Research has shown that meditation helps older adults deal with stress and sharpen their minds. Priya Kulasagaran speaks to people about how they incorporate the practice in their daily lives.
Meditation may bring up images of highly spiritual people, but it actually has very practical benefits, particularly for senior citizens.
While the concept is not a new one to Asians, scientific studies have proven that meditation can improve both physical and mental health.
In the late 1960’s, Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard University’s Medical School conducted scientific studies to test the health benefits of meditation.
He determined that meditation could be used successfully in treating physiological problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and migraine headaches, as well as autoimmune diseases such as diabetes and arthritis.
As they meditated, he found that his test subjects’ heartbeats and breathing had slowed, and their brains had increased in alpha activity, which is a sign of relaxation.
Dr Benson also found that meditation was helpful in stopping or slowing obsessive thinking, anxiety, depression, and hostility.
More recent studies have found that meditation practices could also help with improving the quality of sleep.
One such study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015, tested 49 people who were at least 55 years old and had moderately disturbed sleep – the group which practised meditation reported a marked improvement in their sleep after practising meditation for just six weeks.
Yet another study carried out by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation decreased loneliness among those aged 55 to 85.
The same researchers found that the mindfulness meditation had positive effects on the study participants’ health, namely in reducing “inflammation-related genes”, which contribute to illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.
Siew Mei Lin, 66, said she started practising regular meditation after going for tai chi sessions at her neighbourhood park.
“My husband and I initially used to go just once a week, and it was more to meet other like-minded people as well.
“We then decided to try it out more often, just taking some time to meditate at home every day; I felt so much more energised and at peace after just two weeks.
“These days, I still go for tai chi, but I try to meditate at least once a day for 15 minutes,” she said.
Dev Abraham, 61, says he has meditated “off and on” throughout his life, and initially found it difficult.
“When I started I couldn’t believe how chaotic my mind was!
“But with regular practice, and age, it got easier, and I definitely see the results of it.
“The main benefits I experience from meditation are reducing stress, including a deep physical relaxation which can be quite invigorating.
“It also gives me a calmer and clearer perspective of my life situation, and I don’t get upset about trivial things,” he says.
Meditation is not religious in itself, nor does one need to belong to a certain faith to practise meditation.
However, some like Rohana Naim, 58, find that combining their beliefs and spirituality with mindfulness a helpful form of meditation.
“What changed for me was to be a lot more mindful when I carry out my prayers.
“Even before I pray, I focus on calming my mind, and being in the present – this prepares me to just focus on performing the actual prayers.
“That slight shift has made a world of difference; I feel more in touch with myself and God,” she says.
Having practised meditation for over 20 years, S. Jayanthi, 63, says that first step is to get into a comfortable position.
“Many people think you have to be in a ‘fancy’ cross-legged position on the floor, but let’s face it, some of us at our age might not be able to get up again.
“An easy position to start with is to sit in a chair with your spine upright and straight, and with your feet flat on the floor.
“You can put your arms can be in your lap and have the palms facing up in a relaxed position,” she says.
The next step is to relax your body, usually starting at the feet first, close your eyes, and begin to take deep breaths.
“Breathe in through your nose and envision the breath coming up through your nose, rising through the top of your head, and then down through your belly.
“By focusing on your breath, you can help quieten the mind,” says Jayanthi.
She adds that many beginners want to give up after a couple of minutes because they have trouble clearing their mind.
“It’s completely natural for your mind to wander, but don’t be too hard on yourself.
“Just gently draw your thoughts back to your breathing, and eventually that focus will keep other distractions at bay.
“You have to commit to not giving up right away in order for that to happen though,” she says.
Some recommend having a specific time of day and location to meditate.
“Meditating at a particular time of day every time will help you develop a routine,” says Jayanthi.
“Plus, meditating in the same place will help train the brain and cue it to be prepared to focus on the present the minute you enter the space.
“Developing these habits will make it easier to maintain regular practise – even if it’s just five minutes – and work your way up to longer meditation sessions.”
Meditation in motion
Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion” because of its slow and gentle movements.
The mind-body exercise has its origins in China, and was initially used a practice for martial arts and self-defence.
Over time, it has been shown that tai chi has certain health benefits, particularly among older adults.
There are different styles of tai chi, the simplest of which uses 12 movements, while more complex styles may have over 100 different movements.
No matter the style, each movement flows into the next, the entire body always in motion, with the movements performed gently.
As one moves, they focus on breathing deeply and naturally, turning their attention to their body.
Similarly, walking meditation involves very deliberating thinking about and doing a series of actions that you normally do automatically.
Breaking these steps down in your mind may feel awkward, but the main point is to notice at least four basic components of each step; the lifting of one foot; the moving of the foot a bit forward of where you are standing; the placing of the foot on the floor, heal first; the shifting of the weight of the body onto the forward leg as the back heel lifts.
You can practice walking meditation either indoors or outside in nature, since the goal is not to reach a specific destination, just to practice a very intentional form of walking.
Practitioners of this form of meditation say that you should try to focus your attention on sensations that you normally take for granted: such as your breath coming in and out of your body, the movement of your feet and legs, or whatever you see in your line of vision.
“I find that I’m a lot more relaxed when I am surrounded by greenery,” says Steven Lai, 73.
“I could never sit still long enough to meditate, so my daughter recommended that I try walking instead.
“By applying basic meditation techniques to my daily walks, I’ve been able to keep my mind calm and still while my body is moving.”
What to keep in mind when practising meditation
- Focus on one thing: Focusing on your breathing or repeating the same word will help with keeping your thoughts from wandering.
- Ignore the clock: Sit quietly, focus on your breathing and repeat a calming thought for as long as you are comfortable doing so. Don’t think of it as a race to meditate as long as possible.
- Don’t feel discouraged if you get distracted: Don’t worry if you start thinking of everyday distractions. Just gently bring your focus back to your breathing or calming word.
- Be consistent: If you can’t sit still for any period of time without feeling guilty it is okay to meditate wherever you are. Just keep at it.
- Focus: It’s okay if you keep having to redirect yourself. The long-term goal is to learn how to quiet your mind and steer your thoughts away from the everyday stresses of life.