Ann Swanson - Meditation for the Real World

Episode 136

49 mins

Ann Swanson - Meditation for the Real World

March 17, 2024

We are delighted to welcome back Ann Swanson, a certified yoga therapist, speaker, and author, to the Flow Artist Podcast. Ann has previously graced our show in 2019 to discuss her book "The Science of Yoga," which has being translated into over 15 languages. As a unique blend of a heart-based healer and a self-professed science nerd, Ann has dedicated her life's work to making yoga and wellness accessible and non-intimidating, especially for those who might feel intimidated by these practices.

With a Master of Science in yoga therapy and roots studying yoga in India and qi gong in China, Ann brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her teachings. She seamlessly integrates cutting-edge research with the heart of ancient mind-body traditions, creating a powerful synthesis that resonates with a wide audience. Ann's ability to make complex scientific concepts relatable and actionable is truly remarkable.

Ann's journey is a testament to the ever-evolving nature of personal growth. After embarking on a worldwide book tour following the success of her first book, "The Science of Yoga," she found herself unexpectedly confined during the COVID-19 pandemic, nestled in the familiar confines of her mother's basement. This time created space for the writing of "Meditation for the Real World," a poignant exploration of meditation's accessibility and applicability to our daily lives.

With a keen understanding of the human condition, Ann acknowledges the diverse emotional landscapes we traverse. Her approach transcends the one-size-fits-all paradigm, offering a cornucopia of meditation techniques meticulously tailored to address specific emotional and mental states. From panic attacks and trauma to the pull of "doom scrolling," Swanson's guidance empowers us to harness the transformative power of meditation, cultivating resilience and inner calm amidst life's turbulences.

Swanson illuminates the neurological underpinnings of meditation, unveiling its profound impact on brain structure, telomeres, and the aging process. Groundbreaking research reveals meditation's ability to slow or even reverse the effects of aging on the brain and body, a testament to the profound synergy between mind and matter.

Swanson's discourse also explores the notion of co-regulation, where the nervous systems of individuals in close proximity can become aligned through practices such as chanting, singing, and meditation. This concept holds wonderful implications for yoga teachers and their students, as the ripple effects of collective mindfulness can have a positive effect within shared spaces.

We really appreciate this book and enjoyed the conversation - we hope you do to!

Order Meditation for the Real World and get exclusive bonuses:
Ann’s YouTube:
Ann’s Instagram:


Please email us to report any transcription errors

Rane Bowen: Hello. My name is Rane and this is the Flow artist podcast. Together with my co host Jo Stewart, we speak with extraordinary movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. But before we dive in, we want to take a moment to acknowledge and honour the traditional owners of the unceded land where this episode was recorded. The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We pay our deepest respects to the elders, both past and present, and we acknowledge the emerging leaders within their community. This week we're speaking with Ann Swanson about her new book, Meditation for the Real World. You might remember our conversation with Ann back in 2019 about her previous book, the Science of Yoga. We're excited to have Ann back as we love both of her books. She combines personal experience and researchbacked approaches to explore meditation's impact on the brain structure or emotions, health markers like telomeres and ageing. We also love that she shares quick, accessible practises alongside the research, just as she does in our interview. We both really enjoyed this conversation and we hope you do, too. So let's get into it. All right. Well, Anne, so great to have you back on the podcast again. So, since we last spoke to you in February of 2019 about your previous book, the Science of Yoga, other than writing your new book, Meditation for the Real World, which we'll get to soon, what have you been up to since then?

Ann Swanson: Well, I actually sold everything I owned when I wrote that book to travel the world because I knew it was coming out in multiple languages, so I knew it would be out in japanese and german. And so I set up a world book tour and I went to my first stop in South America. And then the pandemic happened. Everything shut down. The whole thing was cancelled and I ended up because I didn't own anything or have a home anymore. I ended up in my mom's basement and it was kind of a depressing time as it was for many of us. And I decided to go on vacation toward the end of it, to Hawaii to get away. And I went there for what it was supposed to be a couple weeks, and it's been three years now. So I moved to Hawaii and I'm glad that I was pushed in that direction because I ended up meeting the love of my life. And we're getting married next week. And yeah, it's been quite a journey since we talked last. Oh, wow.

Jo Stewart: Congratulations.

Ann Swanson: Thank you.

Jo Stewart: And so was there a moment like, as you were writing your previous book, where you realised that all of the meditation stuff was like, worthy of a book all to itself, or did you finish that first book and then this was just like a seed of an idea that germinated in your time in the basement, in the pandemic?

