What is meditation? Can it affect our body as well as our mind? What is the evidence? Are there any health risks?
What is Meditation?
‘Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.’
(US government’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. It originated in religious or spiritual traditions in the East. In the hectic modern world it can help us go inwards and experience ourselves and the world in the present moment.
There are a range of different types of and approaches to meditation, including the use of:
- mantras (a repeated word or sound designed to aid concentration and consciousness)
- mindfulness (being mindful of living in the present moment. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath).
- transcendental meditation (using a silent mantra, to allow your body to settle into a state of profound rest and relaxation and your mind to achieve a state of inner peace).
- visualization (where you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing).
Qi gong, Tai chi and Yoga also involve elements of meditation.
In practice, most types of meditation typically take place in a quiet location, involve a comfortable yet alert posture, find a means to focus attention and let distractions come and go naturally, without judging them.
One theory is that meditation affects the nervous system. If so this ultimately impacts on nerve influenced bodily functions such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion - for example causing heart and breathing rates to slow and the flow of digestive juices to increase.
What are the Benefits of Meditation?
- Reduced Stress - This is the most widely reported benefit. For example in 2011, Dr Norman Rosenthal of Georgetown University reported that transcendental meditation reduced symptoms of post-traumaticstress disorder in war veterans by up to 50%. According to the Mayo Clinic some research suggests meditation can help with a number of stress aggravated medical conditions including allergies, anxiety disorders, depression, fatigue, cardiovascular disease pain, sleep problems and substance abuse.
- Improved Attention and Improved Mood - A paper published in Frontiers in Psychology suggested that Integrative Mind-Body Training (IBMT), a form of mindfulness meditation, improves attention and overall mood.
- Brain Growth - In autumn 2006 The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter reported on research undertaken by a team led by Dr Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital. The research concluded that those with experience in insight meditation (meditation that focuses on internal experiences) had bigger brain regions associated with attention, sensory processing and interoception (sensitivity to stimuli originating from within the body). In addition they found that meditation might reduce age-related brain cortex thinning.
- Increased awareness and reduced risk of falls - The American Public Health Association has reported that Spiritual Meditation, such as Centering Prayer and Contemplative Meditation, increases awareness and reduces the risk of falls in older adults.
How reliable are these findings?
Most of the studies cited here were very small, involving five, twenty or forty participants. Larger scale studies would be needed to confirm these initial findings. The studies would also need to check that the results were due specifically to meditation rather than any other factors.
Having said this one larger, well conducted study (involving 80 Chinese students, following one particular type of meditation) offered evidence that meditation training can improve a person’s physical and mental state compared to simple relaxation training - provided the same results would apply outside China too.
Are there any health risks?
Meditation isn’t a substitute for conventional medical treatment and there have been some reports that meditation could worsen symptoms associated with certain mental health conditions. However, meditation is usually considered safe.
How to Meditate
We briefly explained about mantras, mindfulness, transcendental meditation and visualization earlier in the article.
We have also included links to some resources alongside the article if you would like to find out more.
- The evidence for the benefits of meditation are often based on very small scale studies.
- Meditation may not be recommended for symptoms associated with some mental health conditions.
- However, otherwise risks appear small and meditation has been practiced safely for thousands of years.
- Overall, meditation appears likely to reduce stress.
- Some specific types of meditation may also help in other ways – e.g. improve attention and improve mood, or help the brain grow, or increase awareness and reduce the risk of falls.
Reviewed by Devika K K Jethwa September 2015. Next review date, August 2019.