How Breathing Changes Your Brain And Other Tips For Getting Mindful In The Madness

Simple tools for finding peace and quiet in a noisy world

“Take a deep breath.” It’s what your mom told you when you were hyperventilating about some disastrous situation as a kid—maybe a fall off a bike or worse, your brother stealing your toys. Like all things in life, your mom was right; taking a deep breath can be one of the most important things you do all day.

Meditative and mindful practices have been around for centuries, but like so many ancient and esoteric practices, we’re only now getting around to learning what’s truly behind them.

Simply open a magazine or click over to Facebook and you’ll likely be inundated with headlines reading, “Yoga Reduces Stress,” or “The Stress-Busting, Mood-Lifting Effects of Mindfulness.” But beyond these headlines is the real story: We have the control to heal ourselves in ways we’ve not previously imagined.

And it’s not just California hippies taking advantage of the healing power of thought.

For more than 17 years, George Mumford, a sports psychologist and mindfulness expert, has worked with some of the world’s top-performing athletes, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, teaching them that meditation is a key ingredient for winning championships.

“George helped me understand the art of mindfulness,” Bryant told The Huffington Post. “To be neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive. I learned just to be.”

Politicians are also joining the meditation movement in droves. Tim Ryan, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, makes it a part of his daily routine to take time and introspect. “If this can help me, a half-Irish, half-Italian quarterback from Northeast Ohio, it’s for everybody,” Ryan told Salon in a 2013 interview. He’s also sharing his love of mindfulness and meditation with his constituents. In 2015, Ryan introduced the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Act.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]To be neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive. I learned just to be.[/quote]

The act will help to financially support teacher training in SEL, which is proven to boost student’s academic performance. “I have seen firsthand what teaching social and emotional learning can do for students and their classrooms in Ohio and across the nation,” Ryan shared in a statement. “These programs are scientifically proven to help students increase skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, responsible decision making and relationship building – these are the skills that will build the foundation for students to better perform academically and throughout their lives. Now is the time to promote programs that create a safer and more secure school culture in America.”

And it’s not just the rich, famous, and powerful using mindful meditation. Groups including the Prison Yoga Project and the Prison Mindfulness Institute are bringing the power of internal reflection to incarcerated individuals across the country.

“Yoga really allowed me to work on core issues,” Adam Verdoux, a 45-year-old ex-con told Epoch Times. “It played a huge part in my change. It really facilitated that process.” There remains a year waitlist to join the yoga program at San Quentin State Prison, where Verdoux served his time. Additionally, Epoch Times reports, more than 15,000 prisoners have requested yoga guidebooks to assist in self-guided meditation.

At the root of much of this is the simple act of focusing on one’s breath—an act that is core to so many meditative traditions. “Breathe in. Breathe out. Pay attention to your breath. Repeat.” Modern science is showing us that this doesn’t just calm us in the moment, if practiced over time, it can actually make real changes to the workings and shape of our brains—changes that actually help us heal from traumas and become more resilient to the stresses we all endure. In one study, researchers at Harvard University found that just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation made measurable and impactful differences in the brain.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” the study’s senior author Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology, said in a statement. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

As explained in GOOD’s new video above, this type of meditative practice and the associated changes to our brain can even help us live more in the present moment and overcome that feeling of life speeding by like a freight train. It’s getting more obvious all the time: Soon meditation will be as common sense and as common practice as brushing your teeth. So, if you can build a habit to keep your teeth clean, how can you also take care of your brain in the same way? We created a few quick, illustrated tips to help you bring very simple mindful practices to some unexpected parts of your day:

And for real, you should probably give yourself two minutes and try that last tip before you move on to the next link on the internet.


The video above was made possible with the support of Here To Be, a new social impact initiative from lululemon.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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