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Social work professor and 15-year mindfulness practitioner Shanza Isom said body scans can help you fall asleep and cope with pain.

The home stretch of the semester is here. With finals right around the corner, now’s the time to optimize our mindfulness to the greatest extent. 

If calming your mind with traditional, still meditation isn’t for you, don’t sweat it — JMU social work professor Shanza Isom said there are other ways to accomplish the same goal. 

“When I'm super stressed, certain practices of mine no longer serve me in the same way,” Isom said. “Does that mean that breathing meditation doesn't work for me? No, it just means that I need something else in this moment.”

Body scans and progressive relaxation meditation

Isom is a 15-year mindfulness practitioner and instructor of a one-week winter session course called Mindfulness as a Wellness Practice at JMU. She uses a technique called body scanning to cope with neck stiffness that often arises from frequent sitting, among other reasons. The practice involves noting the different parts of your physical body and unclenching or relaxing each muscle or joint — from bottom to top, or vice versa — to check in and connect with your physical body, Isom said. 

Body scans, Isom said, also help with falling asleep and coping with pain — even chronic pain. Isom said she often takes her students through quick body scans, and she said her students are always surprised at how tense their shoulders are, for example, after simply taking a deep breath and dropping them a few times. 

Isom recommends that students try guided body scans first because another person’s voice can enable relaxation more, she said, as it’s easy to get in your own head when conducting one independently. Isom prefers doing body scans from bottom to top while standing up. 

“I always need to be grounded, and feet ground me to the earth,” Isom said. “I'll start with my feet and how they feel on the floor, what sensations I feel, feel the support of the ground under my feet, and then I work my way up, being sure [that] during that time, I always bring my attention back to my breath.”

Loving-kindness meditation and metta practice

Rather than connecting to your physical body, loving-kindness meditation connects you to the greater world, Isom said. This is accomplished through self-compassion and all the “feel goods” that loving-kindness meditations manifest, she said. The practice itself can consist of envisioning a perfect life while repeating positive phrases like “May I be happy.” 

“We tend to show more compassion for other people … [and] be a little less forgiving and kind to ourselves,” Isom said. “If you're going through a hard time, the words that I use to encourage you, how I show up for you, how I talk to you — it's a lot different than how I talk to myself if I'm going through the same things.”

Isom said the most advantageous time to foster the self-compassion that a loving-kindness meditation brings is when you’re going through a really tough time — it results in a feeling of being held and supported, which in turn increases gratitude for other people, she said. 

Similarly, JMU writing, rhetoric and technical communication (WRTC) professor Jared Featherstone practices metta meditation every morning. Featherstone, a certified meditation teacher from the Center for Koru Mindfulness, said metta is about cultivating a particular feeling through the repetition of phrases. 

Featherstone said he practices metta in three stages: repeating well-wishing phrases to those he’s close to, those he’s neutral toward and someone with whom he has difficulty or conflict. Originally, he said, the practice was taught to combat fear. Today, he said, it’s beneficial to practice when you feel “closed off.” 

“I can't think of many human beings who don't need to cultivate some positivity, especially given the last year or two,” Featherstone said. “It's established as a practice that reestablishes connection.”

Featherstone said metta is advantageous to practice before your next big test. He said the self-compassion element is a good counter to the doubt and questions that many students may juggle before an exam. 

“Issuing the terms of the metta practice toward yourself is a great one before exams because often we're feeling very self-critical,” Featherstone said. “There's a lot of destructive messaging toward the self.”

Walking meditation and sensory exercises

Mindfully walking can also help pre-test nerves, Isom said. Commonly used as an alternative to regular meditation for those that don’t prefer to sit still, walking meditation also has stress-lowering benefits because it’s a form of physical activity, Isom said. 

The key to walking meditation, Isom said, is to walk mindfully, or to notice your surroundings in a purposeful manner without judgement while staying in the present moment. She said this slows you down and keeps you in the present — not worrying about future moments. 

“We tend to rush for everything,” Isom said. “When we're in that space of rushing, we're increasing our stress. So, how do we slow down? One way to do that is to slow down your steps … Consider walking on the ground as if either they're eggshells or imagine the ground was glass.” 

Tangentially, sensory meditations are a way to lock in before a test, Isom said. One way to do so is an exercise where you note five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell and one thing you taste. Isom used to do this activity with her classes but under the disguise of calling them “noticing walks” to her students, she said. 

During her interview with The Breeze, Isom even kept her door open to the 40-degree outside air — feeling the cold opens Isom’s senses and keeps her “grounded,” she said. 

“If you're intentional, you begin to pay attention to your surroundings in a really interesting way,” Isom said. “It can increase your focus.” 

Transcendental meditation 

While transcendental meditation can be used as a stress reliever, it also has its place as a tool to reach “cosmic consciousness,” or having an infinite awareness of self, Bob Hallahan, JMU jazz piano professor and 50-year practitioner of transcendental meditation, said. 

Transcendental meditation involves repeating a mind-numbing mantra aloud then in your head until it becomes effortless. For this reason, junior jazz studies major and Hallahan’s student Peter Haensel said transcendental meditation isn’t considered “mindful” because mindful activity is purposeful and involves intention. 

Haensel said transcendental meditation and the routine he established with the practice during quarantine helped him adapt to the stress of performing in front of a live audience again as pandemic restrictions loosened. Following the initial sedated, calming feeling of transcendental meditation, he said, the practice gives him a “burst of energy.” 

“I've been able, since [COVID-19] ...  to carry these new habits into the school environment,” Haensel said. “Having that consistency, there's something [about] that stability of these routines that’s been huge.” 

Once you get deep into transcendental meditation, Hallahan said, you experience “source of thought” — pure awareness, pure creativity and intelligence. The practice can be performed in the same position as regular meditation, in a chair with eyes closed, but he said the mind is aware and alert. 

“If [there’s a] fire in your building, you wouldn't be oblivious to it,” Hallahan said. “You don't go unconscious when you practice.” 

Hallahan recalled an instance in college during a test where he experienced tangible benefits to transcendental meditation. During his 8 a.m. geology class, he said, there was a question he knew the answer to, but it wasn’t “right there.” Instead of going, “Oh [gosh], I can’t think of it,” he said he could sense the answer coming as the answer floated up as an “unformed entity.” 

“It was kind of like the [transcendental meditation] experience in reverse,” Hallahan said. “It helps you maybe see the glass is [more] half full and maybe appreciate things more and see the value of things.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every other Thursday, and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.