Ann Swanson: Well, it was more that I put out science of yoga, and as you know, it has all these beautiful illustrations by some of the best designers and illustrators in the world. And people really focused on the physical poses, the 30 asanas that are in the book. And throughout science of yoga, I weave in how meditation affects all, or, excuse me, yoga and meditation affect all the systems of your body, your immune system on a cellular level, your telomeres and your genes. I talk about it all and weave in the philosophy, but nobody notices that everybody comments on the poses. And so I felt like I needed to do a book that didn't have poses so it could get right to where the magic happens. I mean, the reason we do the poses is to prepare our minds and bodies to be able to meditate. And so I wanted to get right to it, but still from a science perspective. So I teamed with Harvard researcher Dr. Sarah Lazar, who does some of the most amazing research on meditation, putting people in these fMRI scanners and determining what happens to their brain from meditating in the moment and long term. And so we integrated the most cutting edge research to support meditation, but then with step by step techniques. So I wanted it to have still the science, but be applicable for anybody, not just yoga teachers. This is the kind of book you get as a yoga teacher to be inspired for your teaching, and you also give it to your sceptical neighbour and your mother in law, who was told to practise meditation by their doctor, but just couldn't get into it.

Jo Stewart: I think it's also a really great resource to answer tricky questions, because a lot of people are really curious about what happens in your brain during meditation or how different practises might affect the brain differently. And it is like a really accessible explanation of the science. So I think that's really great. And then alongside the benefits, there's the practise right there that you can do to experience at that moment. So I think that works really well. The inspiration is there and then the technique is right there as well.

Ann Swanson: Also, as a yoga teacher, I felt like in my training, I only learned, like, one type of meditation, a lot of just mindfulness. Pay attention to your breath, maybe a mantra here or there. And there's so many different types of meditation that have research to support them and that cross over many cultures that we can integrate into our practise and so I really wanted to explore all the hundreds of types of meditations and how it's not one size fits all for any one person or situation. You may have a meditation technique that you do in one situation that helps and in another situation it may make you worse. And I've experienced that myself, which really sparked my interest to dive into the different techniques.

Jo Stewart: I think sometimes, as well, there's like a weird hierarchy of the meditation techniques that are more pure, or they're the ones that you're aspiring towards, and then other techniques that might use technology or might be seen as more beginner levels. So I like that you don't do that. I like that they're all shared equally and with that point of view of different things are going to work for different people at different times. So here are a lot of options and they're all equally well. You decide what's helpful for you, rather than it being like a hierarchical kind of situation of, this is proper meditation and this is what you can do if you don't do that.

Ann Swanson: Yeah, my meditation is better than your meditation and his meditation. And buy mine. Yeah, no, I absolutely agree. I think that this is a handbook where you can go to the situation you're dealing with. I'm feeling depressed, or I'm grieving a loss of a loved one. There's meditation techniques for that that are different than I'm having a panic attack or you have a student that has a lot of anxiety. There's different techniques to approach each. And as a yoga therapist, that was important to me to approach it in that way. And no one is better than the other.

Jo Stewart: And I actually love how real life you are with some of those emotions and techniques, because often things like anger and depression are covered. But you mentioned things like feeling awkward or people pleasing or jealousy or my favourite, FOMO. So I really like that. Like, oh, this is very real life stuff. Were these techniques that you included just things that worked for you personally and that's how you chose which technique for which thing? Or was there a bit more behind the scenes research that went into the best meditation technique for fear of missing out?

Ann Swanson: Yeah, no, it's definitely what works for me and as well as my clients as a clinician. But also I dove into the research of what is helpful for people with anxiety. There is research that shows certain affirmations are more helpful for anxiety versus depression, or what is helpful for. For me, it was that panic attack, right? Like, when I go to the doctor's office, I get overwhelmed when they're going to do something to my body that I feel uncomfortable with and they're not communicating and have that compassionate care. And so instead of like fight, flight, it's freeze, pass out on the floor convulsing. Don't know who I am, don't know where I am, completely out of body. It is traumatic. I have this release of adrenaline that lasts for days. I don't sleep for days afterwards. And so obviously I want to avoid that. So I went to a yoga teacher at one point and I said, what meditations should I do? How can I get through this? And they said, okay, go in there and notice your body, notice your physical sensations and notice your breath and observe those things. And those are the classic techniques and mindfulness that we're often given. So I go there and I am prepared. I'm sitting there, notice my body and my heart, it's beating out of my chest and then I taste metal and I'm like amplifying. And then I notice my breath and it's out of whack and I feel out of whack with my body and boom, I'm out faster than I've ever been before. And so I looked into it, and according to the research people that deal with acute anxiety, body awareness and breath awareness, meditations make it worse. So if you yourself have ever experienced a meditation making it worse or you've seen that in your students, for yoga teachers, you're not alone. This is a really common phenomenon. And it's not that you're bad at meditating, it's just you're doing the wrong meditation for the wrong situation. So in that situation, I have two techniques. If you are one that deals with panic attacks, and there's several actually in the book, but two for me that really work is, to, number one, ground down. You can experience this while you're listening. So instead of noticing the internal body's sensations, I'm going to notice the external, feel my points of contact of my body against the floor, against the chair. And instead of noticing my breath, I'm going to try to use the breath to release down into those surfaces. So you can make the exhales longer and feel a sense of releasing down with each of the next few exhales that brings you to the outside so you can be very present. But if I don't have to answer questions and be present with a doctor, I do visualisation. I am in my safe place. I'm wiggling my toes at the beach. My breath becomes the sound of the ocean and I go somewhere else. That sort of distraction of visualisation. Meditation is extremely helpful in those panic situations when you need to get through it, like a doctor's appointment or a dentist appointment. So some of it, I looked into the research and some of it's my own experience as well as clinical practise as a yoga therapist.

