Soul Sessions by CreativeMind

Ann Swanson on The Neuroscience of Meditation

February 13, 2024 Debra Berndt Maldonado and Robert Maldonado PhD Life Coach Training and Personal Transformation Experts Season 8 Episode 199
Soul Sessions by CreativeMind
Ann Swanson on The Neuroscience of Meditation
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Do you meditate? We interview Ann Swanson, best-selling author of “Science of Yoga” and “Meditation for the Real World.” Whether you are an avid meditator or just curious about the practice, this episode dives deep into the neuroscience of meditation and its multitude of benefits.

In this episode, Ann shares her insightful journey into the practices of yoga and meditation, taking us from her initial struggles to profound experiences studying in China and India. We'll explore groundbreaking techniques for managing panic attacks, the power of visualization and Ann’s personal encounters with meditation's vast capabilities for enhancing mental and physical health.

Ann reveals neuroscience research highlighting the transformative benefits of consistent meditation and yoga, including the remarkable work of Dr. Sarah Lazar. We'll discuss how these ancient practices are being validated by modern science to combat lifestyle diseases, foster neuroplasticity, and support cardiovascular and cellular health.

Also discussed in this episode:

• The immediate and long-term effects of meditation on the brain
• The difference between mindfulness and meditation
• Meditation in both secular and spiritual contexts
• Does consistent meditation dissolve the ego?

Get Ann Swanson's new book, “Meditation for the Real World:” https://www.annswansonwellness.com/meditation-for-the-real-world

•••

Interested in Jungian Life Coaching? Download your free program brochure: https://www.creativemindlife.com/program-brochure

Stay Connected with Debra and Dr. Rob:
Instagram | LinkedIn | YouTube | Facebook | creativemindlife.com | connect@creativemindmethod.com

INTRO  00:00

Welcome to CreativeMind Soul Sessions with Debra Berndt Maldonado and Dr. Rob Maldonado, founders of CreativeMind. Explore personal growth with us through Jungian psychology, Eastern spirituality, and social neuroscience in a deep, practical way. Let's begin. 


Debra Maldonado  00:25 

Do you like meditation? Do you want to learn more about it? Good news. We have an incredible guest on this week's podcast. Her name is Ann Swanson. She's a mind-body science educator and certified yoga therapist. She's the author of Science of Yoga and her newest book, Meditation for the Real World. Before we begin, I do want to remind you to click here to subscribe to get every episode on our channel, if you're watching us on YouTube. If you're listening to us on Spotify, iTunes or other podcast services, don’t forget to subscribe so you can get access to all these incredible interviews. Without further ado, I'd love for you to meet Ann Swanson and her interview with Dr. Rob.


Robert Maldonado  01:08

We're here with Ann Swanson, author of Meditation for the Real World. Welcome to the podcast.


Ann Swanson  01:16

Thank you so much. It's so great to be here, Dr. Rob.


Robert Maldonado  01:19

You're welcome. Good to see you. Where do you live?


Ann Swanson  01:22

I live in Hawaii. I wish I could flip the camera around right now so you can see I have an ocean view. That's what I'm looking at. But the lighting is better on me this way.


Robert Maldonado  01:35

We’re right outside of DC. It's cold today, as usual. Welcome to the podcast. I know you, like we were saying earlier, from Science of Yoga, great book that almost every yogi knows and has it on their shelf.


Ann Swanson  02:07

It's been five years since that came out.


Robert Maldonado  02:09

It's been a while. But now you got a book coming out called Meditation for the Real World.


Ann Swanson  02:18

I'm so excited. It's by the same publisher, DK, so you know it's gonna be beautiful. They really prioritize illustrations, they didn’t slack on this one. I worked with a New York Times and New Yorker illustrator, Michelle Mildenberg Lara. She did these gorgeous, relaxing illustrations that create a mood, the color scheme. It's a very different vibe than the other book. But it's still just a beautiful book to have on your nightstand or on your coffee table.


Robert Maldonado  02:55

It's a perfect segue, because in the yoga tradition, the asanas come first, which prepares the body for the actual work of meditation to go deeper into the mind.


