As a yoga and meditation teacher, people are always asking me questions which seem simple, but tend to be quite complex…
To these I sigh and say: “Ah – one of the difficult ones!”
However, in this blog I’d like to answer some o the questions that have cropped-up over the years and continue to do so today. I’d like to start with Meditation.
There is much said (or chanted) about meditation. However, it’s a very personal experience – therefore, hard to adequately describe to another person. I found the following quote about meditation, which I quite like
“This is a donut.
It is very sweet, and very good. But if you’ve never tasted a donut, you wouldn’t really know how sweet and how good a donut is… meditation is like that. Transcendental Meditation gives an experience much sweeter than the sweetness of this donut.” – David Lynch, film director [online: link]
If only it had been about Cornish pasties, then I think he’d have it spot-on!
But in taking to others, its good to have some objective truth behind you. So today, we tend to fall back on SCIENCE.
Now I’ve done it… I’ve gone and used the ‘S-Word’.
But isn’t science kind-of anti-meditation and all that mumbo-jumbo?
Well, science is just a tool to objectively look at the facts. The difficulty with looking at subjects like Meditation through a scientific mindset is that it part of a system which is difficult to capture in simple discrete experiments. But many people have tried. In a wide range of scientific disciplines it is possible to glimpse some parts of meditation and the effects it can have on us. Lets take a look at some evidence …
The 1990’s saw an ever-increasing amount of research into the brain and changes which occur when people meditate. Neuroscientist, Richard Davidson (Professor of Psychology & Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin) has shown that regular meditation practice can alter the way the brain functions, using brain imaging techniques. What is astounding to me is how his research team has shown how meditation not only changes the way the brain functions, but also alters the structure of the brain’s very structure. If you want to more, check it out here. Their results showed that regular long-term meditators more gamma brainwaves; associated with perception and mental activity. This suggests meditation has the capacity to alter the brain, increase awareness, compassion and if you’re lucky… happiness.
Training in meditation can teach control of some mental states, which can be observed using brain imaging techniques.
Perhaps most significantly, scientists have shown that meditation can slow brain wave activity, during practice. This can help us become more relaxed and calm. This is a state of ‘Relaxed Awareness’, where we remain lucid but ‘not thinking’. This is harder than it sounds and takes practice!
In a deep meditation, practitioners often experience an increase in Theta brainwaves. In this state they become deeply relaxed and can experience mental images and feelings of ‘Bliss’. If I get there, I’ll let you know my own experience.
Interestingly the changes observed continued after the end of the session; this shows that the positive effects of meditation can continue beyond the practice itself.
A regular meditation practice has many physiological benefits to the body. These are understood to greater and lesser extents. However, we can recognise the positive effect on ourselves.
When our bodies are relaxed we have lower respiratory rates, we breathe more slowly and deeply which in turn decreases our heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Meditation can also support a good immune system – helping our bodies respond more effectively and help us to ward off disease. Some research indicates a positive influence on the endocrine system. This has included helping to control cholesterol and reducing stored body fats. Many mental illnesses have also shown improvements by following guided meditation practice. Here I would recommend caution, as it is no easy thing to be ‘alone with our selves’! Finding the right environment and a good teacher you can trust is key – whomsoever is right for you.
You also have to ‘put the effort in’! To get the benefit, a regular practice is essential. Its something which is with everyone’s reach, but it’s not easy either – not everyone has the patience and resolve to see it through. This is the case with many things which are worth having, not just meditation!
The therapeutic benefits of meditation have been widely reported by scientists for many years in numerous scientific studies from all over the world for the treatment of various medical conditions. These range from anxiety, to cardiovascular disease, to colonic irritability – to mention but a few.
I would argue that the weight of scientific evidence is clear scientific proof to the widespread benefits of meditation. I would not claim to understand it all, as I don’t think that science can yet fully explain meditation. However, the benefits of meditation are tangible and real! That’s’ enough for me.