Jo Stewart: So another real life situation that I think it kind of comes into panic in a different way, which I love that you covered in your book, is the meditation for doom scrolling. And especially after the lockdown years, can you dig into a little bit about that compulsion to keep scrolling through stuff that's happening in your phone, even though it's making you feel worse and worse and like the strategies that you share to kind of shift that.

Ann Swanson: Yeah, it's an addiction. Technology and social media, they are addictions. And the way that the social media algorithm is built is in order to keep you coming back, to have those bursts of dopamine that is you trying to get more pleasure, but you're never going to reach more pleasure from it. That's not where true pleasure comes from, the number of likes that you have. So it's this endless game. And so when you notice that you're in this endless game, which happens to all of us, whether we're reading the news or social media, when you get into doom scrolling and you're feeling quite negative, I use a tibetan technique. I actually practised this when I was in Tibet. And it is called Tonglin. And instead of know, and then exhale out all the bad. Release it, let go, release it all out. It's the opposite. You inhale in the struggles, the suffering, the pain of other people, the negative feelings that you're feeling, you acknowledge them and literally feel them. And you can try this as you're listening right now, if there's something you've been struggling with, inhale it in. Feel it, trust in your body to process it. And with each exhale, release out good into the world. Let your body transform it to release out the good into the world. To be an alchemist of your own feelings. And with several breaths to a minute of this, I think this is a healthy way, rather than pushing down that negativity. I don't want to feel it. Don't want to feel it. You're facing it and you're trusting in your body to process it, trusting in your breath to bring you through it, and also really setting an intention to do good in the world, to do something good. Next right, to stand up and go for a walk or call a friend and tell them you appreciate them.

Jo Stewart: I really love that idea and I think it's a powerful practise to acknowledge the negativity and the pain because I think that is a criticism of some aspects of yoga and meditation that it's all about just trying to make yourself feel good. And if that is completely out of alignment with what's happening in your own environment or in the world around you, it's just such a massive disconnect that people either it's kind of encouraging people to dissociate or to kind of shut down against realities when. I don't know. I think my understanding of a yoga practise is fully engaging in life and in the world. So I like that strategy versus feeling like it's somehow obnoxious just to stop looking at the news as it's happening. Because this is people's real lives, which I think is part of the doom scrolling as well. You're like oh, I should know about this. I shouldn't just put my phone down and go for a walk or something like this is important but you're not actually helping anyone on your phone and maybe it's paralysing you to take some real action.

Ann Swanson: Yeah. Our minds were not built to process the amount of information that is bombarded at us all the time. Like our minds are built to see tree, hut, sun, cat, right? Not to see what's going on on the other side of the world war that your ex boyfriend is now getting married. That all these things that may bring up emotions one after the other after another. And then you have to process that. And so really we're not built for that. We're built to go for a walk. And when you walk, walking meditation is a great technique too, right? When you walk, your eyes naturally scan left and right. And when your eyes scan left and right this turns down activity in your amygdala. That's the fear centre of the brain. You may have seen like some therapist doing Emdr where they are moving their finger and you follow them. Or there's music that is engineered to make your eyes move back and forth to help you process things. So walking is a natural thing that can help us process all of that. So if the technique we just did wasn't enough, now get up and go for a walk. Especially in nature. And in nature we see the beautiful colours of blues and greens. We hear the sounds of nature which incorporates specific sounds that your brain interprets to be relaxed. There's pink noise and brown noise. In nature the sound of rainfall is pink noise. The sound of a waterfall is brown noise. It has more low tones in them. We've all heard of like white noise, right? White noise is a machine that we put on to block out noise. And basically that's frequencies from all different ranges. A little bit in the low, a little in the high and the medium, and that helps us to block the noise. Just like white light is all the different colours combined. Now, pink noise is really beneficial for your memory and for your ability to focus. And same with brown noise. It also can help you sleep and with deep concentration. So when we listen to these sounds of nature, they have healing effects, whether we're walking in nature, which is wonderful for you to do a walking meditation, or literally just listening to them in the background of a meditation or in a recording in the background.

