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Pick up any self-help book, whether by a medical doctor or an alternative practitioner, visit the juice bar at the gym, or even tune in to a local radio station, and chances are someone will be touting the benefits of meditation. Beset by stress, work overload or everyday frustrations, legions are finding a healing serenity in this centuries-old practice.

So what exactly is it? Meditation is a state of deep physical relaxation combined with acute mental alertness. "It's like taking a nap, but you don't fall asleep, you fall awake," says Lorin Roche, Ph.D. author of Meditation Made Easy (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

There are many ways to achieve this state. Almost every religion incorporates meditative practices such as silent, repetitive praying or chanting. Other purely physiological techniques involve sitting and focusing on something that will hold your attention for five to 30 minutes: a progressive relaxation of your body's muscles, a word, calming music or an image. Observing your breath, which naturally tends to become slower and deeper as you relax, is a key part of many techniques.

The benefits of daily practice last far beyond the mere minutes you've spent in focus. "Meditation is an instrumental path," says Saki F. Santorelli, Ed.D, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and author of Heal Thy Self (Bell Tower, 1999). "Through practicing it, you recognize the possibility of relating to yourself and others in new ways."

You might not think of yourself as a relaxed person. But once you taste that sweet sensation of head-to-toe peace during meditation, you discover how great it feels to not be so tense in your neck and shoulders. Additionally, you learn to tap into the exercise of taking a few slow, calming breaths when faced with a challenge, whether it be a potentially explosive situation at work, a crying child, a dreaded event or even physical pain.

Body benefits
Besides relaxation, in meditation you cultivate the art of paying attention. After your formal practice, "you feel a little more present with yourself all day," says Roche. That presence, or mindfulness, can improve the quality of almost everything you do. "Most of the time we're in the past or the future," says Santorelli. "Yet the present is where pleasure and intimacy occur."

Take your workout, for example. The next time you're on the treadmill or the StairMaster, leave off the headphones and save the reading material for later, Santorelli suggests. Instead of trying to ward off boredom or focusing on results, be present with what's going on in your body: Your breath, the flexing of your muscles, the intensity of a stretch. "That's its own meditation, and it feels good," he says. (Plus, paying attention might help prevent injury.)

Through meditation, you can even eat more healthfully, says Roche. Turn off the television and savor the colors, odors and textures of your meal. If you aren't tense and are paying attention to your food, you'll enjoy it more and you may eat less compulsively, he explains.

Aside from the beneficial effects on your health and body, meditation may even lead to improvements in the way you work. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, chronic worriers flubbed cognitive tasks because their decision-making skills were impaired by fear. But they were able to perform well after a 15-minute relaxation exercise.

Find your focus
Of course, to reap the benefits of meditation, you have to practice regularly. There are many reasons to think you can't meditate -- you're too busy, too undisciplined, or distracted - but meditation is so diverse that there is a form of it for you.

For instance, if you can barely sit still, you might enjoy a Buddhist meditation in which you walk slowly in a circle, counting your steps. If you prefer sound to silence, try playing a CD of environmental recordings, or chanting. Experiment until you find one that you like, and adapt it to suit your personality.

As with anything that's truly worth doing, you need to be motivated. "You can't find time to practice meditation," says Santorelli. "You have to make it." Try going to bed a half-hour earlier so you can get up earlier to meditate, or closing your office door and holding all calls for 15 minutes. Snatch short moments of informal meditation time during the day. While walking between appointments, taking a shower, or before falling asleep, take a few conscious breaths and savor the sensory pleasures of the moment. In its many forms, "meditation is a pleasurable indulgence," says Roche. Above all, it's about experiencing yourself.

How meditation does a body good
Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but it was only in this century that Western doctors discovered its many physiological benefits. In the 1960s, the Indian guru who popularized Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, asked Harvard Medical School's Herbert Benson, M.D., to test followers. Benson's findings since conclude that meditation:

- Decreases respiratory rate, heart rate and elevated blood pressure, culminating in what Benson terms "the relaxation response." (Physiological effects were diametrically opposed to those of the body's fight-or-flight response.)

- Relieves muscle tension when combined with progressive relaxation.

- Causes stress hormones in the blood to drop.

- Boosts immunity.

- Is more restful than a nap -- it causes oxygen consumption (a measure of how hard the body is working) to drop more than it does while you sleep.

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