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The Fat Girl's Guide to Meditation, Part 1
Posted by Toni in Health + Beauty
Toni in her happy place by LonnaS

For years I've been both drawn and resistant to meditation. Drawn to it because "grace under pressure" is not in my dictionary, and while my life is satisfying, it's full to the brim with three boys, a marriage, a home, and a career. But I've resisted the idea of sitting still without either being productive or soaking up new information. Add to that my recurring worry one of my kids will burst into the room while I'm meditating to inform me they'd jammed something down a toilet or up an ear canal, and I gave up before I ever started.

But this year's stressful events - loved ones lost, recurring health issues, freelance woes - led to an increasing inability to focus or maintain my productivity. After picking up the fascinating Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winnifred Gallagher and seeing several references linking meditation to both concentration and well-being, I decided to give it a shot.

I asked Kate Hanley, a yoga teacher and writer to tackle this topic for The Fat Girl's Guide. Author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide and founder of MsMindbody.com, Kate has this way of coaxing woo-woo topics down to earth where we average humans can put them to good use.

This week, Kate shares what meditation involves and how it can benefit us fat girls. Next week, we'll get into how-to's and resources to get you started on . . . doing nothing.

FGG: Care to bust any myths about meditation for people who have never tried it?

The first myth I'd like to blast is that in order to meditate, you must sit absolutely still and endure physical and mental pain in order to meditate properly. You can meditate while you're washing the dishes, taking a walk, or keeping an eye on your kids at the playground. You do need to set an intention to stay focused on something—whether it's your breath, the physical sensations you experience, or a particular word or phrase—while you're doing these activities in order for them to qualify as meditation, but you certainly don't need to lock yourself away and punish yourself to be a full-fledged meditator.

I will admit that it can feel like not much is happening on the spiritual development front when you meditate—whether you're sitting quietly or engaging in a simple task. My favorite meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, said it best, "Even when you think nothing is happening, it is." Whether you're a beginner or an old hand, there will be days where it seems all you do is get off track and get caught up in some daydream or thought stream and you completely forget your chosen focus again and again. But even on those days, the act of recognizing that you've gotten waylaid and making the conscious choice to redirect your focus is teaching you one of the most important meditation and life skills there is—the ability to forgive yourself for any lapses and to simply start again. Being aware enough to notice when you've lost your way, kind enough not to beat yourself up about it, and trusting enough to get going again will help you in every single area of your life.

My favorite excuse I've ever heard from someone who was doubtful about the benefits of meditation is, "I don't have time to not think—my thoughts are too important." First, the goal of meditation is not to completely stop thinking. Which is a good thing, because this is an impossible goal--you can never completely shut off your thoughts. It is the nature of the conscious mind to churn out running commentary, judgments, observations, and non sequitors. All meditation can do is give you the chance to objectively observe these thoughts so that you can see that just because you think something, it doesn't mean it's the Truth. It helps you stop being ruled by the constant chatter in your mind, which is frequently the source of those annoying little voices that tell you you're not good enough for whatever reason. Second, once you start to pay attention to your thoughts, they don't have to work so hard to get your attention. They get a little quieter, come a little slower, and their power over you begins to fade. When that constant chit chat dies down a little bit, you can hear the deeper, truer wisdom that is generally drowned out by the blather. The flashes of insight you are privy to when you meditate are worth more than six million of your everyday, ho-hum, "I'm hungry but I shouldn't eat the cookie but oh what the hell" thoughts.

FGG: In what ways does meditation help our physical health and well-being?

KH: A major way meditation gives a boost to your well-being is it helps you disengage from the drama, whatever your particular drama du jour may be. When you learn how to become a witness to your thoughts, you automatically also learn how not to become swept up in them. That means when your co-worker is pushing your buttons, you may still get upset, but you have the tools to recognize that your attention is getting swept up in something unpleasant and to refocus on something calming, such as your breath. It can also help you disassociate from self-sabotaging thoughts. When you recognize that your inner ball-breaker is starting to squawk, you can learn to consciously observe those thoughts and then let them go.

There is a substantial amount of research enumerating the many physiological benefits of meditation. German researchers have found that regular practice actually changes the structure of the brain, causing increases to the areas responsible for assessing our physical state, regulating our attention, mitigating knee-jerk reactions, and helping us feel connected to others. If you're overweight, this can mean that you'll develop more awareness of when you're truly hungry and when your desire to eat is being triggered by an uncomfortable emotion. It will also provide you some tools to use to handle those uncomfortable emotions.

Meditating also releases neurotransmitters—chemical messengers of the nervous system—that improve mood, promote self-awareness, and reduce the physiological symptoms of stress (which also lowers your risk of developing chronic diseases that are triggered or exacerbated stress, which is basically every chronic disease out there, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and IBS). It has been shown to have a big impact on psychological woes such as depression and anxiety, and to lessen insomnia. Honestly, what's not to love?

What's not to love, indeed! Stay tuned for next week's Fat Girl's Guide to meditation, where Kate returns to share basic techniques and some cool tools to get you going. Meanwhile, if you have any questions or experiences you'd like to share, let us know in the comments. Thanks, Kate!