This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal
People meditate for all kinds of reasons. Some do it to relieve anxiety, others to achieve clarity. Some find the experience as natural as breathing, others struggle with it. But what about those of us who just can't seem to figure out how to do it?
I've tried to meditate while sitting, lying down, even swaying in a silk hammock. Instead of quieting my thoughts, I start creating to-do lists, wondering what that noise is, thinking about lunch--literally anything but focusing on my breath. Even one-minute meditation sessions stress me out, which defeats the purpose.
And then a couple of years ago, on a whim, I ordered a 1,000-piece Frida Kahlo puzzle. Hours went by as I lingered, contented and calm, over the pieces. "This must be what meditation is supposed to be like," I thought.
I'm not alone in this line of thinking. "Many people struggle practicing meditation," says Dr. Chelsea Azarcon, a naturopathic medical doctor who has researched the body's response to working on puzzles and practices them herself as part of her experience with chronic illness. "This is where alternative forms of meditation, like puzzling, come in."
The Missing Piece
The parallels between puzzling and meditation may come as a surprise. "Think of it as exercise for the brain," says Azarcon, who explains that both activities stimulate the formation of new neural pathways.
While exploring cognitive decline, neurology researcher Patrick Fissler found that doing jigsaw puzzles can activate up to eight cognitive functions at once. This sets off a complex chain of events in the brain that might help reduce the chance of developing dementia and Alzheimer's.
Puzzling also increases brain waves that focus your brain and help quiet the mental chatter so you can relax, explains Azarcon. "Although what happens in the brain when we puzzle is a little different than what happens when we meditate, both move us into a parasympathetic state, reducing stress and helping us relax." Also, Azarcon adds, puzzling can lower heart rate and blood pressure, similar to meditation.
The MacArthur Study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University, confirms those findings, indicating that people who do puzzles are also likely to have a longer life expectancy and better quality of life than those who do not. These traits are commonly shared by those who meditate. Other benefits of regular meditation include improved memory and cognitive abilities, increased attention span, reduced depression and insomnia, and lowered blood pressure.
Aside from its ability to create relaxation and its obvious health benefits, the quiet focus required by puzzles can bring about one of the primary objectives of meditation: bringing yourself back to the moment in front of you.
"Solving puzzles can be an ideal mindfulness exercise to help redirect your attention to the present moment," says psychiatrist Dr. Sasha Hamdani, founder of FocusGenie, an app that helps manage ADHD symptoms. "If meditation doesn't work for you but puzzles do, that's great!"
"I've tried meditating before but my mind just goes all over the place and I have too much inner chattering going on," says Leslie Peed, a member of the Jigsaw Puzzle Enthusiasts group on Facebook. "When I'm puzzling, I'm able to block everything out and focus solely on the puzzle. I'm not thinking about a hundred different things."
Brittny Horne was so impressed with the way puzzling made her feel that she founded her own puzzle company, RVL Wellness Co. "Not all of us are built to enjoy traditional meditation. Puzzles allow me to 'sit still' without actually sitting still," she says. "And the focus required to put the pieces together allows me to remain present in the moment."
Nowadays, there's always a puzzle partially assembled somewhere in my house. When I'm feeling overwhelmed, I'll spend several minutes putting a few pieces in place before walking away feeling better. I feel as though it clears my thoughts and helps me get on with my day in a more grounded state.
Perhaps one day I'll try meditation again. But for now, I'm content to put my puzzles together, one piece at a time.
About Our Contributor
Lois Alter Mark is an award-winning lifestyle and travel writer. A regular contributor to Forbes,USA Today 10 Best and Reader's Digest, she loves experiencing and introducing readers to the best spas, self-care products and wellness destinations. Thanks to her blog, Midlife at the Oasis, Lois was chosen by Oprah to accompany her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. She's still pinching herself.
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