Jo Stewart: That's super interesting. And I actually really love how you also talk about ASMR in your book, which is something I see, but I haven't ever really known what's happening with your nervous system and the ways that it's different but similar to meditation. Would you like to kind of explain a bit more about what's going on there?

Ann Swanson: Yeah. So ASMR, autonomic sensory motor response. Basically, it's the most popular search term on YouTube, last I checked, which is ridiculous. Like meditation. No, not the most popular. It is ASMR. And the reason being is about 20% of the population naturally feel a physical response to this certain pattern of sound. It can be induced in other ways, but a lot of times it's very whispering and it has little tones. I don't know if I'm doing it well. I am doing it right. I'm told I am able to do it, but it has these click noises in the mouth. My microphone might not pick it up, actually, because I have a philtre that gets rid of those, but it can induce what people call a head orgasm. And it's like vibrating in your head and it could be even full body. And people will watch these videos that are repetitive sounds and incorporate elements that get them relaxed in this state. And a lot of people are like, oh, this is meditation. Well, ASMR itself is not meditation, although you could be guided through a meditation that is in that voice or incorporates those effects. And actually, I've created an audio meditation that has an ASMR song in the background. If you go to, you can find out how to order the book as well as getting audio meditations that I worked with a sound engineer to optimise your brainwaves with these specific sounds. And there is an ASmr one in there. So if you are a part of that 20% you will hear it. And so it can be incorporated into meditation, but it itself is not meditation.

Jo Stewart: And is it only about sound? Or is it also about texture? Or is that another sensory thing going.

Ann Swanson: On, like physical touching texture?

Jo Stewart: Yes. Or even maybe seeing a cat being stroked, because I know that's often in the YouTube videos as well. And I feel like that really helps my brain to kind of feel like that soft texture and like the purry sounds. But maybe that's just a moment of human cat connection.

Ann Swanson: It's all the things at once. I just led a meditation teacher training and one of the students in the class in the final project, he did a meditation for cat lovers and I just loved it. You invite your cat in the beginning of the meditation, he says to invite your cat into your lap. But if they have other plans, you can just imagine them there. Because your cat is uncontrollable. They have their own plans.

Rane Bowen: I know one of ours only comes completely uninvited.

Jo Stewart: One of our cats quite regularly shows up on the porch outside our yoga studio when it's meditation time. Like he gets into it, he holds space from the deck.

Rane Bowen: Would you like to do some yoga with Joe or myself? Of course you would. That's why I'm excited to let you know that we're now offering lifetime access to our online video library. We have over 240 chair yoga, aerial yoga, nurturing yoga and pilates, yin yoga, gentle yoga and self massage class videos for the early bird price of just $89. Previously, these videos were only available to our monthly members, but we know the subscription model doesn't always work for everyone, so we're excited to be able to share it in this way. Just like our live classes, our videos all include multiple options so that you can practise in the way that feels right for you. We also include options to improvise props if you're practising at home. We've been getting some great feedback about these classes. You can cheque them out in the library section of au and there's even a few free samples there to get you started.

Jo Stewart: So another thing that I really enjoyed in your book is some of your meditation mythbusting, especially the mind wandering and the idea of being bad at meditation. Do you want to take us into.