Ann Swanson  03:10

I hadn't thought about how my book career mimics that. I wonder what's next, maybe something on enlightenment. Certainly working on that one.


Robert Maldonado  03:22

It's great, because the journey is towards the higher self. Let's get into the book. I have so many questions. There's so much good content in this book. Let's hear a little bit about your background. How did you get interested in yoga, meditation? How did you become what you are today?


Ann Swanson  03:49

Like many people, I came to yoga because I was stressed, anxious and dealing with chronic pain since I was a teenager. I came to yoga to solve those problems. At first I wasn't into the whole meditation part of it, I’d lie in shivasana and be like “It's time to go, I already did the practice, I'm ready to go, I have things to do.” It did take me a while to warm up to it. But I think a lot of people come for physical practice and how it's going to affect them, how they know it's going to affect them. I spent years practicing yoga and tai chi, chi gong, the mind body practices, and obviously getting more and more used to meditation. When ‘d go to many classes, they wouldn't stick but every once in a while, they’d do a technique, and I'm like “That one works for me.” For example, when you're in shivasana and squeeze your muscles all one by one, each area, and then release, it’s called progressive muscle relaxation. I talk about that in this book. When you do that before going into a meditation or shivasana, I found that I can really relax, I can go into a deeper state. I slowly started to get deeper into the practice, as I think many of us do. Eventually, I ended up, when I graduated from college, going to China. I bought a one way ticket to China, it was the recession, there weren't as many jobs here, there were tons of jobs there. I went there to teach English at a college, I had been studying Chinese also. I was super depressed. It was gray, it was gloomy, I was isolated. I started doing more and more yoga, more and more tai chi in the parks. I started to feel that impact for myself. Then I decided I'm gonna get a teacher training in this. I ended up doing my yoga teacher training in Shanghai, half of it was in Chinese. I had to do my tests often Chinese. Then half of it was in English with Indian teachers. The Indian teachers convinced me to go to India right from China. This led me to India to study for my advanced teacher training. I also studied with my teacher there, yogi Shiva Das, sound healing and a variety of other modalities, Vedic massage. I left there knowing I wanted to dive deeper into this. I thought the way to dive deeper is to become a scientist, become a doctor, physical therapist, then you'll be able to be the best yoga teacher there is. I did the pre-med course load, I took all the classes in chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. I worked in a cadaver lab, I became a massage therapist inspired by this time in India. From here, I decided as I was applying to schools, maybe med school, PT school isn’t my path. I heard about this semester of science and yoga therapy and was like “That's what I want to be doing.” I'm so glad I took all those science courses, because they prepared me to write this book, Science of Yoga. I ended up getting a Master of Science in yoga therapy. From there, getting the book Science of Yoga.


Robert Maldonado  07:23

What a journey, incredible. I was first introduced to yoga pretty young. A friend of mine, we were still in high school, around that age, he had gone to Austin, I was living in Texas at that time. One of the Hari Krishnas had given him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. He said “I wasn't interested but when I saw the book, I thought about you”, because he knew I was interested in meditation, yoga, all that. He brought me the book. I started to read more about the philosophy of meditation and yoga, and was fascinated. Since then, I always kept it in the back of my mind, I'm going to practice one day and learn, it's so important. I ended up in graduate school, going into psychology, lost my way for a while. Like you, it was the pain that brought me back to yoga and meditation. I started getting cramps in my leg, the doctors couldn't figure out what it was. But I went to my local yoga studio. Sure enough, they helped me out. Just by practicing, they went away. I knew this was a powerful system. In the book, you talk a lot about different types of meditation. What's a good definition for the everyday person to understand how to define meditation?


