ROAD TEST: Calm The (Brain)storm
I’ve tried many approaches in the pursuit of a stress-free life. As a child of the tech generation, my life is one of constant planning, trying to balance the intricacies of life, work and a burgeoning social life in this “I’m so busy” day and age. So when I was first approached with the idea that an app, of all things, could help ease some of that stress, I was skeptical to say the least. After all, it’s streaming out of the very device that we’re told to stay away from past a certain time of night. And how could sitting down and breathing possibly help when I have a million things to tick off my to-do list?
Pushing all pre-conceived notions aside, I delved a little deeper into the world of meditation and discovered a host of scientifically backed evidence proving the benefits of this zen approach to life. Besides the numerous health advantages, what stood out was the positive effect it had on athletes and how they train and prepare for competitions.
As any sportsperson can attest to, the biggest battle is the one that goes on inside your head. At the top of any sport is a 90% mind and a 10% physical capability split. The mind plays the biggest role in the wining edge, so it comes as no surprise that meditation is used by thousands of top athletes around the world to give them that edge.
Renowned Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, has been using meditation for years with his players – and he won 11 NBA championships, namely with one of the most revered sportspeople of all time, Michael Jordan. Days after NFL champions Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014 in a nearly flawless performance, it came to light that their head coach, Pete Carroll, encouraged all his athletes to meditate and even hired a sports psychologist to teach team members mindfulness exercises. Deena Kastor, Olympic Bronze Medalist and American record holding marathon runner, revealed that she has been practicing meditation for more than two decades.
Luckily for us mortal beings, the price of sports psychologists doesn’t need to be included in monthly budgets. Not-for-profit organisation 1 Giant Mind has created a free ‘Learn to Meditate’ smartphone app that aims to inspire millions around the world to take up meditation and live more fulfilling lives, free from the negative impacts of stress.
The natural state of our minds is like a drunk monkey: curious, easily distracted, and a little sloppy. Jonni Pollard, creator of 1 Giant Mind has a surprisingly simple solution to this dilemma. “When your mind wanders, gently recognise that you’re away from the breath and focus your attention back to the breathing. Inhale, exhale,” he says. “Distractions are totally normal and it is imperative not to force the meditation practice.”
In 2014, according to the Stress and Wellbeing Survey of Australia by the Australian Psychological Society, one in four Australians reported moderate to severe levels of distress; almost two in five Australians reported experiencing
some depression symptoms; and more than one quarter of Australians reported experiencing at least some anxiety symptoms, with 13% reporting severe to extremely severe levels. On top of that, a whopping 72% of Australians say stress has an impact on their physical health.
The stats may seem daunting but Pollard believes the app will set a new benchmark in helping to alleviate anxiety and depression related health issues. “We have made learning to meditate easier than ever before, and after completing the 12 sessions, you will know exactly how to meditate and be experiencing great benefits immediately that will support reduction of stress and increase happiness and mindfulness,” says Pollard.
The benefits of meditation have been well documented, from increased immune function, better brain function and improved emotional resilience and stability, to greater energy and vitality and feelings of happiness and wellbeing. However, it isn’t just the mind that gains the benefit of meditation. With the right technique, meditation enables the muscular system to recover rapidly through activating the relaxation response. It also helps to cope with pain – high endurance sports (triathlon included) do a number on your body and meditation has been shown to help people cope with pain. Alongside that, meditation is also known to strengthen the immune system. The outcome is simple – if an athlete is sick they can’t perform or compete, so it makes perfect sense to help prevent an outcome that could put you out of business for a while.
Of course, the goal is to obtain a sense of clarity, but expecting the mind to become blank the moment you sit to meditate is akin to expecting a six-pack the first time you complete some crunches. The mind, like the body, must be trained, and like any type of workout, meditation takes discipline. The gains however, are plenty.
As a fairly active person, I saw the app as a challenge. Could I quieten the mind in a mere 15 minutes each time? I can do anything I set my mind to, right? After all, I’m a regular yoga class devotee, breathing and meditation is a central part of my workout! Unsurprisingly, my mind had other plans.
My first foray into the world of app-fuelled meditation saw me sailing through the first 15-minute session in a relaxed and happy manner. I was distracted a few times but managed to stay on course despite some shallow breathing refusing to leave the party (hey anxiety, I think it’s time for you to go home!). Subsequent attempts resulted in my mind wandering off to planning meetings and other work commitments, but luckily I was able to return to the moment and enjoy the relaxing park setting I had chosen for this particular session. I was getting the hang of this so quickly!
Nothing like taking things to the next level to bring you back to reality. The next session had external noises and inner voices joining forces to create the ultimate distraction, and there was a fair bit of effort involved going back to the mantra (the app provides you with one, however you’re free to choose another if you’d like). I left that session feeling like I had lost that round – an astute reminder that you can’t win it all and sometimes, you just have to let go, move on and focus on the next step. With that thought in mind and renewed vigour for combatting difficulties, the following sessions were a step up from the previous ones – my mind wandered but there was no judgement involved; a pivotal part of the meditation process. I wrapped it up feeling rejuvenated, relaxed, happy and focused on tackling the next task with ease – otherwise known as meditation success!
Although there’s no question that champions in any sport attribute their wins to great leadership, intense training, and pure athletic talent, the top players also recognise the power of meditation. Over the course of a few weeks, it was apparent that the results of my mid-work day ‘zen’ break did wonders for my mental well-being: there was a sense of calm, an awareness of my surroundings, and an overall feeling of clarity and stability. You can bet I’ll be continuing this positivity streak in the months to come.
The 1 Giant Mind meditation app is available at the App Store and Google Play. The free app includes video, Q&A, meditation journal, library and a 30-day challenge. Visit www.1giantmind.org for more information.