MOUNT VERNON — It is quiet. The heart slows and calms from the racing day, and the mind stills as it begins to focus on the present. And meditation begins.
Meditation is a process of reflection, contemplation and devotional exercise that has been practiced around the world for centuries. Christians pray and Buddhists chant; even nonreligious practitioners use the techniques to improve mental and physical health.
“There have been studies done at major universities, so it’s not just a lot of anecdotal evidence. For people who are spiritually inclined or not spiritually inclined, there is a tremendous physical benefit and also a psychological benefit,” said Grace Fogle, a local resident who has practiced meditation for many years. “Some of us meditate purely for health reasons, and a lot us meditate for the combined physical and spiritual benefits that we feel we receive.
“[As for the health effect] my studies in the clinical area show that any form of meditation you might learn, and there is a wide range, [is beneficial],” she said. “But there are definitely clinical studies that show that your blood vessels relax, therefore your heart has to do less work and your blood is moved through the body in a more natural, less stressful way.
“Your pulse rate drops significantly and that has to do again with the slowing of the heart; the ease in which all your body can perform its functions comes through meditation. And there is just a healing process that seems to occur because the body has its own wisdom in terms of how to heal itself. What you are doing is really enabling yourself. So even if you are taking a medication or whatever you are doing for your health, you are enhancing that therapy.”
Fogle said that, with meditation, she has taken treatments better, feels better, has more energy and has recovered quickly.
“And doctors don’t laugh at this any more because you are participating in your cure, you are doing something very positive in that regard,” she said.
Fogle has been practicing meditation off and on for over 40 years, but within the last five she has been steady in her practice and has seen significant improvements in her own health.
“I find in my older years that now I’m turning much more to it, and it helps me mature in age more gracefully,” she said. “I am more grateful for every day and every moment, and I know my health benefits from it. It is not that you don’t have health challenges, but you deal with them very differently. Hopefully you recover quickly and with less trauma from things that you might have to go through.”
There are many forms of meditation: mantra, yoga, Tai Chi, prayer and Chi Gong. They are usually classified into two kinds: mindfulness and concentrative.
“You can incorporate meditation into every part of your life. So you can do walking meditation, where you are grateful for every step that you take. People do this now in many ways, but they just don’t call it meditation,” said Fogle. “What do you think the monks are doing or the nuns in the convents are doing? This is all prayerful meditation. If you are following a rosary or chanting, music or prayers, you are meditating. It is all the same, except it is a different form.”
Guided meditation is another form that is used, explained Fogle, in which a leader will teach the participant to sit, close the eyes, relax and take slow breaths as the leader guides the listener through a story. This form of meditation is often practiced for healing purposes and as a way to overcome challenges.
“Any challenges that you are trying to move through, we don’t know what challenges life presents to us ... but you can use meditation as a source, or one of the sources, to move through it,” she said.
For many years people have carried a misunderstanding of meditation, she said, thinking that one had to be of a particular faith, religion or nationality to practice the methods. However, she said, anyone with an open mind can do it.
“If you are doing this for spirituality, this will really enable you to put the world at bay and understand who you are and who your source is — what does that mean to me, how do I want to be guided by my source,” she said.
For anyone not doing it for spiritual reasons, it helps to refocus and reorganize the mind.
Zhineng Qigong, or Chi Gong, is a form of moving meditation that focuses on slow and steady movements that combine physical and mental concentration.
Steve Hatfield, owner and instructor at Panther Kenpo Karate, teaches martial arts as well as Chi Gong.
“I’ve been in martial arts for most of my life and I started teaching it in 1986 here in Mount Vernon,” he said. “Chi Gong, chi energy, is always related to martial arts. There are forms of Chi Gong that are considered martial art forms to develop fighting skills.
“This particular form of Chi Gong is considered a medical Chi Gong and is actually designed for health benefits, but in some ways the medical Chi Gongs and the spiritual Chi Gongs are all interrelated,” he said. “And in more ways it [affects] mental health, more calm and composed, and, too, more of the spiritual health. You’re more connected with life.”
Hatfield said doing Chi Gong has not only improved his martial arts, but has helped him contend with the pain of doing martial arts for such a long time.
“To me the biggest thing was, being in martial arts all my life I have a lot of aches and pains ... but I don’t even have that so much,” he said.
One of the important things to remember about meditation, explained Hatfield, is that not all practitioners feel results after the first time. It may take several times before a person sees or feels results.
“I think what makes Chi Gong difficult for people to catch is that you may practice for months or years before you start seeing results,” said Hatfield. “But I had a woman that after her first class felt like she drank 10 cups of coffee, she had such a surge of energy. So occasionally you get these quick results.
“Chi Gong explores the connection between the mind and body, and how your thought patterns and consciousness affect your physical well-being. So sometimes even [with] one incident a person can look at things differently,” he said.
Chi gong is relatively metaphysical, not just physical, and for some people, focusing on the abstract can be hard. Hatfield sees this as a challenge, but tries to convey it in such a way that all can understand.
“I think this is so much better for people. Sitting meditation is really hard for a lot of people, so when you are actually moving, it gives your mind something to do,” he said. “Otherwise your mind is taking off. So the first part of what we work on is bringing your concentration to the physical world and then after that using different kinds of visualization to go along with that.”