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Jewish Journal

Exercising the Mind

by Ani Dumas

May 3, 2001 | 8:00 pm

As we enter the new millennium, fitness professionals are becoming more aware of the movement toward spiritual forms of exercise. Programs like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and body work are common in fitness clubs and community centers. To keep up with today's stressful lifestyles, we must do more than increase our heart rates and pump iron to maintain maximum health. Mind and body fitness can facilitate this by achieving inner balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit.

One way to practice mind and body fitness is through meditation. Methods of meditation were used in ancient Judaic times by focusing on certain words or prayers. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has written two books on Jewish meditation: "Jewish Meditation, a Practical Guide" and "Meditation and the Bible."

According to Kaplan, Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation. "There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written [until approximately 400 b.c.e.], meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people," he maintains.

Today, meditation is becoming much more mainstream and has crossed religious barriers once associated with it. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and rabbi emeritus of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism, describes meditation as a "profound and demanding practice" which "clears the obstacles in our mind, to help us perceive the underlying realities, the divine."

Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation that has been known to reverse the stress process. Focus is key. By focusing on our breath or a mantra, we are able to quiet our minds and still our constant chatter. Meditation should be thought of as an exercise program. You would not run on the treadmill once a week and expect any results. The same is true of meditation. A regular meditation program of 10 minutes a day will produce psychological as well as physiological benefits.

The following is a basic meditation exercise for beginners:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and relax.

Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. (Place your hands on your abdomen; feel it expand and collapse with each breath).

At the exhalation, count each breath, from 1 to 10; repeat.

Repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. It could be a phrase from the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4:15: "Take you, therefore, good heed of your souls." It could also be a single word, such as "Shema."

Continue the meditation for 10 to 20 minutes. If the mind begins to wander, calmly direct it back to the task.

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