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“Optimum health is a method of life. Focus on your fitness and your ideal physique will follow.”

by Max Wettstein

Meditation and Mindfulness:
Why you have time to practice it daily and don’t even realize it!

Let me start by admitting that I suck at meditating. In fact, so do most of my colleagues and peers. Ask a working father if he has time to meditate and most will simply laugh: “Yeah right, you mean sit around and do nothing for 30 minutes? Not a chance!” And even those of us who are willing to try often find that we are so busy, suffering from attention-deficit or obsessive-compulsion, that we find it nearly impossible to not let our “to-do” list creep into our mind that is supposed to be void of thoughts—or at least witness to our thoughts. Or, we are so chronically sleep-deprived, we simply fall asleep five minutes into it. Did I mention that even finding a quiet space to meditate in is often impossible? But ironically, those of us who seemingly can’t find a spare second to meditate in our hectic lives are usually the ones who could benefit from it most. Because it is proven that meditating even just 10 minutes a day can reduce anxiety, sharpen focus, help control impulses, plus a myriad of physical health improvements. This is even measurable through brain imaging and MRI scans and simple brain wave monitoring. Trust me, if there wasn’t tangible proof I wouldn’t be getting involved with it. I’m not into glib gurus. I’m into results.

As you may know, I am a big advocate of holistic health. Yet, like most trainers and fitness enthusiasts, I spend 90 percent of my effort and learning on the physical component of fitness: improving lean-body mass; optimizing body composition; building muscle; burning fat; sculpting abdominals and core; and improving mobility and athletic performance. These are my go-to areas where I thrive, and honestly it is what most of my clients are concerned about. But holistic health inherently implies the whole-body, mind and spirit, so mental fitness is at least a third pillar comprising ideal health. Ask any warrior, professional athlete, yogi or Special Operations soldier and they will all agree that mental fitness is more like 80 percent of the success formula. They will tell you with complete certainty that training and preparing the physical body for “battle” is the easy part. Preparing the mind for challenge, risk and adversity is where the real effort is required. And as far as nature versus nurture is concerned, it is our minds that can be nurtured, or altered and strengthened the most through training, as there are less genetic limitations. The mind is where our greatest potential exists, virtually untapped by most of us. Many of us are born with an impressive level of motivation, resiliency, competitive-edge and focus capacity. But no matter where you think you’re at with your mental game, the act of meditation will take you to the next level—a level you didn’t even know existed.

We athletes already have the precious, present-moment, state-of-mind wired, because every time we are immersed into our game or sport we are there, fully present in this proverbial place of true happiness, also known as “flow” in sports psychology. But while you may be fully present, mindful and even meditative while in the state of flow, meditating is also a distinct practice or training exercise for your brain that can be accomplished in many ways–so many that there is no excuse for you not to find time to incorporate it into your daily fitness regimen. Meditating doesn’t mean you need to be sitting in a stagnant yoga pose for two hours, chanting an eccentric Hindu mantra. You can practice it almost anywhere, I have learned, and there are even convenient and free smartphone apps to help get you started immediately upon download. There are even high-end video games you can play on your iPad while wearing a headset that monitors your brain waves, ensuring that you are, in fact, in a state of meditation. If your brain’s electro-magnetic waves aren’t ideal, you lose or crash. If your brain waves are optimal, you win. Using high-tech gadgets as tools to help you meditate may sound counter intuitive and against what they taught you in yoga class, but brain waves are brain waves, and real-time feedback that you are there in the proper mental state to alter your gray matter and shrink your amygdala (fear-center) is helpful, if not essential to some of us beginners, or to those athletes who are used to competing in everything they do, or to many of us who have lived our entire lives in the analytical realm of results-oriented assessment and tangible feedback.

The purpose of this article is certainly not teach you how to meditate, as I am not qualified. It is simply to raise awareness that it is something you should look into further, and to tell you that there is real brain science backing the benefits of meditation. Also, I want you to know that while yoga is amazing, as well as traditional, transcendental meditation practice, you do not need a guru to teach you, and you do not need to drop thousands of dollars on a fancy retreat to learn the basics. The fact of the matter is you can begin meditating today–right now–by focusing on your breath in a quiet place for 10 minutes, or by using an app on your phone, or by going for long, quiet, walk or run where you enter the “zone”—or even playing a special video game that uses your brain-waves only, via a special headset. If you’re suffering from bouts of rage, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction, obsessive compulsion, attention deficit disorder or are very uncomfortable in social situations, than you can benefit from meditation. Most studies I read say it takes about eight weeks of practice or 11 hours of meditating before actual physical changes start taking place in your gray matter (brain).