Ann Swanson  09:18

First, I'm going to say it's not stopping your thoughts. People think “I'm not good at meditation, because my mind wanders too much. I can't stop my thoughts. I've tried it. I'm not good. It's not for me.” That's not what it is, it actually has several steps. Let's see if I could pull up a diagram here in the book that illustrates it, because it’s a cycle. In the book, I have this diagram that shows what meditation is. We start by coming to the class, the teacher tells us to focus our attention, like focus your attention on your breathing, for example. Then what's gonna happen, eventually you're going to stop paying attention to your breathing, you're going to have spontaneous thoughts, your mind’s going to wander, it's inevitable. That's part of meditation. You're gonna become aware of that thought. If the thought was “What am I going to eat later today?”, you're going to determine that it's not that important, you should redirect back to your focal point, which the teacher said was the breath. The cycle continues. This is the cycle of meditation. That's what meditation is, it's learning how to redirect your attention back. It's like a muscle that gets stronger the more you practice it, the more reps you put in, just like exercising. It's actually not a muscle, that's just an analogy. It's neural networks in your brain that are changing their activity. We’re working to strengthen the neural networks that are involved with paying attention, focusing, being emotionally regulated and then to dampen or turn down the networks involved in me mind wandering off to other things when you're supposed to be focusing. We're turning those down. The more you practice, the better you get at it. But even the most advanced meditators, their mind wanders, you have to remember it's a process. This helps us have a little more self compassion when we do it.


Robert Maldonado  11:48

It’d be a pretty daunting task, if it was about stopping your thoughts and going through that to force your mind to stop thinking. That would be difficult. I love this definition. It's more of being aware, directing your awareness, the practice of placing your awareness in a certain way or in a certain place.


Ann Swanson  12:20

It's a relaxed way. It's not a “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it wrong,” putting pressure on yourself, judging yourself for not getting it, it’s a relaxed way. If your mind wanders, know that it's natural, say “It's okay.” Come back, this is an opportunity to practice coming back. That's a part of the meditation cycle.


Robert Maldonado  12:41

You mentioned some of the benefits. I know there's a lot of research and you present some of it here. But in general, what are the benefits of meditation, especially if you’re doing it as a practice on a regular basis, what can we expect?


Ann Swanson  13:07

I like how you break it down to the regular basis, because there's immediate benefits you get and there is the long-term benefits. That's where we have a lot of evidence emerging of the long-term benefits. The immediate benefit is you'll notice your heart rate go down, your blood pressure immediately will go down as you go through a practice, you’re immediately having changes in hormone levels released in your brain and your bloodstream. That's immediate, it can last for long-term to you. Actually, some of the research shows that we have immediate immune boosting effects from a five minute meditation they saw before and after increases, something that helps to trap invaders. It's called secretory immunoglobulin A SIgA. Just from five minutes of practice, we can increase the amount of this. The participants went up to 140%. That shows that your immune system is functioning better. It was just in five minutes, and it lasted for the whole day, for hours later for many of the participants. We see immediate changes in our biochemistry. Additionally, we have electrical changes that are immediate. Right now, we're conversing, or if you're listening to this, you're thinking about what I'm talking about and you're in beta brainwaves, you are thinking, evaluating. Then when we meditate, we go into a relaxed brainwave of alpha brainwaves. Meditation can also bring us into theta brainwaves which are associated with creative thinking, often children are in that brainwave pattern. Some meditation styles can bring us, recent research shows, into the delta waves which is usually only seen in deep sleep. You may be getting the benefits of deep sleep while you're awake and alert, to be aware of your awareness. These are the immediate benefits. I'll let you go, then maybe I'll talk about the long term benefits after that, if you have any comments or questions.


Robert Maldonado  15:18

That piece, what you mentioned about kids, that's so important. There's so many kids with ADHD and attention and learning problems, would this be beneficial for them?


Ann Swanson  15:37

I have a whole section in the book on how to meditate with your kids, techniques you can use with your kids. For teenagers, the whole book is appropriate because they have the mindset and the ability to read more like an adult. You could have them do any of the meditations in the book, for anxiety, or sleep, or depression, or whatever the issue might be. There's even meditations in there for the social anxiety you feel when you go to a party, or for the overwhelm you feel after you've been scrolling, or zombie scrolling through social media. It could be a really great book for teenagers. For kids to learn emotional regulation early is really great. There's some things you can even do with toddlers to help them notice their feelings that are in the book, to help them observe what's up with my emotions, and then how do I regulate them through my breath.


