By Dr. Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc
As a holistic physician with a focus on integrative and mind-body medicine, I find that one of the best ways to care for ourselves, increase our healing capacity, and enhance our connections to others is through meditation, as well as other mind-body practices including yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. These time-honored practices have been at the heart of Eastern spiritual disciplines for thousands of years — and for good reason. Meditation and mind-body exercises – when practiced regularly — promote healing on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and psycho-spiritual. They do this in part because they help to expand the heart, increasing our innate love and compassion for ourselves and others. This love and compassion is actually our greatest healer – something I’ve experienced again and again in my personal meditation practice and in my clinical work with patients over the last few decades.
For example, studies show that feelings of gratitude generate concrete physiological benefits including lowered stress hormones. Regular meditation and mind body practices are shown to increase feelings of compassion by strengthening areas of the brain related to empathy and emotional processing.
On the other hand, studies show that pessimism and negativity fuel inflammation and chronic disease, even assaulting DNA, hastening the aging process. Innately, we know these findings to be true from our experiences. Which feels better in your body? A feeling of love and gratitude, even forgiveness, or the feeling of holding on to a negative thought? Yet, despite this innate understanding, in today’s world it’s easy to become caught in a cycle of reactive, stressful thoughts and emotions which are self-perpetuating. The tools offered by mind-body disciplines help to break this cycle and generate new mental and emotional patterns that heal us, not harm us.
In these practices, breathing is a central element. Focusing your attention on your breathing, and taking deep, slow breaths, is the foundation for many of these practices. Our breath is our source of life, and focusing on it in quiet meditation helps to reconnect us with our inner self, and with the world around us.
Here’s what you can do: Sit quietly and focus your eyes on an object such as a stone, breathing slowly in from the object, and visualizing your breath going out to the object. Visualize white, colored or rainbow light pouring into your being with each breath. Inevitably, thoughts and anxieties will arise. Simply acknowledge these thoughts and release them with your out breath, bringing your attention back to your breathing and visualization. With regular practice, you will find that the space between your thoughts becomes wider and clearer – more expansive. Within this relaxed openness, your healing capacity will naturally arise and expand, as well as greater love, compassion, and a sense of connection with others. Regular practice can greatly increase these benefits. As we enter into a New Year filled with promise and potential, let’s all take more time to actively care for ourselves in a way that not only heals us at our core, but can also benefit everyone around us.