What Is It?
Practiced for several thousand years, meditation is a mind-body technique in which a person engages in quiet contemplation in order to induce a state of mental and physical tranquility. Most types of meditation have come to the West from Eastern religious practices–particularly those of India, China, and Japan. It is only in the past three decades that the technique has begun to be used mainly for health purposes, particularly for treating stress and reducing chronic pain.
The three most popular meditation techniques in the United States are transcendental meditation (TM), breath meditation, and mindfulness meditation. In doing TM you repeat a simple word or sound (called a mantra) to yourself throughout the meditation to focus your thinking and help achieve a state of calm. Breath meditation calls for concentrating on the process of inhaling and exhaling to help clear the mind. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment, acknowledging thoughts as they come up and observing them without judgment.
TM became a household word in the 1960s, when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (whose followers included the Beatles) brought it to the U.S. During this time, reports had reached the West of Indian yogis and meditation masters who were able to alter their states of consciousness and control bodily functions such as blood pressure. This sparked Western researchers and health professionals–and the public at large–to begin to explore the health-enhancing potential of this ancient technique. It gained further credence when Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, published his continually popular book, The Relaxation Response in 1975. It showed how meditation could help treat high blood pressure, chronic pain, insomnia, and many other physical ailments.
Today, meditation is widely accepted as an adjunct therapy for pain reduction and stress management, and is taught and practiced in many hospitals and medical centers throughout the U.S. It is also an integral part of other mind-body techniques including yoga, qigong, and tai chi, which have gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years.
How Does It Work?
No matter which meditative technique is used, its effect on the body is similar. Researchers have found that meditating lowers levels of stress hormones, and therefore supports the healthy functioning of the immune system. In fact, by decreasing the level of one such hormone–epinephrine–meditation has been shown to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood and therefore help arteries to remain clear.
In addition, electroencephalograph (EEG) studies of the brain in those who are meditating show that meditation boosts the intensity of alpha waves–with quiet, receptive states–to levels not seen even during sleep. People who meditate also show improved blood circulation, which protects the arteries; lowered blood levels of lactic acid, which is associated with anxiety; and lowered heart rate, which places less demand on the heart. Another effect of meditation is that breathing slows, so the body uses less oxygen.
What You Can Expect
Meditation is easily practiced at home on your own. You can learn meditation techniques through books or audio or videotapes, or you can take a class in meditation to get started. Classes are frequently offered at yoga centers or community centers, and are usually taught by long-time meditators who are well versed in meditation practice. A typical class might meet for an hour once a week for several weeks and you might be exposed to one or more meditation techniques.
Whether you practice transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, or breath meditation, the goal is the same: inner peace and relaxation. In all three techniques, you sit comfortably with your back straight, either in a chair or on the floor, with your eyes closed, breathing deeply. The techniques do differ slightly in how they are performed, however.
When practicing TM, for example, you repeat a mantra (often a Sanskrit word) to yourself throughout the meditation. A teacher may give you the mantra or you may simply use a word that is calming to you, such as “peace” or “one.” Saying the mantra helps prevent distracting thoughts from entering your mind and allows you to gradually relax and release stress. One goal during TM is a passive attitude that allows thoughts, images, and feelings to pass through your consciousness almost unnoticed.
Mindfulness meditation (a technique researched and popularized in the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussetts Medical Center) helps you to become more in touch with what is happening in your body and mind at the time it actually is happening. In mindfulness meditation, you pay attention to your thoughts as they come up and observe them without judgment. This technique may include a body scan, in which you methodically bring attention to each part of your body from head to toe. As you let go of thoughts or images associated with a certain body part, the body part lets go, too, thus releasing much of its tension. The body scan has been found to be an excellent way to help people who are dealing with chronic pain. For best results, a body scan should take about 45 minutes.
Breath meditation involves focusing on breathing in and breathing out. When practicing this technique, you should try not to let your thoughts shift from your breath. According to practitioners of this type of meditation, concentrating on something as simple and elemental as the breath helps to clear the mind.
No matter what type of meditation you practice, the recommended goal is two 20-minute sessions a day–ideally once before breakfast and once before bedtime. The more you practice, the more adept you will be at achieving a state of calm and relaxation.
Meditation is one of the better-studied alternative therapies, and it has been shown to provide a wide range of health benefits. It is particularly helpful in treating heart disease. A 1998 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine showed that people who practiced transcendental meditation (TM) had lower levels of lipid peroxide than those who didn’t. Lipid peroxide can contribute to atherosclerosis and other chronic diseases associated with aging. A 1999 study published in the same journal showed that people who practiced TM had lower blood pressure immediately after meditating than did the control group.
A 1998 study in Alternative Therapies showed that mindfulness meditation was part of a program that helped decrease symptoms such as achiness and sleeplessness in patients with fibromyalgia, a disease characterized by muscle pain, fatigue, and mild-to-moderate depression.
In a 1998 study at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, psoriasis patients who listened to a mindfulness meditation audiotape during their ultraviolet light therapy experienced faster healing than those who had the light therapy alone.
Meditation has also been associated with a longer life span, better quality of life, fewer hospitalizations, and reduced health-care costs. It has also shown promise as an adjunct therapy in relieving mild depression, insomnia, tension headache, irritable bowel syndrome, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS), as well as in controlling substance abuse.
How To Choose a Practitioner
There are no nationally recognized licensing or certification programs for meditation teachers. Ask your health-care practitioner for a referral. You may also want to ask friends who practice meditation for their advice. Some schools of meditation have more religious overtones than others, so shop around to make sure you’re comfortable with the philosophy.
Some people may be temperamentally unable to achieve the tranquility of meditation, and unsuccessful attempts could aggravate any stress and anxiety they’re already feeling.
If the symptoms (such as headaches, shortness of breath, fatigue, or chronic pain) that prompted you to try meditation persist, see a conventional doctor for treatment.
In deep states of meditation, some people become aware of long-buried memories of child abuse or other childhood traumas. If disturbing thoughts or memories plague you, contact a mental health professional.
David Edelberg, MD