London - Every day, Justine Poole arrives at work 20 minutes early. Once there, she doesn’t get ahead with emails or enjoy a coffee - in fact, she doesn’t leave her car.
Instead, in the car park she turns off the engine, closes her eyes and for 20 minutes just sits there until it’s time for her day to begin.
She isn’t listening to her favourite radio show or doing deep-breathing exercises, but meditating.
“No matter how busy my day is, every morning I have to do it,” says Justine, who lives in Southport, Merseyside, with her husband and two children.
“Afterwards, I am calm and stable. It balances me. I can then go to the office and do what I need to do, tune out any dramas that might be going on and focus on what’s important.”
Meditation became famous as part of the hippy movement - but Justine is no hippy, and nor are the thousands of other middle-class women turning to meditation to help them cope.
Justine is the director of a retail company with a £200-million turnover. She finds the relaxation technique, which encourages you to clear your mind of all day-to-day thoughts, and which she learned two years ago, invaluable for work.
“I deal with a lot of stressful situations, but since meditating I take them in my stride. I’m much more productive. I wish I’d found it earlier. If life is like a pressure cooker, meditating releases that pressure,” she says.
Justine’s experience is borne out by an increasing body of evidence. Most recently, a study published in the journal Frontiers In Human Neuroscience seemed to show that meditation changes the way the brain functions, making people better at dealing with emotionally stressful situations.
Other studies have shown that people who meditate regularly are 47 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
Meditating can dramatically reduce the symptoms of clinical depression - one of the reasons meditation classes are available on the NHS.
There have even been suggestions that it should be taught in schools, after a paper in US journal Education earlier this year showed students at a high school were up to 25 percent more likely to graduate if they meditated.
Meditation was always one of those things I meant to get round to doing, but never found the time. Yet two years ago, I saw the benefits up close. I bumped into a former colleague who had been going through a hard time - sick parents and redundancy - yet seemed serene. She put it down to meditation. I hadn’t gone through anything like she had, but I wanted her inner peace.
My tendency is to spend my days in a state of anxiety, awaiting the next disaster. I would run around like a headless chicken and rely on alcohol and TV to switch off at night.
It wasn’t working. My sleep was broken, my immune system low and I was unhappy quite a lot of the time.
I was willing to try anything to feel better - even meditation.
I quickly discovered there are many forms of meditation. Most involve sitting still, closing your eyes and “focusing on the breath” as a way of calming your mind. Others involve listening to a guided meditation that involves visualising relaxing situations.
The kind of meditation my friend did - and that favoured by Justine - is Transcendental Meditation (or TM for short).
It doesn’t focus on breathing. Instead, you are given a sound, known as a mantra, a Sanskrit word you repeat in your head. You’re not supposed to tell anyone your mantra, which is different for everyone. Repeating the sound over and over lulls the brain into a trance.
It sounded hippyish, but my friend was so adamant it could help me that I signed up for lessons.
I visited a centre for an hour or two over four days, learned about the science behind meditation and its benefits, then practised with a teacher and discussed any concerns I had. The cost depends on your income, ranging from £190 to £590 (about R3 000 R8 000) to . It’s based on an honesty system, so no one checks, but I paid £490.
Apparently, the money goes towards the teaching and maintaining centres around the world, but it left a bad taste when I read that the man who started the movement, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, left an estate said to be worth £600-million when he died in 2008.
But after the first lesson, I didn’t begrudge the money. I felt calm in the way you would after a two-week holiday. That night, I enjoyed a longer, deeper sleep than I’ve had since I was a child. I have been sleeping well ever since.
I could never have believed something so simple could have such a profound impact.
You just sit quietly for 20 minutes twice a day - you don’t have to cross your legs or make “Om” sounds. After a couple of deep breaths, you close your eyes and focus on your Sanskrit word. You don’t know the meaning of the word, it just sounds nice as you repeat it, silently, over and over.
You do one session in the morning and one at the end of your working day. When you’re very tired, it’s so relaxing that it’s difficult not to fall asleep afterwards, but mostly the restfulness is so deep you feel revived - I’ve found I get more done afterwards.
I also sleep more deeply, think more clearly, worry less and my general health is better than before.
So, is meditation a mental and physical cure-all? It definitely helps. But like most things that are good for you, it takes work. Like going to the gym or eating well, you have to keep doing it.
Meditation is the most effective way of calming the brain that I have ever come across.
In a world of constant emails and phone calls, stress and stimulation, just sitting still and closing your eyes has more profound benefits than you can believe. Until, of course, you try it. - Daily Mail