Robert Maldonado  16:37

If the mom or dad are also meditating, they're communicating that peaceful mindset to the child as well.


Ann Swanson  16:49

To live by example, when you're feeling disregulated, do the same techniques you're showing them. One really easy one that is fun to do with kids because it's tactile is when you're feeling disregulated, you're overwhelmed, cover your right nostril and breathe through your left nostril. Take slow breaths, take a few slow breaths, you could say “Let's take three deep, slow breaths together through the left nostril.” Breathing is associated, according to the yogis, but also we've seen it in some research studies, especially coming out of India, it can help us feel more relaxed and go into parasympathetic nervous system state. Then, of course, the slow breathing and taking a moment to be still. Something tactile could be really helpful for them to just take a moment and check in.


INTERMISSION  17:45

Are you looking for a satisfying career as a life coach? If you are seeking a deeper path of training and growth, CreativeMind University offers an ICF accredited life coach training program that goes beyond surface positive thinking and into a powerful process of real transformation. You can start your new career as a certified life coach trained in a unique methodology based on Jungian theory, Eastern spirituality, and social neuroscience. Get the tools to become your true self, change your life and the lives of others. Visit creativemindlife.com, click on Apply, and speak with one of our team members today to discuss your future and possibilities of becoming a certified life coach. That's creativemindlife.com.


Robert Maldonado  18:41

That's one of the things I noticed in the book. This yoga and meditation system, of course, is ancient, it goes back thousands of years. But science is catching up to it, understanding that they understood these principles long time ago, they knew how to self regulate, there was a way to work with the mind and the body in a conscious way, where the conscious mind is directing even the autonomic nervous system, which in the West was thought to be completely working on its own, unconsciously. It seems through meditation and concentration we can regulate those aspects of our body mind body.


Ann Swanson  19:37

Neuroscience is just catching up. Neuroscience is like space travel. There's so much to explore. We know this tiny bit compared to how much there is to learn and discover. The science is actually moving quite fast. For this book, Meditation for the Real World, I worked with with Harvard neuroscientist, Dr. Sarah Lazar, she's a researcher who's done a lot of really cool MRI scans and long-term research studies, a lot of groundbreaking studies on meditation and yoga. She advised for it, and some of the things I learned even just five years ago, she's like “That's a little out of date. US neuroscientists aren’t talking about it anymore. We're more talking about these networks. This is what we're more interested in.” It's really moving quite fast. That's where I really wanted to have the most up to date science in the book, because we're discovering so much. What the ancient yogis intuitively knew and what you can feel and discover through practice. Yogis can do extraordinary feats, like change the temperature of their hand in one area, but keep the other area cold. These things that we can measure are lightweight. How did you do that? That's the autonomic nervous system. Of course, we may never get to that point, unless we're a monk, but to be able to change your emotions, your neurochemicals, your focus just like that, through some breath work, changing the focus point you're having through a meditation practice, to get these immediate results. That's quite magical that can change your life. Many people say, not only did meditation changed my life, it saved my life. That's how I feel.


Robert Maldonado  21:40

I had a similar experience about 20 years ago. I had struggled with depression for a long time in my life. Around 20 years ago, it was a particularly hard time for me. I was pretty concerned about my mental state of mind. I was in Denver at that time, I just moved there. There was a little Buddhist center a couple blocks down the street. One day, I just walked myself there and sat on their sessions. I started meditating. I felt after a couple of months of regular practice, I’d go a couple of times a week, I started to feel a lifting of the depression gradually. Since then, I've been fine. For some reason, I haven't really experienced those difficult episodes I had gone through all my life. It's an amazing practice. I can see why neuroscientists would need to study these things, because it does have a real change. It affects a change in our mind body that is inexplicable, we don't have an explanation in the West.


