Mindfulness is a word heard frequently in the world of health and fitness, and meditation is often touted as a way to achieve a mindful state. More than just a cool way to chill or relax, meditation has scientifically proven physiological benefits.
An eight-week course of meditation shrinks the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with the initiation of the body’s response to stress. Simultaneously, the prefrontal cortex—responsible for concentration, awareness, and decision-making—grows thicker. The brain changes. New neural pathways are established.
Meditation is “mental floss.” Just five minutes a day of sitting down in a quiet room, on a pillow, and contemplating nothing more than the blank wall in front of you is enough to reap the stress-reducing and cognition-enhancing benefits.
But for some, the idea of sitting idly is intimidating and unsexy. Fortunately, there are some alternatives to traditional mindfulness meditation.
The concept behind flotation therapy is simple: If meditation empties the mind of clutter by limiting distraction and increasing focus, what if the mind and body were deprived of almost all sensory input?
Floating takes place in a soundproof, pitch-black tank (or pool) of body-temperature salt water about 10 inches deep. Inside, you disappear in weightlessness. “The Epsom salt solution is so dense that you float, and Epsom salt is skin-sensor neutral, so you lose a physical sense of your body,” says Keri McGinn, owner of Halcyon Floats, a float spa with two Philadelphia locations.
That’s where the mindfulness magic happens—as long as you stay awake. In fact, napping in a float chamber is quite common, and while there’s nothing wrong with a nice snooze, napping is not exactly meditating.
For those awake, the emptiness of a float is profound. Brad Warner, a Zen author, has this to say about emptiness as a primary goal of meditation: “Emptiness is not meaninglessness. Emptiness is that condition which is free from our conceptions and our perceptions. It’s the world as it is before we come along and start complaining about stuff we don’t like.”
Emptiness allows a person to focus almost immediately on mastering the primary skill of meditation: “If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out.”
“Some refer to floating as meditation on steroids,” McGinn says. “In the tank, the extent of mental training to get to the coveted Theta state—where the brain is best in relaxed ‘free flow’—is minimal. Just get through the first few minutes of boredom and a 90-minute float session gives you enough time to get into, and also linger in, the Theta meditative state.”
If floating sounds like meditation, ideally it is. In fact, if you floated every day, your results would likely mirror those of daily meditation. Avoid the siren song of the float-nap and it’s a perfect meditation substitute, to the extent that one can afford it.
Float when you can. It’s amazing. Meditate when you can’t.
Dutch adventurer Wim Hof is all the rage right now in fitness circles. His patented eponymous “method” combines hyperventilation breathing techniques and cold-water exposure through either ice baths or showers.
Hof’s broad claims about the benefits of the method go well beyond mindfulness. Does exposure to extreme cold really trigger hidden reserves of brown adipose tissue to burn fat from the human body? Maybe. But our focus is much narrower: If you train yourself to take daily cold showers, the meditative effects can be stunning.
Tony Federico, vice president of marketing at NaturalForce.com, is a cold-shower aficionado. “Cold water has a way of focusing your attention. This is good medicine for our smartphone-addled brains,” he urges. “Taking cold showers reminds you that it’s not the ‘here’ or ‘there’ that’s difficult— it’s the transition between the two that challenges us.”
While the meditative benefits are significant, when you first transition that shower faucet from warm to cold, your immediate thought when that icy blast hits might not be, Hey, this is great! Something along the lines of, Gaaahhhhh! is more likely.
But that’s the point. Safely find the “edge,” and then expand on it. That “empty” focus on the present is the hallmark of meditation. In a cold shower, it’s there in spades. Work and other outside sources of stress disappear. The “here and now” simplifies.
But go slowly. Progress in cold-water therapy is often measured in seconds. Freak yourself out early on, and you’re likely not going to give it another try.
So, first, do your normal thing in a warm shower. Then turn the water all the way to cold and try to breathe your way through the adventure for as long as you can reasonably handle. Seconds? Minutes? Whatever. Relax. Go slow. Enjoy the ride. Observe the progress.
Tony Federico advises: “You should take cold showers for the same reason that you should make your bed every morning. It’s an easily accessible way to start the day with a win over resistance, fear, and the monkey mind.”
Soundbaths are one of the newer additions to the world of mindfulness options. Jamie Bechtold of The Soundbath Center in Los Angeles describes a soundbath as “an experience in which multiple gongs and singing bowls are played in a specific manner in order to promote relaxation, focus, and a general feeling of well-being, enveloping participants in the sounds.”
Much like flotation, a soundbath lends itself to meditation as long as the user stays awake and focuses on the present moment. Bechtold admits: “Of course, some people just fall asleep! In order to get the most out of it, we encourage people to stay present and focus on some aspect of the experience, the sound, the feeling in their body, their breath, etc. Without a conscious focus, it’s not a meditation.”
But with that focus—and often an eye-mask to block out visual input—Bechtold says that a soundbath has the ability to transition the user into a Theta brainwave state that mirrors a meditative one.
Or, as Tony Federico puts it: “You hear the sound. You feel the vibration. You experience the present. Where cold showers cleanse the mind, soundbaths cleanse the spirit.”
You head out for a walk, headphones on, talking on the phone or surfing the Internet. Are you mindful?
What if you got rid of the technology and just walked? Making a conscious decision to only think about the present moment, right in front of you. So … the birds, the grass, the sunshine? Yes! Boss, deadlines, kids’ soccer game, dance recital? No.
The classic meditation tome Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind tells us that “walking, standing, sitting, and lying down” are the postures of a meditation practice. In fact, the notion of walking as a meditation alternative is actually a bit of a Zen trick. Walking, if done mindfully, with present focus, is meditation.
Obviously, location is critical. Inner peace won’t be found on Fifth Avenue. But a quiet hiking trail is perfect. Some guides to walking-meditation even suggest merely traversing the same quiet area back and forth for 10 minutes, focusing on breath and the intricate details of movement—the lifting and placing of the foot, for instance.
But wherever you choose to take a meditative walk, the key, as with all mindfulness practices, is to direct your entire focus on the present moment.
It has been written, “Your state of mind is the most important factor in the outcome of your life.” Mindfulness practices may not all be created equal, but they are all worth trying. Embrace the ones that work, and move past the ones that don’t. As a wise band once sang, “Don’t get tangled up trying to be free.”
Additional Tips and Tidbits
- Flotation tanks are, necessarily, a bit more claustrophobic than flotation rooms, which are more open-air. But the former are more soundproof and lightproof, and both allow for easy entrance and exit.
- The high magnesium content of the Epsom salts in a flotation spa provides an added physiological benefit beyond the meditative bliss of a float.
- Cold showers are not particularly conducive to the lathering of soap or shampoo, so many practitioners prefer to get clean with warm water before transitioning to a cold finish.
- What constitutes “cold” water varies considerably based on one’s location. A mountain town like Boulder, Colorado, is far more likely to provide icy water at the coldest shower setting than, say, Austin, Texas, where an ice bath might be a better alternative.
- Soundbaths not only promote a meditative state, but also often have a physical “sound massage” type of effect when the acoustics of the room allow the person receiving the soundbath to feel the vibrations of the gongs and bowls.
- Walking-meditation can take place indoors or out. The key is quiet reflection.
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