Living Well: Meditation can steer your commute in a calming direction

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: There are a number of ways to describe your daily commute. OK, right. Not all of them are printable. There’s rampant stress in those traffic lanes. But Terry McGilloway sees something else in morning and evening drive times.

There are a number of ways to describe your daily commute.

OK, right. Not all of them are printable. There’s rampant stress in those traffic lanes.

But Terry McGilloway sees something else in morning and evening drive times.

“We find few opportunities in daily life or weekly life for private time,” said McGilloway, a meditation teacher and director of Ananda meditation centers in Seattle and Bothell ( “A commute is private time we not might find in other parts of our day.”

McGilloway said he knows a number of Ananda students and others who play chanting CDs on their car music systems. While he doesn’t see that as a universal approach, McGilloway is a proponent of what you might call the “commuter as meditator” concept. That goes for drivers and passengers (on all manner of conveyance) alike.

“It makes such perfect sense,” said McGilloway. “People lead such intense lives.”

McGilloway offered a simple starting point for converting your commute from eek to energizing: Slow, deep breathing. He said that as a meditation novice himself decades ago, he was taught to “hold a newspaper up in front of your face if you don’t want other people on the bus to notice you.”

As a passenger, you can begin your commuter-as-meditator approach with an “eyes-open, belly breathing” exercise not likely to draw much attention. Called diaphragmatic breathing, the first step is to sit up a bit straighter in your seat by pulling the spine away from the back rest and lifting your chest up. Not ramrod straight, but taut enough to imagine the proverbial string from the ceiling holding your head and spine in place.

Next, McGilloway suggests taking a nice, slow inhalation to fill the chest and “even the upper chest below the throat.”

“Don’t push it,” said McGilloway. “Normal breathing is your goal.”

Hold the inhaled breath for the same amount of time it took to breathe in, then exhale on that same count a third time. For example, if you inhale on a four count, then hold for four and exhale the full breath on four beats.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the natural medicine guru and best-selling author, adds a fourth part to this exercise by holding the exhale state for four more counts before the next round of inhale-hold-exhale.

In either case, McGilloway said, there are research studies reporting that regular slow, deep breathing exercises can deliver 40 percent more oxygen to the brain than a typical individual’s more shallow breathing (not down to the diaphragm).

Repeat the breathing exercise for six to 12 repetitions, said McGilloway. Then go back to reading the newspaper.

For drivers, McGilloway suggests two techniques. The first can be safely used while operating the car.

“I use it on long trips,” said McGilloway. “You simply become aware of the natural flow of breath in your nose, up and down the nasal passages. Stick to breath awareness in the head. That is safe for the road.”

The outcome is a feeling of calmness, said McGilloway. Like any form of meditation, it will require regular practice to get the best results. For a stressed driver, it doesn’t mean maintaining breath awareness the whole commute, but remembering to perform the exercise periodically and consistently on commuting trips.

“You are redirecting your focal point (from traffic and other worries) to the present moment,” he said. “You clear the mind.”

At stoplights or other stopped-traffic situations, McGilloway offers what he calls the “latte substitute.” It might even lead you to skip your afternoon caffeine beverage if that is a habit.

The latte substitute is basically a “double-hit” inhale in which you breathe a short breath followed immediately by a longer pull of air. McGilloway said.

“It would be a ‘ha-haaah’ sound if you were talking it.”

After the double-shot, er, double-hit inhale through the nose, hold the breath while you tighten your fists and curl your toes. The effect will be a gentle vibration of your whole body. As you become more proficient, you can tense the upper arms, upper legs and torso. Release the breath out of your mouth and relax your muscles. Repeat if the situation allows, remembering this exercise is not safe while a driver is in motion.

Most commuters do some walking during their trips. They can consider following the walking meditation technique popularized by Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, among others. Charles MacInerney, a Texas-based meditation and yoga teacher who has consulted for Apple, IBM and Motorola among corporate clients, said walking meditation is “wonderful initiation” for beginners.

Keeping in mind that you are still traversing an urban landscape with edgy drivers (apparently not double-hit inhaling at lights) and pedestrian signals, start a walking meditation by striding a little faster than normal, said MacInerney. Then gradually slow to what you think is your normal walking speed.

Next, slow down until you feel unnatural or even off balance. Finally, speed up just enough to feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically. This is your optimal meditative state for walking. From there, strive for a “smooth gait,” which McInerney said may mean you speed up a bit on the first few tries. Be mindful of your breathing and walking, which helps to chase away stress and worries.

“The idea is to walk in silence, both internal and external,” said MacInerney. “Make each step a gesture. You will fall into a natural rhythm and move into a state of grace.”