Much of our daily life is spent in our heads, focused on what we are thinking, and not on how we are feeling. With the demands of modern society, and the demands of work and home, we are often required to stay one mental step ahead, just to make it through the day. The tragedy though, is that when we navigate our lives led by our thoughts alone, we miss out on a world of information only available to us through our bodies and spirits.
For centuries people have practiced meditation; not to tune out of the world, but to tune in to their spirits. To meditate is to become acutely aware of the inner workings of your mind; the purpose is to tame your mind so that you can focus all of your energy and awareness on the task at hand.
The point is not to avoid pain or discomfort, but to experience and accept it, so that you can move through any situation with clarity and a sense of calm.
There has been an avalanche of academic studies of late, that almost universally concur on the wide variety of benefits with mindfulness meditation as a practice. The following are just a handful of those benefits.
An intriguing study that was recently conducted by Yale University posits that experienced meditators have decreased levels of activity in the default mode network (DMN); the mind network that is responsible for mind-wandering - a.k.a., the “monkey mind.”
The monkey brain is engaged whenever we are not doing anything in particular. Wandering minds are typically associated with being less happy and worrying, so it’s no surprise that many people want to dial it down. This study, in addition to others, have shown that mindfulness meditation actually does this by quieting the effect on the DMN. Even if the mind does start wandering off, experienced meditators are usually more self-aware, and can snap out of it.
In one study conducted by UCLA, the researcher noted - "We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating, Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.” In other words, meditation helps preserve the grey matter in your brain.
Grey matter is responsible for memory, seeing, hearing, executive function, impulse control, speech, and emotions, in short it is the cognitive capacity of your brain.
There is a relatively new branch of psychology called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, but is now available everywhere. It is an 8-week course that is supposed that does exactly what it’s name suggests, reduces your stress levels - both mental and physical. Studies have shown the benefits persist, even years after completion of the course.
Another study out of Stanford concludes that meditation also helps with managing social anxiety by regulating the part of the brain responsible for attention, as well as relief from the symptoms of social anxiety.
In another study conducted at Harvard University, the researchers found that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of certain areas of the brain. 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, which governs memory and learning.
There were also measurable decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is partly responsible for stress, fear, and anxiety. These changes matched the participants’ self-reported levels of stress levels, which suggests that meditation not only changes the brain chemically, but it also changes our subjective perception and feelings as well.
There are more than 5 million deaths per year attributed to smoking tobacco. There is a lot of resources thrown at this problem, but one of the simplest solutions is mindfulness practice. A recent study suggests that meditation is better at beating addiction than the American Lung Association's freedom from smoking (FFS) program.
This is likely because meditation practice can “decouple” the state of craving and the act of smoking. Which means, one doesn’t always have to lead to the other, but rather you can fully experience and ride out the craving until it passes.
There are some forms of meditation that can lead to increased self-image, and a more positive outlook on life.
There have been numerous studies on the effects of meditation on depression, and this one in particular found meditation to reduce depression in over 4,600 adults. -
In your body, there are inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which are released in response to stress, and they can have a profound effect on your mood, which may lead to depression. A review of several studies has concluded that meditation can reduce symptoms of depression by reducing the amount of these chemicals in your body.
When you meditate, you are making time for yourself. This alone time can help you develop a stronger understanding of yourself, which can eventually lead to you growing into your best self.
For example, self-enquiry meditation is explicitly geared towards helping you understand yourself, and you relate to those that are around you, always asking the question: “who am I?”.
There are other forms that teach you to recognize negative thoughts that can be harmful or self-defeating. The idea being that, once you gain greater control over your thoughts, you can direct them towards more productive and healthy directions.
If you have ever tried meditating for more than 20 minutes you will realize just how difficult it can be to stay focused, it is almost like lifting weights with your mind. One study from the University of Pennsylvania found that an 8 week course of mindfulness meditation improved the participants ability to reorient and maintain their attention.
There was a similar study that came to the same conclusion. Human resource workers who meditated regularly were found to stay focused on a task for longer, and these workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their colleagues who did not meditate.
According to the Sleep Health Foundation, at least 1 in 3 people have at least mild insomnia.
We’ve all laid in bed, weary after a long day, only to have our minds run wild with thoughts. People who meditate have better control over their thoughts, which means they can get better sleep since they don’t have to contend with racing thoughts every night.
One study found that people who meditate fall asleep faster, and slept for longer. If you meditate right before bed, it will put your mind in a peaceful state, which will then allow you to fall asleep quickly.
There is a type of meditation known as Metta, which is effective at generating positive feeling towards others.
It was developed by Emma Sepala, of Stanford University, and it involves four steps:
In this review of 22 separate studies, the researchers found that this form of meditation positively affected people’s compassion towards themselves and others.
One study conducted on 100 randomly assigned adults, found that the results were dose dependent. Meaning, the more effort they put into Metta, the more the effects on them were calculable.
According to this study, the benefits also appear to be accumulative, meaning they increase over time.
(If you are interested in Meditation, you will also be interested in our article on Buddhism)
If you are just getting started, it is a lot to take in, but the best thing you can do is simply sign up for a class taught by a qualified instructor, and you will know almost immediately if it is for you or not.
Remember though, yoga is a continuous process. So keep practicing! The deeper you go into your yoga practice, the more profound will be its benefits.