We know that for thousands of years, people have practiced meditation for spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. But despite the many reported benefits, and with time at a premium, if you don’t know your Metta from your Mantra - it can feel like an intimidating practice to begin.
Taking time off to relax and unwind...it sounds idyllic. But with a busy schedule, responsibilities and deadlines looming, how can we switch off, reconnect, and make time for meditation?
And, from a scientific perspective - how exactly does meditation affect our body? Does it really do anything?
It all starts in the brain.
What is meditation?
Meditation: To engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.
In practice, meditation involves focusing your attention on the present moment and being aware of what’s happening now. It helps us to focus on what’s going on both inside and outside of ourselves, without being distracted by our thoughts.
Breathe in..... breathe out.
What happens to our brains during meditation?
The more you practice, the more you strengthen the neural connections involved.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, used MRI technology to see what happens to the brain when a person meditates.
In her first study, Lazar looked at those with extensive experience in mindful meditation . This group had on average 9+ years of meditative experience and were practicing for 40 minutes every day.
The initial results suggested that meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing. And that over time, meditation may slow down or prevent age-related thinning of the frontal cortex, the area that contributes to the formation of memories.
It’s always been thought the older we get, the more forgetful we are. This study found that 40–50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter in their cortex as the 20–30-year-old ones.
But what about beginners?
For her second study, Lazar looked at people who’d never meditated before. This group was put through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program. Lazar wanted to test for positive effects on their psychological well-being. So, every day, for 30 to 40 minutes, they performed mindfulness exercises including body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation. After eight weeks, she found the brain volume increased in the hippocampus - an area responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotions.
It’s good news for family and friends too...
She also found the brain volume increased in the temporoparietal junction, an area responsible for empathy and compassion.
What happens to our bodies during meditation?
Whatever’s good for the brain is good for the body. Meditation not only decreases blood pressure but can also increase the variability of your heart rate. This plays a critical role in transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout your body. In a study where both meditators and non-meditators were given the flu virus, meditators produced a greater number of antibodies and had increased immune function.
Of course, meditation is not a substitute for medical advice or a healthy lifestyle.
However, much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and improve your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of "working out" your brain.
If you want to kickstart your tranquility and focus each day, finding just a few minutes each morning to dedicate to meditation can have a meaningful impact on mental, emotional, and physical health.
5 Minute Morning Meditation Exercise:
Stop hitting snooze on your wellbeing.
Just 5 minutes in the morning can help with feeling calmer, fresher, and more focussed for the day. Follow these steps to start your day with a 5-minute morning meditation:
Step 1: Find a Quiet Space:
Select a quiet and comfortable space where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes. It could be a corner in your home, a peaceful garden, or even a serene spot in nature.
Step 2: Sit Comfortably:
Assume a comfortable seated position, either on a cushion, chair, or the floor. Keep your spine upright yet relaxed, and gently close your eyes.
Step 3: Deep Breathing:
Take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Allow your breath to naturally deepen and settle into a steady rhythm.
Step 4: Body Awareness:
Shift your attention to the sensations in your body. Gradually scan your body from head to toe, noticing any areas of tension or discomfort. Simply observe these sensations without judgment or the need to change anything.
Step 5: Focus on the Breath:
Direct your attention to the gentle rhythm of your breath. Notice the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. Whenever your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to the breath.
Step 6: Cultivate Gratitude:
As you continue to breathe, take a moment to reflect on something you're grateful for. It could be a person, a situation, or simply the gift of being present in this moment. Allow a sense of gratitude to fill your heart.
Step 7: Conclude with Intention:
Before ending your practice, set a positive intention for the day ahead. Visualize yourself navigating the day with mindfulness, presence, and a sense of calm.
Step 8: Slowly Return:
When you're ready, gently bring your awareness back to the present moment. Wiggle your fingers and toes, and gradually open your eyes. Take a moment to acknowledge the stillness and peace within you.
Meditation has a proven influence on our brain and body. Scientific studies have shown it brings structural changes to brain regions associated with emotional processing, memory, and empathy. By dedicating just a few minutes each morning to meditation, we’re on the right path to inner peace and a healthier brain and body.