Ann Swanson  23:21

Thank you for sharing. I used to live in Denver, I think I know the exact temple, I can imagine being there. That brings up a great point that with long-term practice, all of these immediate results, they compound and start to become more permanent, long-lasting. For example, the neural changes. We have neuroplasticity that builds new neural pathways and new areas of your brain are gonna have more activity in them that have to do with focus, that have to do with memory. You're going to change the way your brain is structured. What we find is that as people age, the specific areas of brain degrade, gray matter and the prefrontal cortex, the part having to do with paying attention, focus, regulating your emotions starts to degrade, parts in the hippocampus having to do with memory, they tend to degrade and have less connectivity as we age. It's just the part of natural aging. With meditators and in some of the groundbreaking research that Dr. Sarah Lazar has done, we see that those same areas of the brain didn't degrade. They maybe even got stronger, maybe even got larger compared to non-meditators, or as they stay the same. Fifty-year-old meditators having similar brain structures as their controls that are in their twenties in some of these studies. You can slow perhaps that natural degradation of the brain that comes with age. Then, of course, with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, we have degradation in certain areas of the brain too. Meditation is known to build that connectivity in those exact areas. It's really amazing what it can do to the physical brain. The neurochemistry long-term helping you to utilize dopamine in a more regulated way, serotonin, these endorphins become more regulated for you long-term, as well as beyond the brain to your cardiovascular health. Some of the most profound research on both yoga and meditation is having to do with how it can contribute to reversing heart disease and lower your blood pressure. All these things we go to the doctor for, we have some things in Western science, but you can also use meditation and yoga alongside it to really get these impacts. It affects all systems of your body, just like I talked about in Science of Yoga, I go over how yoga affects every system of your body, your immune system, your endocrine system, the hormones, every system. Same with meditation, it's going to be a body-wide effect, cellular effects. We're changing at a level of our telomeres, we're changing the length of the end of the telomeres inside the chromosomes, they have a cap that tends to get shorter with time. With AIDS, just like our brain tissue dip tends to degrade with age, this cap gets shorter with age, but meditators tend to have a longer cap, they tend to have a protective mechanism on the ends of the end of the telomeres. These are really profound benefits that we're uncovering through neuroscience. There's a reason this has stood the test of time and works.


Robert Maldonado  27:15

That's amazing. Does Dr. Lazar practice herself?


Ann Swanson  27:19

She does. She wrote a book about how she came to meditation or yoga because her physical therapist said “Get over this running energy, go to yoga class.” Just like us, she came initially for her own pain. Then it was like “This is not woo-woo, this is working. I'm seeing real profound difference in my life. I want to commit my research to this.”


Robert Maldonado  27:52

So many of the things that kill us in the modern world are lifestyle diseases. Heart disease, dementia, diabetes, which is related to the food we're eating and the stress we experience. All these could be reversed through meditation and through yoga.


Ann Swanson  28:27

Or prevented. A lot of cases, your likelihood of getting a disease, let's say your parents have something that's in your genes. It's not as much a genetic factor as we think “My mom had that, so I'm gonna have that.” Instead, it's way more lifestyle. We think based off of twin studies, in 90% perhaps it's lifestyle impacts whether or not you're going to get these diseases. Of course, your genes play a role. But your lifestyle plays a way bigger role than we previously thought. We used to think it was all about the genes. You can prevent a lot of things. If you have a chronic disease, you can use it as complementary medicine to improve your health. It really helps whatever else you're doing work better.


Robert Maldonado  29:27

Recently I've been reading and actually meeting people that tell me they have autoimmune problem or disorders. Have you seen any research that addresses that issue?


Ann Swanson  29:43

I specialize in arthritis and autoimmune diseases that often affect the joints. I've been tested myself for a lot of autoimmune diseases because I have some similar symptoms. When my clients deal with some level of auto immune, if you can affect your lifestyle, as we said earlier, yoga and meditation are a part of lifestyle medicine. They are this new approach to how you can help yourself heal. If you can improve your sleep, if you can improve your mindset, that's really huge. The way you think and feel is changing your thought patterns that can make a huge impact. With autoimmune diseases, often the research is looking at the symptoms, are you having better, higher quality of life, health related quality of life is one of the measures, or are we sleeping better? We find that meditation and yoga help with sleep, health related quality of life, mental health, depressive symptoms, all of the things people with autoimmune disorders are really needing help with.


