Many many studies in modern times show that meditation has many many health benefits. I have always practiced meditation as a spiritual pursuit, but I must say that better health and increased well-being have been happy side effects. And in the reverse, I know of many people who have started out with a meditation practice on the advice of a doctor or health professional and, in the process of seeking lowered blood pressure, found an inner connection to Spirit. I even heard of one New Jersey woman who saw a sign in a Yoga studio window advertising weight loss through a certain breathing technique practiced 20 minutes per day. She figured if she practiced it for 200 minutes per day she would lose 10 times the weight – and before you know it, she was enlightened. So, any way you look at it, meditation and health form a positive link.
There are so many videos and amazing talks out there about the health benefits of meditation. There are studies based on Mindfulness, Creative Visualization, Raja Yoga and Transcendental Meditation. There are studies of monks from the Himalayas, Western Yoga enthusiasts and average Joe cardiac patients. This video is one of Mark Robert Waldman, an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “How God Changes Your Brain.” He is talking about the health benefits on the actual structure of your brain – benefits that can help you live a longer life by several years. Part of what I like about this video is that it studies not just relaxation or breathing techniques – but meditating on God – or any version of a positive “big idea” that is most important to you, such as Love, Peace or Compassion. It doesn’t have to be religiously based, it could be a humanistic core value. And it presents brain scans of Buddhist monks meditating on “Pure Consciousness” and Franciscan nuns in contemplative prayer focusing on “Closeness to God” and the brains of both benefit in exactly the same manner. And these brain changes are available to us all and can start happening right now.
The body has two parts of the nervous system that are supposed to balance each other so the body works in harmony:
- Sympathetic nervous system – prepares body for action – fight or flight part of the brain.
- Parasympathetic nervous system – regulates our subconscious body systems such as digestion, heart rate, breathing and it is what is supposed to kick in to balance and de-stress the body from the fight or flight or exertion. This is the part of the brain that is engaged in meditation and produces the relaxation response.
The Sympathetic nervous system is supposed to keep us safe from tigers – but in our modern world it’s engaged when we worry about our job promotion, our retirement fund, our teenage kids, our relationships… Thus we over-engage the sympathetic nervous system and experience states of stress when we don’t need to for our survival – and it actually detracts from our survival.
Stress is the cause of 3 out of 5 hospital visits.
Stress is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and lowered immune system functioning.
Stress results in:
- Increased heart rate & high blood pressure
- Fatigue – fatigue from worry, not tiredness from work
- Anger or aggression – blowing up at someone – temper flares for no reason, or even if there is a reason it flares too high.
- Concentration problems – mind addicted to distraction, esp. now in our era of mental over-stimulation and instant gratification – texting, twitter, facebook.
- Anxiety or panic attacks – increase in heart rate, almost feeling like passing out
- Extreme forms of stress or mental trauma result in conditions such as PTSD and Panic disorders.
My Brain on Meditation:
Here is another video of Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist, who has done several studies on how meditation effects the brain. She has shown that meditation actually makes the stress center of the brain physically smaller!
Meditation as Stress Reduction:
The use of meditation, in addition to being part of all of the world’s spiritual traditions, is also part of the world’s health traditions. From Ayurveda in India, Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in China – meditation and relaxation techniques have always been connected to healing and well-being.
The west’s fascination with meditation started long before the 60’s – especially in America during the era of the transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau – between the 1840’s and 1880’s – and meditation was brought to Christianity in the New Thought movement and to the entire West through the Theosophists. And starting with the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 many Eastern teachers brought meditation techniques to the West.
Relaxation meditation techniques started being used in American health clinics as early as the 1920’s to help with conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Over the past 20 years, mindfulness-based programs have become increasingly important in the Western medical and psychological community as a means of helping people. Mindfulness has been defined as ‘moment to moment non-judgmental awareness.’ And methods include focusing on the sensation of breath, body scan techniques or letting thought arise and pass – and there are also techniques to use during our daily lives, such as being aware of the taste and texture of the food that we eat.
Scientifically demonstrated benefits of meditation include an increase in the body’s ability to heal, increase in the body’s immune system and a shift from a tendency to use the right prefrontal cortex instead of the left prefrontal cortex, associated with a trend away from depression and anxiety, and towards happiness, relaxation, and emotional balance.
The Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard University and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the “relaxation response”. The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry.