Age-old practices backed by modern science. No matter the tradition, as skeptical Americans, we require empirical evidence before we embrace any philosophy. When science catches up with the physiology behind the experienced effects of any medicine, there is reason to drop pre-conceived ideas and consider.
Such is the case with meditation.
Practiced for millennia in other cultures, only those with direct experience can tell you what it does for them--“yoga pants” have become a fashion fad but it’s no joke or passing fancy. They may not understand why (or care), they only know it works for them.
Hundreds of studies have been performed on the physiologic effects of deep relaxation, most showing significant positive results and none with side effects. If only our pharmaceuticals could say the same thing.
The brain changes with regular meditation. Mind-body therapies (e.g., meditation and yoga) reduce markers of inflammation and promote virus-inhibiting immune response in the body. These practices reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, fibermyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. They are proven to reduce the effects of stress, depression, insomnia, and neurological disorders.
“Mindfulness” is the term used for being present in the current moment, allowing thoughts to pass through your consciousness without dwelling on them or judging “good” or “bad”. It is the state of mind that allows to you release yourself of pressure and stress by clearing thoughts that plague your everyday routine. By becoming mindful, you allow yourself to feel without your brain getting in the way. It can be achieved through meditation, guided visualization, yoga, repetitive prayer and mantra.
Here are just some of the benefits of deep relaxation that put you in a state of mindfulness. They mean much more than just decreasing stress, although relaxation is the conduit through which all the other systems in the body react.
It is scientifically known that chronic inflammation in the body causes serious disease like cancer, arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, and psoriasis. Deep relaxation has been found to reduce stress-induced inflammation.
In the practice of meditation, we do not dwell on thoughts but allow them to pass through our consciousness. When an upsetting thought pops in, rather than stopping and poring over it, we recognize it and allow it to flow out of the mind. This management of thought brings a general state of calmness and serenity.
3. Emotional Balance
Meditation transforms the level of consciousness, allowing us to let go of ego and any unpleasant emotion arising from its exercise. The result is balance and a greater ability to handle the emotions we feel, applying them in a more direct and appropriate way.
4. Increased Fertility
As anyone who has had trouble conceiving knows, stress is a factor in inhibiting the natural process of reproduction--in both women and men. Reduction of stress has been found to improve fertility for both sexes.
5. Increased Immunity
Daily progressive muscle relaxation reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence, supporting the immune system to resist tumors and viruses, and results in less sickness, anxiety, and depression arising from chemotherapy.
6. Lowers Blood Pressure
Studies have shown that meditation reduces blood pressure and generally decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease by mediating the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. As one doctor put it:
“When we were cavemen, that adrenaline helped us be ready if a tiger was going to attack. Today, all the tigers are in our heads.”
7. Relieves Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
So how do you access deep relaxation and mindfulness?
All you need is a little time (2-30 minutes a day) and a quiet place, free from distraction. You may choose the method(s) that is most comfortable for you; there is no right or wrong.
Starting with your head and working down to your arms and feet, notice how you feel in your body. Taking in your head and neck, simply notice if you feel tense, relaxed, calm, or anxious. See how much you can spread any sensations of softness and relaxation to areas of your body that feel tense. Once your reach your feet, work back up your body.
Sit comfortably. Tune into your breath, follow the sensation of inhaling from your nose to abdomen and out again. Let tension go with each exhalation. When you notice your mind wandering, return to your breath.
Imagine a wonderfully relaxing light or a soothing waterfall washing away tension from your body and mind. Make your image vivid, imagining texture, color, and any fragrance as the image washes over you.
The relaxation response can be evoked by sitting quietly with eyes closed for 15 minutes twice a day, and mentally repeating a simple word or sound such as “om”.
Breathe in, breathe out.