Robert Maldonado  31:01

I wanted to ask you also on sleep. You mentioned it in the book as well that through meditation, we can actually receive some of the benefits of deep sleep. How does that work?


Ann Swanson  31:24

One of my favorite types of meditations is the one where you don't have to sit like this. You lie down. You put pillows around, you leave pillows under your knees. You listen to a guided relaxation. In yoga, we call it a yoga nidra, translated as yoga sleep, I think of it as a little yoga nap. Often in modern day, neuroscientist at Stanford, Dr. Andrew Huberman, calls it non-sleep deep rest, because we're not actually sleeping, though sometimes you might fall asleep, but you get a deep rest and rejuvenation. This is the longer meditation, it's usually 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes even longer, but it feels like you are just awakened from a nap afterwards. When you're lying there, you're gonna twitch a little bit, that twitching you feel when you're lying in bed before you fall asleep, we've all experienced that where you want to psych yourself up, you're gonna do that. But with meditation, we're aware of being aware, we’re aware that we’re going into those deeper brainwave. Sometimes you might fall asleep, that's okay. That just means you needed sleep. But with practice, you get better. In these states, you can process things at a deeper level. That's what we do when we sleep and why sleep is so important. We believe that we are processing the day, processing things. It can be a really great complement, especially to do it in the afternoon, or to help you sleep if you have trouble falling back to sleep in the middle of the night. Listen to one of these longer practices of meditation, these are going to address the non-sleep deep rest.


Robert Maldonado  33:15

In yoga nidra, you're still awake, you're still alert.


Ann Swanson  33:21

Unless you fall asleep. But yes, with practice, you'll still be awake and alert.


Robert Maldonado  33:27

But the body and the physiology of the body is in a deep state. That's incredible. Mindfulness has become popular these days. A lot of people talk about mindfulness. Is this the same as meditation?


Ann Swanson  33:54

Mindfulness is a technique we can use in meditation. Let's describe mindfulness first. According to a researcher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, it's paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment or, to say it in a nicer way, with compassion, with self-compassion. If your mind wanders, remember, it’s a part of the process. Just come back. You can be mindful during a meditation. Paying attention to your breath and coming back to your breath. We're using that technique. That's an example of a mindfulness technique. Or I can be mindful while I'm washing the dishes, I can feel the warmth of the water on my skin, I can notice my postures, take in my knees, feel grounded. I can hear the sounds around me as I wash the dishes. The thing about it is that present moment awareness is associated with happiness. Also, obviously when you're more present, you're more focused, you're going to be more productive. That's where mindfulness has gotten so popular, because it does help people with productivity, you can improve your mindfulness through the day. But it's also become a word that's been so overused that it has lost some of its meaning. We forget that there's so many other types or styles and techniques of meditation. That's what I wanted to write about in this book. Mindfulness and mindfulness tactics and techniques are in the book. They're awesome. But I wanted to dive into some of the things that have emerging research, like compassion meditation. The meditation I mentioned earlier that is five minutes long, has those immediate results of increasing SIgA, helps your immune system, that's a compassion based meditation. You place your focus on your heart, you can even place your hands on your heart, and think of someone you love, someone in your life, you can even do it as you're listening. Just think of them smiling and at ease, send them light. That's all they did for five minutes. They found crazy increases of these chemicals that are indicative of better immunity. Looking at a variety of techniques beyond mindfulness — mindfulness is very valuable — but for certain situations, you might want to try a different technique. For example, when I'm feeling angry at someone, or I'm in traffic and feel frustrated, that's when I send compassion and loving kindness to other drivers, to myself. That’s when I send compassion and loving kindness perhaps even to the person I'm angry with, which is a Buddhist technique, to send good wishes, may they be safe, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they be at ease. That's a really good time to use that one. Mindfulness is great to use while you're in the shower, paying attention, being present rather than off in some other place worrying about something in the future. That's a really great technique to use, to pay attention to your body sensations and your breath. But I've had a bad situation with that too. I have this thing, I go to the doctor's office, whenever I get a procedure I'm scared of and the doctor is maybe dismissive, or the nurse’s not really attentive, I pass out to the floor. Sometimes I'm shaking when I come, I don't even know who I am, I do not know where I am. I am so disregulated for days, I'm recovering from that adrenaline. I went to a yoga teacher and  said “What can I do?” They said, of course, the classic, what everybody's doing — mindfulness, pay attention to your body awareness and your breath. Try this next time you go to the doctor's office for a procedure. So I did, guess what happened? I started to notice there's metal taste in my mouth, my heart is pounding, it's getting worse and worse. I passed out weaker. Mindfulness of the breath and the body sensations isn’t the right technique for that specific situation. It actually makes it worse. I dove into the research. Apparently, the research supports that when somebody deals with acute anxiety, breath awareness and body awareness tend to make that anxiety worse in the moment. Long-term, being aware of your body can be a very helpful technique for anxiety, but for the acute situations, not the technique. I want to shift the focus away from everything, the answer isn’t mindfulness. In that situation, I need a different technique. I found one or two techniques that work. In case you're wondering, in case you have panic attacks out there, you have something similar, what works is to ground down. When I need to pay attention to what the doctor or nurse is saying to me and listen, I feel my feet on the ground. I feel myself sitting on whatever surface, I place my hands palms down, I feel my hands touching the surface beneath, I focus on my exhales and grounding. When I do not need to pay attention, maybe it's dental work and my mouth is open, so they're not going to ask me any questions, I do visualization techniques. I'll visualize being at the beach. I'll literally wiggle my toes, imagine they're in the sand, to help distract myself. I’ll do a visualization meditation, my breath will become the sound of the ocean. With that being said, different techniques help with different things beyond just mindfulness is the answer for everything. It may not even be the answer for you, you need to find the right technique for you. That's what I really wanted to cover in Meditation for the Real World. I have a variety of techniques as a yoga therapist, I wanted to cover them for specific situations you're dealing with, so you can use it as a handbook.


Robert Maldonado  40:29

That's great. Does guided visualization count as meditation?


Ann Swanson  40:45

It's a technique that can be used in meditation. It’s your focus point, you're focusing on what the visualization is, you're not thinking about your list of things to do, you're coming to the words they're saying to you.


Robert Maldonado  41:01

You mentioned Buddhism. A lot of these meditation techniques are part of and come through religious or spiritual traditions. Are they as effective applied by themselves? Or are there studies that look at the difference of applying meditation in a secular way versus within the constructs of a certain religion?


Ann Swanson  41:39

There aren’t a lot of studies that compare secular to spiritual, I can think of one, it’s in the book. It's specific to headaches and migraines. If you deal with migraines or severe headaches, you know it’s a big mystery in medical science how to solve this. What they did in this research is they had people do a secular meditation that was very focused on breath awareness, something like mindfulness, it’s used in the research, no spiritual component. Then they compared it with spiritual meditation. In this one, they used a mantra. The mantra was basically, you could create it yourself. I'll give you the structure. It was “blank is blank”. The first blank, if you connect with God, you'd say God or your word for God. If the universe feels better for you, say “the universe”, something that's bigger than you. One person in this particular study shows Mother Nature as their first blank. So “blank is”, then you can choose “peace”, “love”, “good”, “compassionate”, whatever helps you evoke a sense of calm, you choose. All you do is repeat it, that's your focal point. The universe is kind. A lot of times when we deal with headaches and migraines, we get into a cycle, or chronic pain, for that matter, any pain, we get into a cycle of “It’s coming, it's gonna ruin my day. Everything's gonna go bad. I can't finish my work. Why does it happen to me?” The reason this spiritual meditation works so much better than the secular meditations for this particular situation is that with chronic pain, with something like a headache that’s inexplicable for a lot of the causes and modern science, the concept we have in yoga of surrender, surrendering is what can really get the greatest results. That's what works better, this spiritually based mantra. I thought it was cool. I included a lot of meditations specific to the research like that throughout the book so you can try them out for yourself when you have a headache, or if somebody has headaches, send it to them.


