Meditation has become increasingly more popular over the past couple of decades. Never has there been more books, podcasts, or classes on this interesting topic. The overwhelming message is… “meditation will change your life”. But is there any real proof that it directly impacts your health, or is it all just spiritual “mumbo jumbo”?
Well, not only is there plenty of solid scientific evidence that meditation can boost your health, there are now studies showing how it can actually change the way your brain functions.
That’s pretty incredible for an “exercise” that involves doing pretty much nothing.
All your life you’ve been taught that good health takes work – you need to run, lift weights, fight those sugar cravings, deprive yourself of certain foods. But the beauty of a meditation practice is that it works by doing the exact opposite of all those things. Only by taking a moment to pause and giving your body “active rest” can you obtain the wonderful benefits meditation has to offer..
What Is Meditation?
So, what is meditation? Do you just sit with your legs crossed and try not to think of anything? Well… not exactly. You see, the great thing about meditation is that it comes in many forms. These have come to us originally via Eastern religions but the practice doesn’t necessarily have to be based in any particular religion at all. For example, Buddhism has introduced us to mindfulness and chanting meditations, while Hinduism has brought forth transcendental mantras.
So, if you aren’t quite connecting to one style of meditation you can just try out another one. For instance, you might find you don’t like sitting in silence and realize that you’d much rather do a mantra-based meditation instead.
Here is a quick run-down of some of the key techniques that you might come across. There are many other variations of meditation but these are three of the most common techniques:
- Mindfulness Meditation is … about focusing on the present moment and not judging any of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise for you.Begin by paying close attention to your breath and constantly redirect yourself back to either your breath or to these natural thoughts and feelings. The idea is not to dwell on these things, but simply to be aware of their presence and then allow them to move on.
- Transcendental Meditation has been made famous by many celebrities (the Beatles even wrote songs about it). It involves silently chanting a personal mantra over and over to yourself. The mantra is usually specifically chosen for you by a teacher. Many people enjoy transcendental meditation because it allows them to “do something” while they’re meditating. The idea is eventually the repetition of the mantra becomes automatic in the mind and, in turn, provides a “protective barrier” against negative thoughts and emotions that would pop up otherwise.
- Chanting Meditation involves actively chanting a mantra out loud instead of in silence. The Japanese Nichirin style has become a popular example and primarily involves the chanting of the mantra “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” (nam-myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo). Some people love this kind of meditation as it can be incredibly moving to be part of a room that’s chanting together – it’s something akin to a spoken choir and immensely beautiful. Though others enjoy chanting alone at home in their own space.
The Benefits of a Meditation Practice
Meditation is often taken up by people seeking relief from daily stress but science is finding that it has a whole host of benefits that extend far beyond that. Here are some of the best:
It Improves Concentration:
Everybody is guilty of multi-tasking in our modern world and though it may feel efficient to read emails, watch a TV show, and eat dinner simultaneously it’s actually creating a society that no longer knows how to focus on one thing. Meditation teaches us laser-like focus which helps us to not get so easily distracted by things.1
It Decreases Stress:
The beauty here is in the simplicity: meditation lowers cortisol levels in the blood. 2
And, as you may know, cortisol is the “stress hormone” produced by the adrenal gland. When you’re constantly stressed, your body gets flooded with cortisol. Cortisol in short bursts is completely normal, but too much of this hormone can suppress your immune system, increase blood pressure, produce skin problems, increase weight gain, interfere with memory, initiate mood swings, and may even trigger other, more serious diseases.3, 4, 5
Therefore, mindfulness-based stress reduction is one of the single most beneficial things you can do for your health.
It Helps You To Sleep:
Insomnia affects many people and is commonly triggered by anxiety and stress. Therefore, de-stressing and lowering your cortisol levels can be a huge help for combating insomnia. You see, meditation has harmonious effects on both the body and brain, which help modulate the functions that promote quality sleep.
Recent studies of the effects meditation has on insomnia have shown overall reductions in the time it takes to fall asleep as well as an increase in total sleep time with long-lasting effects. 6, 7
It Lowers Blood Pressure:
In a study of 60 patients with high blood pressure, 40 of them were able to decrease their blood pressure using a meditation practice. How? Well, consistent relaxation can increase a compound called nitric oxide which allows blood vessels to open up and therefore lower blood pressure by creating “bigger pipes” for it to flow through.8 A similar study at Kent State University resulted in the conclusion that meditation is an excellent complementary treatment for decreasing blood pressure through lifestyle changes.9
It Increases Happiness:
Lowering stress has one other great advantage that’s essential to quality of life – it promotes happiness! I’m sure you’d agree that a stress-free existence is a joyful existence. But it’s not only a lack of stress that we gain from meditation. Meditation has shown an ability to dial back our “unhelpful daydreaming”. According to a study from Yale University, less “unhelpful daydreaming” has been associated with increased happiness levels because it helps you stay focused on what’s happening in the moment, rather than drifting off into your worries and anxieties.10
It Changes Your Brains:
This one is pretty mind-blowing! Neuroscientists have discovered that meditation can actually change your brain! They found that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the auditory and sensory parts of their brain. Simply put, their senses become enhanced. They also found more grey matter in the frontal cortex, which helps improve your memory and the ability to make decisions.
In fact, 50-year-old meditators showed the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds!11 So, why does grey matter, matter? Scientists now know that rather than brain size, human intellect is actually based on the volume of grey matter in our brains. 12
So, Should You Try Meditating?
With all the benefits it offers, meditation should seriously be considered by everyone. And although meditation has long been avoided by the scientific community, perhaps because of its religious roots, there’s no denying the scientific evidence that we now have.
And if the religious aspects of meditation have previously turned you away from giving it a try, remember, non-religious meditation classes are everywhere today.
So, start by learning the basics, either in a class or online, and then set about creating your own practice. Begin with just 5 minutes a day and then slowly work up to longer periods. Those first five minutes may feel long but in no time you’ll start to feel like they’re not long enough!
For more health wisdom from Eastern philosophies and the Urban Monk, keep reading here: