BY STEVE WATKINS
One Saturday earlier this month, I sat in a cottage out in deep woods in Caroline County—windows open, eyes closed, listening to the glorious sound of the wind in the trees.
I heard birds singing, a couple of dogs barking. Felt a warm ray of sun on my shoulders. I was supposed to be meditating, focusing on my highest chakra, and I suppose I was, though in an idle sort of way.
I’d have probably reached nirvana, too, if it hadn’t been for the other sounds that came wafting through the windows. Actually, “crashing through” might be more accurate.
It was stuff getting blown up on the firing range over at Fort A.P. Hill, a couple of miles north. Kind of a distraction from finding that elusive higher consciousness.
Still, just sitting there doing nothing—even with the occasional explosion—gave me a nice long break from just about everything. I came away from the experience feeling considerably calmer and more invigorated than I’d been when I started out. Those feelings lasted for much of the rest of the day.
Lord knows we all need a break now and then, and even though this column is called “Fit After Fifty,” I’m not just talking about taking a break from exercise. If you’re like me, even if you do let yourself have a mini-vacation from working out, or from work, there are still too many things occupying your brain.
Many of them, increasingly, are of the electronic variety: TV, movies, iPod, email, Internet, Facebook, video games, cellphone and myriad apps, “Angry Birds.” I’m sure I’m leaving a few out.
How often do we truly give ourselves a break from all that busy-ness, all that noise? Researchers have determined that constantly checking email makes us anxious. I’m guessing the same thing goes for Facebook.
Earlier this year, University of California–Irvine researchers reported that, in a study, checking email kept people in a “high-alert” mode, while separating people from email for five days lowered stress in measurable ways.
Younger people claim to be able to handle all this multi-tasking without too much trouble, though I have my doubts. What I don’t doubt is that those of us who grew up in a quieter era have a deep, immediate need for some good old-fashioned peace and quiet, whether we know it or not.
There’s a reason that savasana, the corpse pose, which comes at the end of a yoga practice and is basically just lying down on your back with your eyes closed for five or 10 minutes, is most people’s favorite.
Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists have found that meditation—sitting comfortably with no distractions, focusing your thoughts on something calming (as opposed to just letting your thoughts drift)—appears to reduce anxiety and stress.
In a recent study, people who meditated for 30 minutes a day over an eight-week period developed more gray matter in the area of the brain associated with learning and memory.
And the meditators showed a reduction in gray matter in the part of the brain associated with anxiety and stress.
There’s more good news about meditation, as other studies have indicated that it may help lower blood pressure and lead to longer attention spans.
I’m as driven as anybody when it comes to working out and trying to stay fit, especially as I get older. But I also feel an increasing need to take breaks now and then—from everything—as an essential part of being healthy. Maybe through meditation, maybe by sitting quietly on the couch petting the dog. Or maybe just by turning off all the electronics and listening to the wind in the trees.
Henry David Thoreau, who knew a thing or two about the benefits of getting away from all the noises and distractions of life, put it this way in a letter to a friend:
“I have an immense appetite for solitude, like an infant for sleep, and if I don’t get enough for this year, I shall cry all the next.”
Steve Watkins, professor emeritus of English at the University of Mary Washington, is a yoga teacher and award-winning author. You can reach him through his website, stevewatkins books.com.