Health Benefits of Meditation
In India we tend to associate meditation with spiritualism. The result is that many people shrug it off as something esoteric, meant for the other-worldly. But the truth is that meditation can contribute immensely to our physical health as borne out by medical research.
Meditation began to be seriously studied for its medical benefits in the 1960s. Dr. B.K. Anand, first professor in the Department of Physiology, AIIMS, Delhi found that people practicing meditation could go so deep into it that they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms. His findings created quite a stir, globally.
What may have helped Dr Anand’s study get global attention was the fact that around the same time Mahesh Yogi gave it celebrity status though his Transcendental Meditation (TM), which Time magazine described as a “drugless high”, and gave Mahesh Yogi the sobriquet “Groovy Guru”.
TM got catapulted to the top of the charts when the Beatles themselves took to it. In order to cope with the suddenness of their global fame, they turned to TM, eventually coming to India to learn it. Mia Farrow also came to India to meditate with the Fab Four after her divorce with Frank Sinatra.
It was after all the Swinging Sixties: it didn’t take long for meditation to get hooked to the hippie culture.
But by the 1990s, the scientific and glamour sides of popular meditation finally met in the middle. The product was a celebrity endorsed but health-focused concept that had largely shed the hip implications it had once carried. In addition to film stars and musicians, athletes also began to tout the benefits of meditation.
The role of meditation in religious/ spiritual pursuits is a separate matter. This post is about its ‘secular’ benefits.
What follows are basically gleanings from an excellent book that I read recently. It’s called, tongue-in-cheek, Hurry Up and Meditate (hurrying and meditating being chalk and cheese) by David Michie.
Medical research is now confirming that our mind and body form a continuum; one invariably affects the other. If body and mind form a systemic whole, the idea of focusing all our attention on only one part of the system—the body—while excluding the other—the mind—makes no sense.
As life gets increasingly stressful, medical science has begun to acknowledge the worth of meditation and its capacity to contribute to our well-being.
Our stresses are not one-time events. Many of us have an almost permanent baseline of low- to medium-level stress. In physical terms this has many serious consequences.
In particular, our cardiovascular and immune systems are repeatedly under assault which contribute majorly to stress-related conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Stress is also known to be a common culprit responsible for hypertension, infertility, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain and chronic fatigue. Meditation has been known to prevent/ manage many of these ailments.
Although meditation is a mental exercise, a significant direct effect of the exercise is physical, i.e. on the hormones released by our bodies. Endorphin is one such hormone. Endorphins act on the opiate receptors in our brain, reducing pain and boosting pleasure, resulting in a feeling of well-being.
Intriguingly, lack of this hormone may be responsible for certain forms of ailments such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression or sudden shifts in emotions. Experiments have established increased presence of endorphins amongst regular meditators.
Endorphins are not the only hormones known to be stimulated by meditation.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is another powerful hormone that has been shown, in studies conducted by medical scientists, to increase with regular meditation.
DHEA has been long established as a key to boosting the immune function. A number of studies have confirmed its usefulness in combating bacterial, parasitic and viral infections, including HIV.
The Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts has shown that output of melatonin also increases with meditation. While the benefits of this enzyme on our sleep cycle is well known to many globe-trotters, who take it to overcome their jet-lag, research is also linking melatonin to cancer management. Laboratory experiments have found that lower levels of melatonin stimulate the growth of certain types of cancer cells, while adding melatonin inhibits their growth.
Initial, small-scale studies have also shown that, used in conjunction with chemotherapy, melatonin improved the impact of conventional treatment on certain types of cancer including breast and prostate cancer.
The release of these enzymes are the hidden benefits of meditation. The obvious benefit, of course, is that we develop the capacity to distance ourselves from our self-defeating anxieties, sufferings and stresses and assess our present moment dispassionately. This can work wonders in helping us cope with the big challenges in our lives: financial crises, serious illness, bereavement.
So, how to meditate?
It is widely accepted that there is no one correct way to meditate. As Richard Davidson, founder of the Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, the best kind of meditation is simply the one that you are most likely to stick with. Each individual must discover what suits him best, based on his physical condition and state of mind.
But it is almost universally accepted that the back should be kept straight though not stiff. The preferred posture is sitting cross-legged on a mat, but one may use a chair if sitting cross-legged is painful.
For how long? This book suggests starting with 10 minutes and slowly increasing the time.
Michie describes various meditation alternatives. The most fundamental is the practice of concentrating on our breath as it enters and exits our nostrils. This exercise can even be continued “off the mat” i.e. whenever we can spare a few minutes in our workaday life.
(You may like this short YouTube link and the friendly monk presenting it)
Michie also discusses several other options like body-scanning (your concentration slowly moves over the various parts of your body), walking meditation, object-focused meditation, visualisation (you visualise love, or calmness or whatever you seek, entering your body as light), religious visualisation and, his own favourite, mindfulness in which the mind observes itself and gradually reaches a stage of thought-free consciousness.
Compared to how it was even a few decades ago, meditation is now much more mainstream. But we have still not reached the point where it’s considered just as normal to go to meditation class as it is to go to the gym. Hopefully we are getting there.