THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
STILLING YOUR MIND, ONE THOUGHT AT A TIME
As a result of Meditation new channels are formed in the brain, new thought currents are generated and new brain cells are formed.
Meditation and Mantras – Swami Vishnudevananda
The Health benefits of Meditation
Meditation practitioners know it works – for some of us, however, the question may arise: is there scientific proof? Today, thanks to great improvements in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging techniques, there is a growing body of evidence of both physical and mental health benefits of meditation. This article looks at the most interesting aspects of the current scientific research on meditation.
A short note on meditation research
Many studies tend to use a small number of subjects for a relatively short time – making their outcome less reliable. Keep this in mind when looking at scientific research on meditation and yoga. One way of getting around this problem is to take all the smaller studies on the same topic and make one big study out of their findings. This is a scientific review.
It may sound counterintuitive that mere “sitting and concentrating” should improve physical health, but it does. Regular meditation strengthens the immune system and may reduce inflammation and biological aging. One small study showed that mindfulness meditators produced more antibodies (a function of the immune system) in response to vaccination than those who didn’t meditate.
Participants in another study of just 5 days of 20-min per day meditation had a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol and an increase in immune system activity as well as less anxiety, anger and fatigue, confirming the connection between stress and the immune system and emotional wellbeing.
Even more inspiring: these effects were shown with mindfulness meditation; just imagine the boost your immune system will get with meditation practices that actively foster positivity like mantra meditation or loving kindness meditation.
A strong immune system is the foundation of physical health, and research (albeit all smaller studies) has shown that meditation helps a variety of medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes (lowering blood sugar and insulin levels), PMS, headache, and other acute and chronic pain ( raising pain thresholds, perceived pain intensity and anticipatory anxiety). By also increasing sattva, vairagya and viveka, which automatically lead to making better lifestyle choices, meditation may help in more than one way to stay healthy and happy.
High blood pressure and stress are risk factors for heart disease, and meditation reduces both. Scientific results are so convincing that the American Heart Association included meditation in their official guideline for the treatment of high blood pressure. In addition to conventional treatment (the “blood pressure pill”), they recommend adding meditation and/or other mind-body techniques such as yoga.
Stress and Mental Health
Stress relief and -management is one of the most common reasons why many people meditate. Regular meditation has been found to stimulate the relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system) and to shut off the sympathetic nervous system. As mentioned before, meditation decreases cortisol, the hormone of chronic stress.
Positive Psychology has beautifully shown that positive emotions and relaxation are linked: Self-generated positive emotions via loving-kindness meditation increase the body’s relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and feeling socially connected, both these things help increase positive emotions. Researchers concluded that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward- spiral dynamic.
Meaning: The more you relax, the easier it is to become positive and to feel connected. The more positive and connected you feel, the more you relax, which in turn makes you feel more positive and connected and so on and on……. The conclusion for the Yogi: A good time to meditate on positive qualities is after final relaxation to prolong relaxation and boost positive feelings and mood.
How does this translate into real life? Meditation improves psychological and cognitive functions, including attention, concentration, memory, compassion, and empathy, which are all factors of emotional wellbeing. It activates regions of the brain, which improve mood. These effects can be felt: Large reviews show that contemplative practices like meditation can reduce stress and increase well-being in comparison to active psychotherapy. For a group of nurses, mindfulness meditation proved to be an effective strategy for preventing and managing workplace stress and burnout.
Other reviews found that meditation reduces psychological stress, PTSD, anxiety, pain intensity and depression, but better quality studies are needed for definite proof.
When the mind is turned to a particular thought and dwells on it, a definite vibration of matter is set up and often, more of this vibration is caused, the more does it tend to repeat itself to become a habit, to become automatic. The body follows the mind and imitates its changes.
Thought Power” – Swami Sivananda
It would follow that meditation should also have a therapeutic benefit for insomnia, phobias, and eating disorders, but here also, studies are too small to really say.
Meditation changes the brain
The brain constantly changes and restructures itself according to our physical and mental actions, and meditation really does change the brain. These structural changes can be: increased volume and density (i.e. growth) of various brain regions.
In fact, the most marked innovation in meditation research has been the ability to examine these structural as well as functional changes in the brain. Imaging techniques are now sensitive enough to show structural changes of the brain as a result of long-term practice.
This means we can see beyond the brain’s momentary activity during meditation, proving the incredible effect that with meditation (and other yogic practices) we rebuild our brain- we actually can change ourselves.
But how do we experience this change in our brain? A study of longstanding Buddhist meditation practitioners demonstrated that the resting state of the brain may be altered by long-term meditative practices. While it may be obvious that during meditation we feel good, are positive and less stressed, the point here is: This state persists in times when we do not actively meditate- which for most of us is our daily lives.
This means long-term meditation practice helps us control and inhibit negative emotions (fear, worry) and emotional responses. It helps us distance ourselves from our emotions. It strengthens our capacity for higher thinking, executive functions and control of instincts. It helps us focus and pay attention and increases memory, empathy and compassion.
Other research has concluded that meditation is brain-protective, because long-term meditators seem to lose less brain tissue with age compared to those who do not meditate.
Neural networks and concentration
Another, relatively new and very interesting field of research is the study of neural networks in the brain, linking the practice of concentration to positive mental health outcomes.
We have already heard that the practice of meditation may transform the resting state into a more meditative state. The
Meditation kills all pains, sufferings and sorrows. Meditation produces sense of oneness. Meditation is an aeroplane that helps the aspirant to soar high in the realms of eternal bliss and everlasting peace. It is a mysterious ladder that connects earth and heaven and takes the aspirant to the immortal abode of Brahman.”– Swami Sivananda
opposite of meditation (or concentration) is daydreaming or mind wandering. With a new technique, the so called fMRI (= functional magnetic resonance imaging) we can see whether the brain is daydreaming or concentrating. The fMRI does this by identifying two networks in the brain:
When we concentrate, we activate a network of brain regions: the Task-Positive Network (TPN). When we daydream (inattentive wandering of the mind and ruminating) the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active.
Both act like two people on a seesaw: You can either switch on one or the other, not both at the same time.
Studies suggest that increased DMN activity (more daydreaming and less concentrating) may reduce the ability to think and concentrate (cognitive performance), and in turn, reduced DMN activity (less daydreaming and more concentrating) improves cognitive performance. Increased DMN activity has been associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction. It becomes obvious when we think about
it: giving in to daydreaming promotes depression and anxiety. Concentration creates happiness.
Health is wealth, peace of mind is happiness, yoga shows the way.
The wonderful news here is that meditation, has been associated with reduced activity in the DMN in a resting state (= while we are not meditating). This means regular meditation helps reduce DMN activity in our daily lives. This improves attention and memory and supports positive health outcomes. Reduced DMN activity may be one of the main reasons behind the many mental health benefits of meditation as mentioned above.
Meditation is a wellspring of health and happiness. Even a little but regular practice is literally transformative for body and mind and hopefully there will be many more studies proving this in the future.
Chandrika is an Ayurvedic therapist, medical doctor and a Sivananda Yoga Teacher. She teaches anatomy and physiology in the Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Courses in Europe. She co-authored the book Practical Ayurveda (Dorling Kindersley)