In a nutshell, the amygdala starts to shrink in the right hemisphere, as well as the fear-based, fight-or-flight connections between your amygdala and prefrontal cortex begin to weaken. The primal, fight-or-flight response to stress is down-regulated and replaced by higher order, more thoughtful response to stress. That’s the neuroscience. But the time-tested cliché the gurus tell us is that through meditation we learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts. Instead of judging them, we become “witness to them.” They say we can detach from our thoughts and emotions so that we don’t become so consumed by them. I’m not there yet either folks, but again, the gurus say once you learn this, it is very liberating—the most liberating experience you will ever have. It is my understanding we will be less judgmental, experience less anxiety and be able to focus longer and let go of things we cannot control more easily. So I’m giving it a go. I am in week eight.

In all my research for myself and this article, I did realize something encouraging: I was already experiencing meditative-like mental states in various physical activities I had been doing for quite some time. I knew I was very good at focusing under stress. Twenty-plus years of being a military and commercial pilot have sufficiently trained my brain for this familiar situation. Repeated exposure to your stressors is another path to conquer them, but a lot more challenging. Pilot simulator training is a lot like the new Versus performance brain-training video game I recently purchased. Also I slackline about once a week and noticed the same type of clarity of mind that comes with the present-moment focus required during balancing on the line; this is also what one hopes to experience during meditation.

I share this background because it brings me to my next point, which is that some of us are so busy, almost frantically obsessive, or in a constant state of attention deficit, (i.e., most working parents of young kids!), that asking us to sit down to quietly meditate for 20 or even 10 minutes just is not going to happen.

Think of most of the grounded gurus you know of, espousing the virtues of meditation and how it has enlightened them. Do they have young children running around with a spouse who also works full time? No, they don’t. Their life is typically a borderline selfish one, with the luxury of pursuing self-mastery that allows them to focus on themselves. I am here to tell you that there are other non-conventional ways to practice meditation that still provide the same benefits. Many times you can incorporate meditational moments into your solo workouts, especially the longer endurance-type ones among nature. Start simply by becoming aware of your breathing. If you practice yoga, then almost always at the end of class the instructor will allow for time to meditate. But if all else fails, you can begin by downloading an app on your smartphone to be your catalyst. To save you time, Head Space is the best one. All you do is download it and hit open, with some headphones on, alone. It takes 10 minutes and walks you through the exercise, step by step, until you learn how to do it on your own.

Mindfulness is another easy way to get you headed in the right direction. Mindfulness is more like a chosen method of life, where you simply try to become more aware, or mindful, of everything that is going on around you and with you–without judging! That last part is where the challenge lies. You accept and do not judge. Mindfulness is a useful tool when you happen to be trying to lose weight as well. You must be mindful of every food choice you make! Mindfulness helps us be more compassionate as we become more aware of the people around us and what they are experiencing.

Well, I hope you will now go on to explore more about meditation, whether it is the traditional, transcendental based form, or even trying it out with an app on your phone. I do know the time has to be right for you to be ready to try. I will share with you that I basically ignored meditating as a daily beneficial practice in the traditional sense for the first 40 years of my life, even though I was surrounded by people who used it to help them. It wasn’t until I started doing sports psychology research for my daughter, who competes at a very high level, that I discovered how many professional athletes were using meditation of some form or another every day to take their mental game to the next level. The same was true of Navy SEALs and other warriors; they all meditate to some capacity. Their results back it and the science does as well, via MRI scans revealing changes in the brain.

Lastly, I will leave you with a few other leads to explore here in San Diego. Right here in North County’s Encinitas is where former Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, who runs SealFit and US CrossFit, is based. He is also the author of Unbeatable Mind. His book taught me a lot about mental resiliency, and his facility offers daily warrior yoga sessions, meditation, CrossFit workouts and life-changing camps. You should check it out if you are ready for a change and want to tap into your mind’s unlimited potential. Looking for something a little more traditional and a little less testosterone? North County has you covered there, too: Deepak Chopra’s center is located right at the La Costa Resort & Spa, which offers a weekend crash course in meditation. Encinitas also is home to the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, located near our famous Swami’s namesake surf break! What are you waiting for, grasshopper?