MEDITATION - STRAIGHT FROM SCIENCE: What it is and the real benefits.
Meditation is an incredible tool for wellbeing. With a vast number of books, audios, courses and centers dedicating to bringing meditation into the western world, it is apparent that people from all walks of life have benefited from taking up this practice. For those considering how meditation may aid their sense of mental and physical wellbeing, it can be overwhelming to navigate the vast realm of different styles and traditions.
Meditation is more than just a spiritual tool. This long tradition is coming to the forefront of modern science, revealing the physical, mental and emotional benefits that meditation can bring. As technology advances and research tools have evolved, neuro-imaging techniques reveal how meditation can change the brain, as well as affect the entire body’s health, vitality and longevity.
“Meditation is not a way of MAKING your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. “– Deepak Chopra
Essentially, meditation is a practice that involves present moment awareness through varied focusing techniques. When people begin meditation, they may become discouraged at realising that sitting down to quiet their mind is usually when thoughts become the loudest. Stilling the body in a seated position usually induces the desire to fidget and move. This may lead to people abandoning their practice due to the belief that they aren’t doing it right, and won’t be successful. Here’s the reality - meditation is first and foremost, a practice. This means that every experience of meditation may be different. Every practice may be challenging. The point is to cultivate the skill of present moment awareness not by getting anywhere - not by finding stillness the moment you close your eyes, but instead finding a way to bring the wandering mind back to focus, by connecting with the body, using various tools to calm your mind and reside in the present moment.
The vast styles of meditation have hailed from many different spiritual and religious traditions for centuries. To give a breakdown of the main meditation styles, we have categorized them down into three main techniques:
‘Focused attention’ is where the awareness of the practicer is on one point of focus. This can be an object (candle gazing), the breath (Zen style), or a repeated mantra (words or phrase said aloud or internally).
This form of meditation is done in a seated position with eyes closed, or a soft gaze to the ground, bringing all attention to the object of focus.
‘Observation meditation’ is where the practicer monitors all aspects of the experience without attachment or judgment. They are present to their perception of their internal (thoughts and feelings) or external (temperature, sound) experiences.
Buddhist Zen style meditations are a form of observation. Often known as ‘mindfulness meditation’ this style has also come into the forefront of popular culture in many books and courses dedicated to mindful living. Mindfulness does not just have to be a seated meditation, but brought into other aspects of life such as walking, cooking, eating etc. Mindfulness has even been recommended as a form of therapy to assist in stress reduction, weight loss and pain alleviation, just to name a few.
‘Inward presence’ fuses together focus and observation, so that eventually, a purity of presence is the meditation practice. There is no one focus of attention; rather, it is about complete stillness and emptying the mind. Akin to the experience of Savasana (corpse pose) at the end of a yoga asana class, this is where using physical movement such as yoga can create an experience in the mind where inward presence can be achieved.
“The beauty of yoga is that we become energetically alive, and our mind becomes drawn into direct experience of the moment, we turn inside; the new doorway to insight is the present moment. So the question is, how do I enter the present moment? For that, the body is an incredible tool” Sudhir Jonathan Foust
Meditation not only promotes a relaxation effect in quieting mind, stilling the body, and tapping into the parasympathetic (slow) nervous system, it has also been proven to affect the body and brain system on a neurological level. With the innovative technologies available in modern neuroscience, there have been a number of studies dedicated to examining the effects of meditation on brain health, as well as lifestyle factors and overall wellbeing. This research not only looks at the immediate effects of meditation, but also references the longer lasting effects.
Alpha waves are present in Electroencephalograph (EEG) brain studies, which are associated with quiet, relaxation states, have been found to be present for those who undertake various forms of meditation. Numbers studies have cited the benefits of meditation in fostering high levels of cognitive performance, with improved information processing. In some cases, it has even been found that people who meditate have a thicker prefrontal cortex - the area dedicated to cognition and associated with longevity.
Additionally, University studies have looked into how following a meditation course for number of weeks can affect the areas in the brain dedicated to learning, memory and focus. When subjects were tested both initially and again for a longer-term basis, improvement in all areas of this prefrontal cognition were seen.
For physical health, meditation has even found to promote a healthy heart, managing blood pressure, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke due to the fat that it calms the nervous system, and affects the heart rate. Furthermore, the interception of pain in the body by people using meditation as a treatment was recorded as much lower than the neurological imaging device indicated - basically, meditators reported feeling less pain than their brains were actually indicating.
One of the main, better known benefits of meditation is stress alleviation. As our cortisol levels rise in our system when we are stressed, not only are we living from a high-alert anxious state in our nervous system, but cortisol is actually linked to excess fat storage in our body. Meditation as a form of calming the nervous system, can lower cortisol levels, and therefore aid in weight reduction.
“We know stress is a contributor to all the major modern killers, it’s hard to think of an illness in which stress and mood don’t figure,” Raison
More evidence points to reduced depression and anxiety in mothers who fall into the category of high-risk postpartum depression. With a 10-week meditation and yoga regime, there were significant reductions in depressive symptoms.
Even schools are embracing meditation programs. Reduced instances of anxiety and stress were found from research in Belgium education systems, where anxiety and stress levels were reduced even up to six months after the courses.
“Peace is often associated with yogis and monks sitting alone in a far off place, cave, or monastery; praying and meditating all day long. To some it may seem like a mystical concept or something elusive wondering, how do we –in a world of high demands where battling life and people situations, concerns, and restlessness exist – find peace?” -Nina Radclifff
As a theoretical, varied practice with many styles and methodologies, not every person, physical body, or environment is conducive to one type of meditation. When deciding where to start, or which style may be best to support your health and wellbeing, ask yourself why you are curious about meditation.
Do you need more focus in your day to day? Do you need to take time out of a busy schedule? Do you need to connect with your body more?
If you need more focus, then ‘focused attention’ styles are well suited. If you want more stillness and peace to balance your busy pace, then presence practices can be a great support. For those looking to connect more deeply to their body and environments, then observation styles work well. Beginners are also recommended to try guided meditation techniques - classes and audios are great options.
There is no one right way to meditate, and perhaps no one right way for you. Considering the evidence from science, it is apparent that any type of meditation and mindfulness practice can bring vast benefits to mental and physical health, for all ages and people in all walks of life. Try a range of practices, start small, and remember:
‘Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can’ - Arthur Ashe
Meditations on the Mat by ROLF GATES & KATRINA KENISON
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