July 17, 2012

Meditation, Muscle Relaxation, Core Strengthening: A Winning Triple-Header at Dawn

"Oh, what a beautiful mornin' / Oh, what a beautiful day / I've got a beautiful feelin' / Everything's goin' my way."

I've always loved that song from Oklahoma. I was thinking of it this morning when I finished my mindfulness meditation as dawn was breaking and I took this picture of my just-vacated meditation chair. Fortunately, I was back in bed an hour later, when the jet planes from National Airport -- I refuse to call it Reagan Airport -- began flying over the house and the temperature started its rapid climb toward today's predicted high of 101.

A week ago I reported on a study  that emphasized the importance of picking the type of meditation that works best for you, and on my finally finding that mindfulness meditation worked best for me. Now, I'm experimenting with a couple of  "apps" that show promise for making my early morning meditation even more beneficial to my mental and physical well-being.

Here's the triple header that makes me feel like "everything's goin' my way."

Mindfulness Meditation
After dabbling in meditation for years without much success, I finally found a form of mindfulness meditation that works for me.

My early morning meditations run up to an hour, but I also find that additional mini sessions help during the day if I'm feeling tired or stressed. Just a couple minutes of sitting and breathing can help.

Here are the two add-on's I'm experimenting with:

Muscle Tensing and Relaxing
I've tried progressive muscle relaxation in the past to vary my mediation routine. I follow the standard drill: focusing sequentially on each major muscle group, starting with the facial muscles and working down the body. You tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction for a count of 25 before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation.

A typical progressive muscle relaxation routine would involve holding and relaxing these muscles: forehead, eyes, nose, tongue, face, jaws, neck,  back, chest, stomach, buttocks, thighs, arms, forearms, hands, calves, ankles, and feet. The whole process might take about ten minutes.

Typically, I decided to create my own version. I've been struggling for a year to find relief from lower back pain. At first, the discomfort was attributed to fractured vertebrae after my car crash last August. Later, my doctor diagnosed osteoarthritis as the source of the pain. So now, after my regular meditation, I turn my attention to my body, scanning to determine which muscles feel weak, painful, or just different. Usually, I sense weakness in my right thigh, and pain in my lower left back. I tense and relax these muscles.

Often -- OK, "weirdness" alert! -- I experience a strange message from my toes to pull them up and spread them apart. I'm not sure what that's all about, but the exercise seems to do some good. Sometimes, other muscle groups seem to want attention, and I'll try tensing and relaxing them.

Core Body Strengthening 
Weak and unbalanced core muscles are often linked to lower back pain. Weak core muscles result in a loss of appropriate lumbar curve and a swayback posture. Stronger, balanced core muscles help maintain appropriate posture and reduce strain on the spine.

Sit-ups and crunches are exercises we think of first when it come to core muscle strengthening. But lots of different muscles are involved in keeping the core healthy. I've found it seems to help during my meditation hour if I periodically press my back firmly against the back of the chair, pull in the lower abdominal muscles and tighten my buttocks. I hold this tension for a count of 20 and then slowly relax.

I know I need to do more to strengthen my back. The Mayo Clinic has an excellent slide show on exercises for strengthening core muscles. The exercises, unlike so many you find on the internet, are suitable for non-buffed seniors. I've printed out most of these exercises and try to do them two or three times a week.

I've been doing this triple-header meditation for a couple of weeks now, and I think it's helping with my back pain.

Tomorrow I see a chiropractor as I continue my search for relief.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Hmm.  Another inspiration.  Have been thinking about mindfulness mediation for a long time, need core strengthening, and also have an aching back.  

Thanks!  You're my go-to guy for good ideas.