Meditation - How it Affects your Body and How to Get Started
Meditation has long since evolved from being a tradition reserved for only serious religious or spiritual followers, to becoming widespread in its modern application. Classes, courses, books and discussion - and more specifically, research - all present meditation as a key element of a healthy state of mind and body.
Nowadays, even young children are encouraged in schools to meditate, as well as those in corporate environments, nursing homes, and even in prisons. With the technological advances of modern-day research, there has been a great deal of studies conducted to assess how meditation really does benefit our brain and our overall health.
We’ll be diving into the science of meditation, as we as some specific techniques of meditation that are accessible for anyone just starting out.
What is meditation?
This ancient practice is a way to develop awareness and stillness of the mind, through a variety of focusing techniques. Depending on the traditional lineage, meditation can be practiced with chanting (repeating words), visualizations, and guided experiences, in a group or alone.
Though there are many more techniques, the top 3 forms of meditation are explained below.
Also known as mindfulness meditation - which is one of the most popular modern techniques being the most accessible for all ages and levels of experience. This is where we become aware of all aspects of our experience in that moment of sitting in meditation, without judgment. We hear the sounds outside of us, without labeling what they are. We notice our body, breath, and our thoughts. It’s being mindful of both our internal (emotions and thoughts) and external experience (sound, smell etc.).
The Buddhist Zen tradition utilises observation meditation as one of the main practices. Since the western world has adopted this mindfulness practice, it has also extended beyond just seated meditation. Practices like mindful walking, eating, cooking, tea drinking, and coloring are all forms of more active, moving meditations. Much of the research conducted on mindfulness state that it is a powerful therapeutic tool in how it can reduce stress, physical pain and aids in relaxation, and even weight loss.
Often called ‘single pointed focus’ meditation, it is where the practitioner is putting all awareness on one point, such as an object, the breath, a chant, an image, etc. Where observation/mindfulness meditation is about witnessing all sensations of the experience, focused attention is honing down our awareness to one aspect. It’s usually a seated, silent meditation done alone. It can also be through guided visualization experiences.
This is a fusion of the techniques of observation and focused attention. Generally, practitioners work up to this level of pure presence, where there is no longer a need to actively focus or engage the mind in any particular way. It is rather about complete, still being. Thoughts may come into the mind, and the practice of non-attachment allows you to notice the thoughts, and let them drift away. The meditation is then about emptying the mind, not though pushing thoughts way or trying hard to create the space, but more about resting into the space and staying there, even when distractions, thoughts, feelings or anything else that may arise.
The Science of Meditation
The Brain Changes When we Meditate
As well as slowing down the body and mind by tapping into the physical state of relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode), meditation has a powerful effect on the brain. The technological innovations in research have allowed scientists to examine the neurological response of meditative states. Meditation can impact us not only during and immediately after we practice, but the research shows it can affect our health and well being in the long term.
Electroencephalograph (EEG) brain studies have discovered the causal link between Alpha waves (associated with relaxation and rest states) and meditation. Research has also found that beyond switching to the Alpha brain waves, our cognitive functions are also improved with information processing operating at a higher level after we meditate. In the longer term, there’s a been a link found between those who meditate to having a more thick prefrontal cortex, which is the area dedicated to cognition and also linked to longevity.
University studies tend to research meditation in terms of weekly courses that people undertake, to asses the effects of meditation and how they evolve over time with regular practice. It’s been found that people who have followed a regular meditation regime found an increase in activity in brain areas associated with focus, memory and learning. This was stable for not only immediate effects during and after the course, but also found at a longer period after the course - demonstrating the long-term benefits of meditation.
Physical Health Improves
Meditation has also been found to manage blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke, and promoting a healthy cardiovascular system. Due to the response of the body resting in the parasympathetic system, the heart rate lowers and the body experiences rest whilst being awake, enabling the body to experience a slower state, and function from a place of relaxation, rather than stress.
Interestingly, how people experience pain is also changed when using meditation in some treatments for illness and disease. When recording the severity of pain, people reported feeling less intensity of pain after meditation, as opposed to before or no meditation, even when the neuro-imaging indicated the same amount of pain was being transmitted to the brain. Basically, meditation creates a state where pain is less intense and more manageable, without doing anything more to reduce pain (by medication or medical treatments).
Another study conducted over a 10-week period focused on the role of meditation in reducing depressive symptoms in postpartum mothers experiencing anxiety and depression. Results showed that meditation practice could significantly reduce these symptoms.
As stated above, stress is dramatically decreased in meditation, and the mechanism behind this is due to that change from sympathetic (active, flight or fight mode) nervous system to that parasympathetic system. What happens is that when we are stressed, the hormone cortisol rises in our system, with heightens heart rate, breathing and gives us that overall feeling of inner-body surge in energy. In excess, Cortisol in our system can lead to chronic health conditions, such as fat storage, gastrointestinal issues and heart disease. Through calming the nervous system, Mediation lowers Cortisol levels, and through regular practice, it can manage this hormone production in a healthy way.
How to Meditate
When people first begin to practice mediation, they can often become discouraged at the prospect of sitting in stillness and ‘trying’ to quiet their mind. What tends to happen is the moment we become still, and make space in our mind in meditation, the thoughts flood in and can seem very loud. The energy of ‘trying’ is what gets in the way of the practice. If meditation were about sitting and then instantly feeling clear and staying in this clarity of mind the entire way through, then it would miss the value of what it can offer our sense of awareness of ourselves, beyond the seat and into everyday life.
Meditation isn’t about reaching a state of blissful nothingness - though that can ultimately be where the practice takes you. It is about cultivating awareness. Awareness of the thoughts that come in, of our mind chatter, our beliefs, judgments, our body and its sensations. It’s about tuning in, and then from that place, letting it all melt away the longer you stay watching. So the thoughts don’t quiet because we ‘do something’ to make them quiet, rather, we allow them to be there, see them, and then they dissolve on their own when we give them no power.
In this way, when you are starting out on your meditation journey, every time you catch yourself mid-thought, instead of becoming disappointed that you were thinking, be happy that you had the awareness to catch it. That means you were in a present state, and came back to the observing. THAT is the practice.
Everyone is different. Our cultures, personalities, environments, needs and lifestyle will all impact on our experience of the different types of meditations. We can look at what we need in our lives, as well as which forms we find the most effective at stilling ourselves. Some techniques are suited to beginners, while others require more experience to practice.
Below are some ways that you can practice different forms of meditation.
- Taking judgment away from experiences. Helpful for pain reduction.
- Engage and connect with the flow of life. Feelings of belonging and inclusiveness can assist with treating depression and anxiety.
All forms of Mindfulness meditations are observation techniques. Focus on a sensation of the body, like your sense of touch, and just notice what you feel in your body, without judging the feeling as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Other sensations could be observing the sounds, smells, or even taste, with mindful eating.
There are many guided mindfulness practices available as audios, or in person classes.
- Eliminates distraction and aids in higher concentration.
- Can improve memory and cognitive function by practicing one-pointed focus.
This can be done by deceasing on an object (like in candle gazing or the white smoke of incense burning), the breath (as in Zen tradition), or in a repeated chant/mantra (can be said out loud, or internally). Visualization techniques are form of focused attention.
- Aids to develop emotional balance.
- Practice of non-attachment, letting go.
Generally a more advanced form of meditation. If the session is guided with a teacher, or an audio, anyone can practice this form of still, silent meditation.
Meditation really is for everyone; from children, to elderly, beginners or experienced. No matter the reason for practicing; from pain treatment in chronic conditions, to creating a more calm state of mind, the research proves that meditation can create powerful effects on your mental and physical health.