Ann Swanson: A bit of that? Yeah, I know as a yoga teacher, a lot of people come up to me and they say I can't meditate because I don't have the time. I can't meditate because my mind wanders too much. There's all these kind of myths and barriers that our students have. But truly there's the myth busting in here. Because when we look at the science of meditation and what meditation is, it's not about stopping your thoughts. So that's completely wrong. If you think that you're supposed to stop your thoughts and that's what meditating is, you're always going to fail. Because even the most advanced meditators, their minds wander. We are human. That is part of the way we're built. And our minds often even wander to negative things. We have a negativity bias to protect us. So if you're like, oh, I worry too much, I can't meditate, listen, this is more reason to meditate. Meditation is boot camp for your focus, and it induces more positive feelings. It's very good for your mental health. So it's helpful for you to get out of that negativity bias. I mean, we're not actually being chased by a sabre toothed tiger when we look at that email. That's stressful. We don't need to have the chemical cocktail as if we were released. We can be more objective. Like meditation teaches you how to step back and observe your thoughts. You're not stopping them, you're just creating a little bit of space between you and them. And when you practise that in meditation, then you're better at it in life. And you also train your neural networks to notice when your mind is wandering. So you notice, and then a network picks up. It's called the salience network, and it determines, is this salient or important or not? Okay, so I'm thinking about this conversation I had ten years ago and how it was stupid that I said that. Is that important right now? No. Back to the focal point. Right. I'm thinking about how it smells like smoke and there's probably a fire in here. Is that important? Yes. Stop meditation and leave. Right. This skill of noticing when a spontaneous thought is important or not is a great skill to have in life, to be able to focus. So we train that network to pick up and notice quicker, and then it comes back to override to this central executive network. And that's where we're focusing on whatever the teacher is telling us to focus on our breath, the mantra, whatever it may be. It's not just the moment that you're focusing or the action of focusing. That's meditation. It's the whole process of mind wandering. We go into this default mode network of just thinking about other things. It's default for a reason. Everybody does it, and then it's going into noticing if that's important or not and coming back. That whole process is meditation. It's not just the focusing part.

Jo Stewart: That's a really great way of explaining it. And I also really appreciated the study that you included in your book, which was called a Wandering mind is an unhappy mind, and how this ability to kind of play out disaster scenarios or overanalyze things was an evolutionary advantage because obviously it helped keep us safe, but also is currently causing us to live less happy lives.

Ann Swanson: Yeah. Just like our negativity bias was an evolutionary advantage, but now we have to override it. So, yes, researchers in this Harvard study that was published in the prestigious journal of Science, they found that people mind wander 47% of their waking hours. So that means when you're doing something, but you're thinking about something else, and we're not being mindful, obviously, during that, when you're not mindful. Now, I'm kind of sick of this advice. It feels pervasive in our culture, whether it be business culture, yoga culture, just be mindful all the time. Well, that's easier said than done, right? It's human nature to be mind wandering. We need these techniques and tactics to come back to the present moment, to be present and mindful, to get into flow, state and zone more. So that's what I was really trying to do with this book, is integrate the techniques, the tangible tactics that you can do to get back, to be more mindful, and to train your brain to notice when something's not important and come back. Because the interesting part of this study is that they found that your ability to focus was the biggest determinant in whether or not you were happy. So if you were present while doing whatever, you were happier than if you were mind wandering while doing whatever, like literally while washing the dishes or having sex. If you're present, you're happier, doesn't matter which activity you were doing. And then they would find that even great activities, playing with your kids, whatever it is, if the person was not present, they were not happy. So it seems to be the secret to happiness is presence. The thing is, practise doesn't make perfect. You're not going to stop mind wandering altogether, so get that expectation out of your head. Practise makes you present more often. It trains those neural networks just like working out at the gym. Right? We're training our biceps and we're getting stronger. You're training those neural networks to be stronger. Stronger than that default mode network that's all focused on me. Me. And what did I say ten years ago? What am I going to eat tomorrow?

Jo Stewart: And I really like the kind of focus on, here's some things that you can do to help you enjoy your everyday existence more. I know that a traditional goal of meditation is enlightenment. However, I really don't see too many contemporary meditation teachers focusing on that. And it wasn't a big part of your book either. Like you were more about the everyday life stuff. What are your thoughts on enlightenment as a goal for meditation?

Ann Swanson: Well, enlightenment could be this. Perhaps it's this state where we're in perfect peace all the time, or perhaps we get these tastes of it with meditation. I think a lot of us have experienced that taste of being lighter, as if a weight is being taken off of your shoulders. And so I think that's what most people actually come to meditation for, is these tangible, real world effects. They're not coming to meditation because I want to be a monk and get rid of all my physical possessions. Because you probably do that if you're enlightened, right? I don't know. So they're not coming to meditation for that purpose. We come to meditation because we want to think better, we want to have better mental health, we want to sleep better. These are all science backed benefits of meditation. We want to have better cognition and memory, cardiovascular health, heart health, we want to get sick less often. These are real tangible benefits from meditation. So that's why people are going to come to the practise. But what you're going to get out of it is more than you bargained for, especially if you came to the practise to be more productive, which I think that that's one of the most common things with the mindfulness movement. Is it being used in corporate environments to boost productivity and it does it. Absolutely. If you're present rather than distracted, you're going to be more productive, but if you come to it for that sort of goal, you're going to get way more than you bargained for. Nobody comes to meditation to be more compassionate. Right. But you are going to notice that you are feeling more connected and compassionate and able to do more positive things for others, helping others. You get that helper's high from helping others and you're able to basket that and experience that at a deeper level. Rather know I mentioned that default mode network, that wandering mind when that's the one that's predominant. Yale researchers call that the me or the ego part of the brain, the activity that's involved in I thinking. When that tones down, you start thinking of more we thinking more unity, like we think of with yoga, more oneness. And so you're going to get more than you bargained for.

