Om … Om … Om … That’s the sound associated with the ancient practice of meditation. But it’s not as esoteric as it once was. While Buddhist monks have reaped the spiritual benefits of meditation for centuries, modern science has given us a lot of good reasons to adopt the ritual in our everyday lives to improve our overall health.
Not convinced that something as intangible as meditation can have legitimate effects on your health? Well, it’s so powerful that multiple studies have shown its impact on neuroplasticity—or lasting changes to the brain.
One very recent example: at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers manage to compare “fake” mindfulness to actual meditation. In the control, or “fake” mindfulness, group, subjects focused on relaxation through stretching exercises while chatting and joking. The experimental group practiced true mindfulness meditation that involved paying close attention to their bodies and sensations. Turns out brain scans only showed activity in the regions of the brain associated with stress reactions, focus, and calm in the meditation group. Even four months later, those same subjects showed lower levels of a certain inflammation marker in their blood than the control group, even without continuing the practice.
" … mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." —Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder, Stress Reduction Clinic, University of Massachusetts
Whether the claims are backed by meticulous experimental methods, or simply anecdotal, the benefits of meditation are real. Maybe it’s subjective in some cases, but there’s no denying that a regular practice can:
- Influence health and well-being
- Promote personal growth
- Heighten emotional intelligence
- Foster a connectedness with oneself and with the world
- Incite happiness, joy, and peace
Here are some of the benefits of meditation that have been proven by science.
Meditation may start with the breath, but the brain is probably the most significant body part to experience its potent power.
Perhaps the most immediate benefits have to do with relieving stress, which have been illustrated by at least 47 well-designed studies, according to a Johns Hopkins University review. But meditation teacher and corporate mindfulness coach Leah Santa Cruz says, “Sure, there are plenty of research studies suggesting that meditation builds grey matter and our corpus callosum, which would statistically be correlated with improved states of well-being. But I think it's best to avoid thinking of meditation as a magical cure-all pill. It’s not that it ‘cures’ all those things, but the question is—how does stress mess up so many things?”
As soon as negative thoughts or feelings come rushing on, meditating can not only ease you into a calmer space—it can also train you in sharpening your thought processes and perceptions. People with anxiety often struggle to overcome nagging worries they can’t really control or do anything about. In other words, they give distracting thoughts “too much power” according to Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital:
“If you have unproductive worries, [you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently] … Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.’”
But more than just a technique in the moment, regular meditation has real effects on the brain. A study out of the University of Wisconsin showed that participating in an active practice can increase electrical activity in regions of the brain’s left frontal lobe—an area associated with optimism—making it much more difficult for uncomfortable feelings like worry, fear, and loneliness to prevail. In turn, there’s more space for positive emotions like gratitude and happiness.
Cognitive performance and function
So we know that meditation has direct effects on the brain, but of course, that’s not restricted to mood. Areas associated with performance and focus can thrive on it, too.
One of the most recent findings comes from a review of 4,000 scientific papers about mindfulness, in which meditation was linked to enhanced attention span, cognition, and efficiency in the workplace. And research has shown how it can improve focus in settings outside of work, too.
Multiple studies have even suggested that meditation may give a creativity boost.
Physical and body benefits
As with the brain, the rest of the body may experience changes in physiology as a result of meditation. Prana, a Sanskrit word that translates to “life force” or “life energy,” is a common term in the realm of meditation, often referring to the action of breathing, a key component of a meditative practice. While it may have spiritual connotations, consider that the body’s cells themselves are filled with their own form of prana, or energy, and it becomes a little bit easier to draw the connection between meditation and its effects on the physical body.
Meditation has shown potential to slow the process of aging. In one study from Harvard Medical School, women who practiced loving-kindness meditation had longer telomeres—chromosomal structures that shorten as we age—than their non-meditating counterparts. (Shorter telomeres may indicate accelerated aging, and have also been linked to chronic stress. It’s possible that the stress-reducing effects of meditation play a part in anti-aging.)
Last year, researchers at UCLA found that long-term meditation practice seems to preserve the brain’s gray matter, where neurons live—a finding that could garner more exploration into how meditation may play a role in combating age-related mental illness and neurodegenerative decline.
Acclaimed author and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra says:
“In the ’80s it was discovered that the immune system is highly intelligent; it became known as ‘a floating brain’ because of the ability of immune cells to participate in the chemical messages sent by the brain throughout the body. This means that your thoughts, moods, sensations, and expectations are transmitted to your immune cells. When you meditate, these messages change in important ways.”
Meditation can strengthen the immune system by boosting antibodies and potentially reducing inflammation—making you less susceptible to chronic disorders like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Some hypertension patients have also been able to regulate blood pressure through training in meditation. The “relaxation response”—a reduction in stress that can lower heart rate—that occurs through this practice can increase nitric oxide, which opens up the blood vessels.
Tension and pain relief
The relaxation response may also decrease tension and relieve pain. According to Santa Cruz, “Tension is an accumulation of stored emotions, traumas, and stress. Meditation is a stress-relieving tool to help you get rid of stress. When you go into a deep state of rest, healing begins in the body.”
