Should we be recommending meditation training to shape and tone the brain?
Many mind-body movement and wellness professionals have discovered the power of meditation and are introducing it to clients. One experience that particularly stands out in my teaching career occurred when I was leading a walking meditation.
A participant showed up but told me she was concerned because pain typically prevented her from walking more than a few blocks. I assured her she should do only what she felt comfortable with and could turn back at any time. We then proceeded to walk, moving with intention and grace, and incorporating breathing and sensory exercises to cultivate mindful attention to the present. As we completed the 45-minute session with standing stretches and a brief silence, the hesitant participant beamed at me warmly with tears in her eyes and said, “I absolutely cannot believe that I did this. It’s the first time I’ve walked this far in years. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” But it wasn’t me that she should have been thanking; it was her ability to tap into her inner resources to accomplish what she already knew how to do. This is the power of meditation.
Meditation is one of the top six most commonly used therapies from complementary and alternative medicine (Barnes, Bloom & Nahin 2008). Over 20 million American adults (9.4% of the population) meditated in 2006, according to a national government survey conducted in 2007. In those same 12 months, 1% of America’s children—725,000 of them—also meditated. People are meditating to promote overall wellness and also to cope with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia, and physical or emotional symptoms associated with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS (NCCAM 2010).
Studies are validating the benefits of meditation, exploring the impact of different styles and starting to tease out which methods may be most helpful to which individuals, while scientists continue to identify structural changes in the brains of people who meditate. Will we discover that meditation is the ultimate mind-body exercise?
A growing body of research evidence is supporting the claim that meditation is good for our health. With benefits ranging from fewer colds to pain management, meditation seems to allow people to cultivate a sense of clarity and calm that can permeate all aspects of life and that improves with practice.
The following are some of the many beneficial effects that scientists have identified in studies:
Meditators experienced fewer winter colds and flus (Barrett et al. 2012) and produced more antibodies in response to a flu vaccine (Davidson et al. 2003) than those who did not meditate.
After 3 months of meditation training, subjects had better attention and used their resources more efficiently (Slagter et al. 2007).
Transcendental meditation lowered blood pressure among African Americans with heart disease and was associated with a 43% reduction in risk of death, heart attack and stroke (Schneider et al. 2009).
A research review found that both Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy had broad applications for people with depression and anxiety (Marchand 2012).
Mindfulness training helped to increase self-compassion and empathy in people with mood disorders (Farb, Anderson & Segal 2012).
A group of women who practiced mindfulness meditation for 6 weeks cut their binge eating episodes by half after experiencing meditation (Kristiller & Hallett 1999).
Patients with metabolic syndrome lowered blood pressure and blood sugar and improved insulin regulation after practicing transcendental meditation for 16 weeks (Paul-Labrador et al. 2006).
A literature review found that consistent meditators using a variety of meditation styles experienced better sleep quality than people who did not meditate (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012).
The same literature review showed that both MBSR and Zen meditation helped people with pain management (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012). In another study, expert meditators felt the same intensity of pain as novices, but experienced less unpleasantness (Lutz et al. 2012).
Researchers are using modern technology to explore how meditation is able to provide these (and other) benefits. Findings confirm that meditation practice creates structural changes in the brain, which is significant, because neuroscientists used to think the brain’s development reached a peak in adulthood and then declined with age. Research is now showing that how we use the brain impacts its development and function (just as how we use the body affects its health and function).
The structural changes in the brain that occur with meditation are associated with improved functionality: enhanced concentration, better ability to learn and remember, more ability to tolerate pain and less emotional reactivity toward external stimuli. In multiple studies, people who meditate have better attention, concentration, emotion regulation, pain tolerance and memory than those who do not.
See the Web Extra for specific research findings on how meditation changes the brain.
Scientists will continue to demystify the brain’s workings and hypothesize ways to improve the functional health of the brain. Forms of meditation may become a staple in healthcare providers’ array of complementary practices for people trying to cope with chronic diseases or simply wanting to improve stress management in their lives. Meditating is considered safe for healthy people. Medical experts caution, however, that there have been rare reports of meditation causing or worsening symptoms in people with certain psychiatric disorders; this issue has not been fully researched (NCCAM 2010). People with existing mental or physical health conditions should begin a meditation practice in consultation with their healthcare provider. And meditation instructors should evaluate and monitor the suitability of any practices they recommend to clients.
New lines of research show that meditation may lead to biological changes that decrease the inflammation response of the immune system on a cellular level and can contribute to looking and feeling younger. Two separate studies of meditation, one involving the practice of a Kirtan Kriya meditation from kundalini yoga and the other involving qigong practice, a moving meditation, both identified improved telomerase activity, which is linked to cellular health (Black et al. 2012; Ho et al. 2012).
“Telomerase is an important enzyme that protects us from aging by guarding the shortening of telomeres during cell division,” said study author Rainbow T. Ho, director of the Centre on Behavioral Health at the University of Hong Kong. This reduction in inflammation may be related to optimizing health and slowing damage from the aging process.
From ancient times, meditation has been a self-realization tool that can lead to inner peace, clarity and, ultimately, spiritual awakening. In the words of Master Ekai of China (1183–1260), “The great path has no gates; thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate, he walks freely between heaven and earth.” Perhaps as we continue to travel this path toward greater understanding of mind and body health through the study and practice of meditation, we will find the keys to ultimate integration of body, mind and spirit.