by Dr. Amy Wiesner
To consider sitting silently, without thinking for an extended period of time, can sound intimidating. Yet there have been many modern studies that have shown meditation to not only affect the mind beneficially, but the body as well.
So what should you know about meditation that would allow you to consider adding it to your daily routine?
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in the East. There are references to it being practiced in India as early as 1500 BC. Later, it was used in Buddhism and Hinduism, including yoga, to calm the mind and body. It was practiced mainly for religious purposes until its beneficial actions attracted interest in the West where it was then studied for its positive effects to mental and physical well-being.
Meditation focuses one’s attention to bring balance and relaxation to the body. You can focus on your breathing or repeating a phrase, or mantra, to keep your attention in one place. By being in the present moment, you let go of stressors that negatively affect your mind and body. For example, if you are worried about a project that is due soon, but you spend time focusing only on your breathing and nothing else, that is less time that you worry! As your body gets used to meditation, you learn to use its relaxing effects on a regular basis to have long-lasting effects and it helps to change the structure of the brain as well.
One study at the Harvard Neuroscience Institute found that meditation enhances different areas of the brain, specifically those for cognitive function and sensory perception. They also found that older participants in the study showed fewer signs of aging in the brain. These results indicated to the researchers that meditation has profound effects on both brain function and emotional well-being.
As for physical benefits, there are many. Since meditation reduces stress, that in turn reduces the hormone cortisol which is produced as a result of stress on the body. High levels of cortisol have been shown to negatively affect blood pressure, blood sugar, brain function and other hormones, for example. By decreasing stress, and thus cortisol, you have less chance of having these health problems. And if your health is already compromised by stress, doing meditation can help to regulate your body and help it to function better.
Another study of young adults found that after 3 months of a regular meditation practice, their blood pressure and mental health were improved. Anxiety, depression and anger were all decreased. Other studies have found meditation to decrease oxidative stress on the body, thus positively benefitting blood lipids and decreasing free radicals. It has also been shown to decrease pain, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, improve sleep and enhance quality of life.
A medical doctor who has done countless work on meditation since the 1960s is Herbert Benson, MD. He is a professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Mind Body Medical Institute. His research has been based on the mind-body connection and showing how the mind and body are inescapably linked. His book, The Relaxation Response, is based on his research and offers easy instructions to kick-start your meditation practice. You can find his suggestions here.
Meditation doesn’t require travel. It can be done anywhere, anytime. Many people choose to meditate on a yoga mat or propped up on pillows. One way to keep your practice environmentally-friendly is to use a PVC-free mat and organic pillows.
Overall, there are no good reasons not to meditate. If you think you don’t have the time, start off with a short period of time and increase the time until your mind gets used to the stillness. If you find yourself unable to focus, don’t berate yourself and quit, just recognize that this is normal and refocus yourself. In our hectic, fast-paced society, it’s easy to dismiss meditation as unnecessary and counterproductive, but actually, it’s quite the opposite!
Image courtesy of PlanetGreen.com