Although research is limited, studies using electroencephalogram (EEG) on Buddhist monks have shown that a dedicated meditation practice may boost metabolism, potentially affecting weight loss.
In a study of 49 middle-aged and older adults who were experiencing trouble sleeping, those who were taught to practice mindfulness meditation at bedtime experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression than those who were simply instructed on how to improve sleep habits.
But not only can meditation help people fall asleep faster and more deeply, a certain practice called yoga nidra may even supplement rest—in this state of conscious deep sleep, 30 minutes may be equivalent to a few hours of actual shut-eye.
Better sleep also means more vitality. But meditation has also shown effects on certain hormones in the body associated with energy. Transcendental meditation in particular can naturally boost growth hormone and DHEA, two compounds that affect athletic performance.
Want to get rid of the painful and annoying symptoms of PMS? Meditation can help. Valencia Porter, M.D., M.P.H., FACN, and director of integrative medicine at the Chopra Center, says that dealing with stress is key: “Take a hot bath at night, get a massage, try yoga, and learn deep breathing or meditation. These techniques and other stress-reducing strategies can help to to soothe your hormonal fluctuations and keep your mind and body in balance overall.”
Meditation can increase compassion, empathy, and make us less judgmental—of ourselves and others.
A study out of the University of Leuven found that couples who meditated were more empathetic toward one another, making them better able to practice non-judgmental acceptance as well as communicate their feelings in a healthy way.
A previously mentioned study on mindfulness in the workplace also concluded that interpersonal behavior, teamwork, and leadership can improve by embracing this technique.
How to meditate
The beauty of meditation is you can create a practice that works best for you. Here are a few types of meditation to consider:
- Zen: Emphasizes enlightenment and personal expression of Buddhist principles. It’s usually practiced in a seated, cross-legged position.
- Mindfulness: Teaches the practitioner to acknowledge thoughts and feelings and observe them nonjudgmentally in order to create an ability to detach from them and gain insight and awareness.
- Transcendental: Incorporates a unique mantra, typically in Sanskrit, chosen by a teacher for each individual student. The meditator focuses on this mantra during each session to promote harmony and self-realization.
- Kundalini yoga: Supports the mind and guides the body through breath, mantra, hand position, and focus. Reduces stress, helps with addiction, and increases vitality, to name just a few of the benefits. Practicing with a teacher is ideal. (Kundalini is a yoga practice that is particularly founded on meditation, compared to other traditional forms of yoga that don’t necessarily focus on meditating.)
It’s totally fine to even just dip your toes in meditation. No need to sit in lotus pose for several hours a day (unless you want to). Many people just take 20 minutes per day to practice, which can be highly beneficial. There are even ways to build small moments of meditation into your life. It’s all about making an effort to be a little more mindful in the most mundane circumstances.
- In the shower: There’s so much sensory stimulation going on here—warm water, sudsy shampoo on your hands and scalp, the clean scents—take the time to revel in these sensations.
- During a meal: Food tastes so good, but when we’re busy we sometimes neglect the pleasure part of eating. Even when it’s just a basic salad, instead of powering through the plate at your desk, see what a difference it makes to actually sit down at a real table, chew the food, and taste it, too.
- Washing dishes: Yup, you can even meditate while doing chores—it might even help you do them better. Researchers have found that paying attention to the scent of soap and the warmth of water while washing dishes can decrease nervousness and increase mental inspiration.
- On the road: Driving can be the most stressful part of the day for some commuters. But here’s another chance to have a meditative experience. Doing just what you’re supposed to do on the road—paying attention—can be a form of meditation. Notice the makes, models, and colors of cars, and how they move all around you. Focus on the activity of driving itself, rather than reaching the destination.
- At bedtime: What better time to meditate than while lying in bed? Focus on the breath and let go of any other thought that has no relevance to the present moment—that should help clear your mind and get you good and comfy with the idea of sweet slumber.
And if you want to dive even deeper into a practice, guided meditations are a great way to go. Often you can find classes at local yoga studios. But these days, the internet is also an awesome resource for finding recorded guided meditations. At ThriveMarket.com we have a few for you.
- Anti-anxiety meditation: Feeling a lot of stress and pressure? Well, all you need is five minutes to shut it down through pranayama, or “breath work,” which has positive effects on both physical health and cognitive function. You’ll also use your own voice to quiet a restless mind and balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
- Tantric meditation: Tantra isn’t all about sex. It simply means “weaving” the mind, body, and spirit together so that you’re not held back by limitations. To quit self-sabotaging and feel more liberated, follow along with this video.
You can also sign up for a membership at Headspace, an web- and app-based meditation service designed to make the practice super easy. You can access the audio exercises, ranging from two minutes to one hour, from your phone, tablet, or computer. Incorporating them into your routine can help in so many aspects of daily life:
- Loving kindness
We could all use a little help, whether it’s with issues concerning health, emotions, or productivity—and meditation is a totally effective, accessible, and painless way to get it.