itself: feel the air as it enters your nostrils, moving down to fill the lungs completely, then slowly exhale. Breathe from the abdomen, not the chest; feel your tummy swell as you inhale. Count slowly as you breathe in and out, taking as long to expel each breath – fully – as you did to inhale.
  • Whenever a distracting thought breaks in, simply acknowledge it and let it go. American meditation master Ram Dass advises transforming each thought into a cloud and watching it float away in your mind’s eye.
  • When you’ve finished, slowly open your eyes, stretch and wait a minute or two before standing up, to avoid dizziness.
  • Start small – two to five minutes, then ten, then as long as you want or can carve out of your schedule. To begin with, establish a regular time each day for meditation. When you become practised you can meditate almost anywhere: on the train, at your desk.
  • There is no right way or wrong way to meditate. What works for you is the right way. Some experts believe that repeating a phrase (or ‘mantra’) time and again can lull the mind into a state of meditative bliss. Meditation author Lawrence LeShan suggests looking up two names in a phone book, at random, and combining the first syllable of each to create your own mantra.
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