Jo Stewart: And I love that because it actually feels really dystopian to kind of hear the capitalist kind of, how can I squeeze more out of my employees? I'll make them meditate for productivity. And then the actual outcome is more interconnectedness and compassion for corporate meditation. I guess it is.

Ann Swanson: And some of the mindfulness movement has been criticised as being like a mcMindfulness because it's been oversimplified. And I think people are like, oh, just pay attention to your breath, and then you have me in a panic attack paying attention to my breath. And there's so much more to meditation, there's so many other techniques and ways to approach it. So mindfulness is wonderful, and it's going to be a byproduct also to be more mindful and present through the day. But I encourage, especially yoga teachers, to learn more meditation techniques.

Jo Stewart: And so another really interesting thing that you shared is how helpful meditation can be for slowing the ageing process and some of the science that has helped reach that conclusion. Would you like to dig into a bit of that?

Ann Swanson: Yeah. So the landmark study that my collaborator, Dr. Sarah Lazar worked on was looking at the brains of meditators, and she found that people in their 50s who meditate, they have similar brain structures to 25 year old non meditators. She spoke about this in her TED talk. And what happens as we age is our brain gets smaller. My 99 year old grandpa, his brain is smaller now than it was when he was my age. It happens naturally, and especially it gets smaller in critical areas that have to do with memory and cognition and thinking fast. And so when we meditate, we are able to rebuild connectivity and the tissue and the grey matter in those critical areas, those exact same areas that tend to degrade the most we build up through meditation. So that's one way is the physical changes in your brain that we see also on a cellular level, if we zoom into the DNA at the end of the chromosomes, there's something called telomeres, and telomeres, they also get smaller, shorter as we age, as a natural part of ageing. And when that happens, genes don't communicate as well. They're maybe not doing what they are supposed to do, and that's part of ageing. Well, telomeres can be preserved in their length through meditation and yoga practise. And in some cases they've even lengthened, they've gotten longer, reversing the effects. So meditation can reverse your biological age, not your chronological age. We can't reverse time, but we can change how your body behaves, how your organs behave, so that they act and feel younger. And I think a lot of us have experienced that where I am 37 now, but I feel healthier and younger than I did when I was in college, because back then I was not making as good of lifestyle decisions, staying up late, overworking, drinking alcohol and meditation helps you make better lifestyle decisions. That's one of the side effects, right? Compared to medications, meditation has positive side effects, not negative or adverse side effects. And one of them is that you make better lifestyle decisions.

Jo Stewart: And so with the kind of biological changes that you're talking about, like the telomeres and the brain rebuilding, do you know what kind of level of practise you need to sustain to start seeing those benefits? Or is that different for everyone? Would five minutes a day do it? Or is it like a much more in depth practise?

Ann Swanson: Typically, studies are ten to 30 minutes a day. That's where the research has been historically. But more and more research is coming out that short meditations make a big difference. And that's what I encourage. And my favourite feature about meditation for the real world is the 1 minute meditations that I scatter throughout that you can put through your day. When you put a meditation at a critical moment, you're going to get immediate effects. You're going to notice that you just press the reset button for your nervous system. So some shorter meditations have been studied that have effects, immediate effects and longer term effects. So for example, there's more research coming out about compassion meditation. And in one study, participants were just instructed to pay attention to their heart area. And as you're listening, please do this. Pay attention to your heart area, centre of your chest, and think of someone you love, think of somebody that you want to send good vibes to. And just imagine them smiling and at ease. You might even smile yourself. And in this study, they did this for just five minutes. And they found that in five minutes there was a change in something that is basically an antibody that helps your body fight invaders better. So their immune system was boosted. That went up hundreds of times what it did compared to the control. Also, people felt more energetic throughout the day. And these results, they tested through the day, they lasted for the day and days longer. So the effects from doing short meditations are just now being studied. And I think that's really where it's at, because we can integrate them and stick with them through our day. The best meditation is the type that you actually do, right? Not all of us have 30 minutes a day. But you know what? I do have five minutes here and two minutes there while I'm waiting at the doctor's office, and then five minutes while you're waiting for your kids to come to the car when you're picking them up for school. And that adds up. And we're finding that in exercise research, too, is that these mindful movement snacks can be even more beneficial than doing a full hour of exercise. That's really how we're supposed to be as humans. We're supposed to move through the day. We're supposed to focus through the day, be present and compassionate and connected through the day.