Robert Maldonado  44:23

But it seems like the bottom line is it still works. Even if you're not religious, you can still practice these techniques and gain a lot of both mental and physical benefits.


Ann Swanson  44:43

Mindfulness research tends to be secular. That's also why mindfulness gained so much popularity. It can be used in the corporate world. It doesn't necessarily need to be tied to a religious or spiritual component. There is a massive amount of research on mindfulness. That’s the area of research we have the most of but these other areas are starting to catch up. Like with mantra, we do have quite a bit on mantra, but compassion-based meditation, these are becoming more and more popular in the research field right now.


Robert Maldonado  45:20

I could talk about meditation for days, but one last question. I know you mentioned it in the book. Does consistent, continuous meditation dissolve the ego?


Ann Swanson  45:39

As I mentioned, I'm working on enlightenment part of this. The ego, we could from neuroscience perspective, start looking at it as the “me” centers in the brain, as some researcher at Yale points out. They call it “me” centers or “I” centers of the brain. These networks involved in that as the default mood network. We go into that when we're mind-wandering, mindless, not paying attention to what we're doing. We do find that meditation turns those areas and networks down. It lessens activity, but we can't say, how are you gonna even study that it dissolves the ego. In Science of Yoga, I have a whole section on how some fascinating neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg have been studying astronauts and this phenomenon that happens when astronauts come back from outer space and many of them devote their life to service. They’re so inspired by that sense of awe they felt when they looked down at Earth from space. They looked down at Earth, they see it as a whole, as an organism, glowing, alive. They don't see the boundaries or the separations between the countries. When you're far enough away, you don't see that, you realize, as many of them describe, we made it all up. We made up the boundaries, we made up the economy, we made up the languages, we made up the “I'm right, you're wrong. This is the way to do it.” We made it all up. They come back with a new sense of purpose. One particular astronaut was so curious about it, he started looking and studying through all perspectives. He was talking to neuroscientists and psychotherapist. What is this I'm feeling and so many of us experience when we come back from outer space? He finally found his answer talking to a philosopher that studied yoga, these ancient traditions and meditation. He said it's similar to Samadhi, or enlightenment. What you're describing is what the ancient yogis and Buddhists described as the Nirvana state, this higher state of being. That's what they're doing research on now. They call it the overview effect when astronauts look down and they see a new perspective. But you don't have to go to outer space. We all dreamt of being an astronaut but not all of us became one. You don't have to go to outer space and be an astronaut to experience this. You can, through meditation, explore your inner space to go deeper. Through meditation and yoga practices that prepare you, as you described earlier, for meditation, you can begin to get glimpses of this light, of this enlightenment, your life, and feel a little lighter.


Robert Maldonado  49:05

A great place to end. So grateful for you being with us, Ann. What a great book. Can you hold it up just one more time so we can see it?


Ann Swanson  49:20

It's Meditation for the Real World. You can buy it anywhere books are sold. But if you go to meditationfortherealworld.com, I have amazing bonuses for you. Let me know you bought it there and you'll get 14 days of free meditation with the scientific explanations. I also have a meditation music album that is developed to strategically change your brainwaves to enhance your practice, as we talked about earlier.


Robert Maldonado  49:46

Sounds amazing. Thank you so much again. Stay well.


Ann Swanson  49:50

Thank you, you too.


Debra Maldonado  49:54

Thank you for joining us. Don't forget to subscribe to CreativeMind Soul Sessions and join us next week as we explore another deep topic, where you can consciously create your life with CreativeMind Soul Sessions. See you next time.



Introduction
Defining meditation for everyday people
Short and long-term benefits of meditation
Receiving the benefits of deep sleep as meditation
The difference between mindfulness and meditation
Secular vs spiritual meditation
Does consistent meditation dissolve the ego?