With commentary by Gerald Bernstein, MD, coordinator of the diabetes program at Lenox Hill Hopsital, New York, and former president of the American Diabetes Association.
As I approached the doorway of my first mindfulness meditation class, I was a little uneasy. Could I sit still and silent for this 90-minute class? After all, I never made it through those Catholic school silent retreats successfully.
Whatever your educational history, you may have the same uneasiness about jumping on the mindfulness meditation bandwagon, despite the numerous benefits it promises for weight control and lowering stress and blood glucose, to name a few.
Relax. You'll be fine! As I quickly found out, it's a ''start where you're at,'' ''progress at your own pace'' phenomenon. You can't do it wrong. And there's no magic number when it comes to how much time you devote to mindfulness. The class I signed up for met for 8 weeks, 90 minutes at a time (which included instruction and addressing student quetions). You might want to start out with just 5 (heck, even 2) minutes per day. And who can't find a few minutes a day to improve their overall health?
A few pointers on how to get started, how to stick with it, and how to mindfully appreciate its benefits.
"Take small steps multiple times ... think drops in a bucket," says Pamela Weiss, 52, a San Francisco executive coach, teacher of mindfulness meditation and long-time practitioner. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 11, she began meditating at age 27, after hearing about its benefits. To start, she says, ''five minutes a day is great." Getting in that brief amount of time consistently, she says, is better than saying you'll meditate an hour a week—and never getting to it. (My teacher was even ok with a two-minute session.)
In mindfulness meditation, techniques vary, but basically you find a quiet spot, close your eyes and focus on the breath. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.
Classes in mindfulness are plentiful, but so is online help and guidance. To find online or on-ground programs, check Weiss' site, Appropriate Response, the American Mindfulness Research Association and the University of California Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center.
However, group instruction is ideal in some ways, says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. "If you go through an extended program, there is more support," she says. In one study, British researchers found that participants wanting to lose weight lost more weight in a class setting teaching mindfulness meditation than in doing it individually.
If you choose a class, having a good connection with the instructor is important, says Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, assistant professor at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, who recently published a study on the value of mindful eating. "We found differences in mindfulness instructors," she says. When participants rated their instructors as more helpful, they lost significantly more weight than those participants who rated their teachers as less helpful, she says.
Everyone has distractions when trying to mediate. Just focus on the goal, says Watson: ''Paying attention to our present moment experience with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.'' When distractions occur, bring your attention back to the breath and the goal.
Mindfulness meditation is about ''interrupting our strong, habitual responses to stimulation," Daubenmier says. That includes our reactions to food, pain, seeing other people and feeling anxious, and a host of other responses, she says.
Once you are getting the hang, Winston encourages people to work up to 15 or 20 minutes daily. "But it has to fit into their lives.''
You can practice becoming more mindful not only during your formal meditation sessions, but also as you go about your daily activities, according to experts at the Cleveland Clinic. To do so, devote your full attention to what you are doing, such as your commute, a conversation with a friend or the laundry.
How soon might you notice the effects of mindfulness meditation? One study found brain changes after 8 weeks of mindfulness training. Those changes are in areas involved in learning, memory, taking perspective of things and regulating emotions.
Meditation has ''transformed my whole life," Weiss says. "I would say on one level it helps me stay calm and stabilized and brings a kind of balance to my mind, my emotions and my physiology, which includes my diabetes."
With that inner calm can come many health benefits, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, coordinator of the Friedman Diabetes Program at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, and past president of the American Diabetes Association. In particular, he says, you are ''taking away the stress factors that contribute to elevating blood sugar.'' Taking away stress, he says, can help those with diabetes ''in the same way that exercise and lifestyle adjustments do.''
In the midst of a busy day with patients, Bernstein would request his calls be held. "I would look at a spot on an abstract painting [in my office]," he says. Five minutes later, he went back to work, feeling like he had a fresh start, he says.
Me? I finished the 8-week class, notice more calmness, and I'm up to 5 minutes a day, most days.