Jo Stewart: And it's interesting as well, because the examples you gave are such prime phone scrolling times. Like those like, oh, I've got a few minutes, let me just see what's happening on the Internet.

Ann Swanson: Yeah, rather than scrolling while we wait, which we know is not good for your mental health. Not saying you should stop altogether looking at your phone, but we know that spending a lot of time doing it isn't good for your health. And instead of scrolling while you wait, why don't you meditate while you wait? Even if it's just a minute, five minutes, noticing your breath or doing some breath work, a breathing break during that time, nobody needs to know you're doing it. You could be doing this standing in line at the grocery store. It's just a difference in how you're focusing.

Jo Stewart: Another thing that I like, that you go into, which I think will be a really nice flow on from having your moment of meditation while you're waiting to meet someone, is the power of co regulation. And it's such an interesting topic because I feel like it's one of the benefits of meditation that goes beyond your individual self. Analogy that I love is it's like having a shower. So it's nice for you to be nice and clean and fresh from your shower, but it is also better for the people around you.

Ann Swanson: So would you like to talk a.

Jo Stewart: Bit about co regulation?

Ann Swanson: So, co regulation occurs when you are meditating in the same space as someone, whether you're in a class or your children perhaps are in the room and they're seeing you meditate, or even your pet is there. You co regulate with your pet. And this is when your nervous system aligns, so your heart rate is lower, so theirs is, and vice versa. And your nervous system starts to align. You release similar chemical cocktails. We release more oxytocin. That's that cuddle love hormone. But the great thing about oxytocin is that it also has cardiovascular benefits. It lowers inflammation. So this is more than just a feel good hormone. This has long term effects when you are releasing it more and more, and a sense of connection. Right. So co regulation occurs also when we're chanting or singing. Even singing Happy Birthday is a co regulation event. You're singing with others, you're connecting, you're in the same space, and your heart rhythm begins to align. We've seen that in research on music and singing, that your heart rate starts to be the same as the others around you. And in a lot of the songs that are chanted or sung hymns, like Ave Maria or, like, in Tibetan Buddhism, chanting omani, padme, om. Throughout different cultures, the songs that we sing, according to an italian researcher, Luciano Bernardi, he's found that they put us in a specific rhythm of breath. It's about six breaths per minute. So between 5.5 and six breaths per minute, depending on the study and what we're looking at, it puts us in a state of coherence. It's this state of balance of our nervous system. And it's pretty cool that throughout different cultures, all of the songs put us in the same breathing rhythm, and that when we need to kind of find that sense of balance, we can go into that breathing rhythm. And in the meditation challenge that I created with meditation for the real world book, there's one song that puts you in exactly that rhythm. You listen to the music and breathe along with it. So the sounds can be really powerful, but also the breathing can be so powerful in co regulation.

Jo Stewart: And a lot of our listeners are yoga teachers. And I think that is an example that a lot of yoga teachers have noticed. Like the day that you show up a bit rattled to your class because you got stuck in traffic or you got a message just before your class how often that class does not go well. And just taking that bit of time and space so that you are calm when you begin, often things just flow a lot more smoothly. And I find, especially teaching kids, you've just got to be so grounded in your own nervous system to lead that.

Ann Swanson: Anxiety is contagious, but calm is contagious, too.

Jo Stewart: And so another interesting topic, which you really go into in your book as well, is trauma. And especially since there are so many benefits that meditation can offer for people who have a trauma history, but also cautions, and especially since you're sharing it via a book rather than as a yoga therapist, where you'd be working with someone one on one. Obviously you put a lot of thought into the types of practises that you recommended and what types of meditations do tend to be the most helpful for people when navigating trauma.

Ann Swanson: Yeah. So it's similar with the anxiety situation that I described earlier, where I have those panic attacks in that sometimes body awareness and breath awareness are too much for trauma. Now, in a safe place, it's great to explore them. So when you're feeling really safe, but that might be too much too fast, especially in a group setting, for somebody with trauma or their first time meditating. So I tend to encourage with trauma to have the eyes open so you can see the doors, you can see what's going on around you, and if you want, you can close your eyes, but that's a very optional thing. So I'm even demoing with the eyes open, maybe staring at a single point. That can be really great to cultivate a very safe environment. Safe place, meditation, where you're visualising, like I said earlier, that safe place for you now that's going to be different for each person. It may be at the beach, it may be at your grandmother's house, cuddled with the dog, it may be in your home, in a specific chair. Visualising a place where you feel safe. In yoga Nidra, I rest. Yoga Nidra, which I was trained in, they call this your inner resource. Where do you feel safe? Where can you go to? That is a really great tool to teach people dealing with trauma. And then another topic I explore in the book is we focus on our triggers, but there's an opposite to triggers. Like, if we're always thinking of, what are my triggers? Where am I looking for them? All that triggers me, then it amplifies. What you think about amplifies, and it's helpful to know your triggers and talk to a therapist. But we need to shift the focus to what psychologist and social worker Deb Dana calls glimmers. These are the opposite of triggers. And I talk about this in the book. She was nice enough to consult with me so that I could include a little bit about her concept of glimmers, which are things that spark joy, lightness, that lightness, that little bit of enlightenment that we were discussing earlier. Glimmers are things like a picture of your puppy or a smile from your child or I live here in Hawaii now. So a rainbow. It could be just the breeze on your skin when you're feeling hot. Take a moment and do what psychologists call savouring. Savour it, experience it. Really appreciate those glimmers. I think showing people with trauma, which is most of us have some trauma that we're dealing with, that we can also feel good and we can also savour those glimmers, even if we're experiencing challenges, too. They can both exist at once. So glimmers have been a really great concept for me personally in dealing with traumas and for people I work with.

Jo Stewart: I love as well how noticing your glimmers, like noticing those moments of joy, can also flow into creative practise. Because even if it's taking a photograph of that thing or like making a drawing or a painting or like a dance to your favourite song, I feel like that embodies it even more in your mind.

Ann Swanson: Yeah. To amplify it.

Rane Bowen: So I guess we've got one more question, and we ask this all the time. We probably asked this to you the last time, but maybe in the last few years, if you could distil everything that you've learned and everything that you share into one core essence, what do you think that one thing would be?

Ann Swanson: I think that we all have a thinking problem, and part of it is that our thoughts become so much of who we are, we define ourselves by our thoughts. We believe our thoughts. And thoughts are not facts, they're just chatter in your mind. And the thing is, thoughts are so powerful, thoughts can lead to your downfall, but thoughts can also be responsible for your healing. So it is said that if the whole world could just. Everybody could just sit alone in a room with their thoughts, that we'd have world peace. People are pushing down their thoughts and not listening, not taking that time to become an observer. So that's what I want to get people doing more of is meditating.

Rane Bowen: Beautiful.

Ann Swanson: Be with your thoughts.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, I love it. And great way to be the change that you want to see in the.

Ann Swanson: World with your book.

Jo Stewart: I think it's definitely, like, it'll be a really helpful tool for a lot of people who maybe have felt intimidated by meditation or like they were bad at it, to just have all of these other possibilities so they can get these.

Ann Swanson: Yeah, yeah. It's great for yoga teachers, but also as a gift book. I worked with an illustrator who does work for the New York Times and the New Yorker. It's totally different vibe than the science of yoga, which was more anatomical illustrations. These are more like relaxing. This is a book I envision by your bedside or on your coffee table to inspire a practise to take a break from scrolling or going on apps. Sometimes I'm on apps searching for meditations and it is another social media thing. You're scrolling, you see your badges instead. Just going to a physical book is something that's been inspiring me recently as a book lover and a lover of art. It is a piece of art and to your listeners. If you go to, I have the free gift of the audio meditations that go with it as well as the links to buy it in whatever country you're in. So thank you.

Rane Bowen: Beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Ann Swanson: My pleasure.

Rane Bowen: We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Ann. If you'd like to continue learning more, we've included the link for her book Meditation for the Real World in our show notes. We'd also like to congratulate surreal for winning the competition from our last episode, a copy of Jivana's book the Teacher's Guide to accessible yoga. We love these opportunities to talk to wonderful yoga authors as we always learn so much from these types of episodes. If these conversations are enriching your yoga knowledge, we'd love to hear about it. You can leave any questions or feedback on our flow artist podcast, Facebook page or on posts on our @ranelovesyoga or @gardenofyoga Instagram posts. Special thanks to our Patreon supporters. Your donations help us cover editing and hosting costs and we appreciate you so very much. We'd like to express our gratitude to go Sol for granting us permission to use their track baby robots as our theme song. Be sure to cheque out to discover more of their incredible music. Once again, we thank you so much for spending your precious time with us. We appreciate you more than words can express here. Arohanui maua kia kotou katoa sending you big, big love.

Friends of Flow

Similar Episodes