For centuries, people have turned to meditation to quiet the mind and soothe the soul, but there may be even more concrete health benefits to this ancient practice. Scientific interest in the health benefits of meditation continues to grow, with studies pointing to improvements not only in stress levels and mental health, but in blood pressure, chronic pain and brain function as well. Here’s a round-up of some of the latest interesting findings.
Meditation and Blood Pressure
For those who suffer from high blood pressure, meditation may help keep levels in check. Researchers from American University in Washington, D.C. found that students who participated in 20 minutes of meditation once or twice a day for three months lowered both their systolic and diastolic blood pressure, a reduction that could lessen their future risk of hypertension by 52 percent.
Meditation and Pain Relief
Meditation—especially for periods of an hour or more—can act as a powerful form of pain relief, reducing the intensity of your aches by up to 40 percent, according to a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center; pain-relieving drugs typically quell pain by about 25 percent. The researchers discovered that meditation may actually do double duty, reducing activity in the part of the brain that feels pain and increasing activity in the part that helps us cope.
Meditation and Brain Function
Aside from alleviating stress and improving mood, there are other big brain benefits to meditation. Researchers have seen an increase in alpha brain waves—the type responsible for sustained attention— in those who engage in daily meditation, making it easier for them to focus on one task at a time and limiting their reactions to distracting stimuli.
Developing a Meditation Routine
With these health benefits in mind, an hour of meditation a day is a worthy goal, though that may be unrealistic for most people. Carve out the time you can—ideally at least five minutes each day—to focus on your practice. Even short meditations can have an impact. There are many different varieties of meditation, but there’s no need to worry about the nuances if you’re a newcomer. Instead, think of meditation’s simplest definition—a chance to clear your mind, let go of your surroundings and connect with a place of calmness and centeredness. This could take the form of sitting and breathing deeply, or repeating a phrase to yourself, or even taking a leisurely walk in a natural setting. These simple strategies can help get you started:
Pick the Perfect Time
You are more likely to stick with a daily meditation routine if you choose a time to practice that works with your schedule. Many people find that the morning is a great time to meditate, since the mind is naturally quieter before it begins to process the events of the day. Others find that an evening meditation can help shed daily stress and prepare you for a restful night’s sleep. Do what feels right to you.
Find a Suitable Place
Meditation requires you to focus, which can be difficult when you are surrounded by loud noises, bright lights or other distractions, especially if you are new to the practice. Once you’ve chosen a time to meditate, pick a place to practice in that is completely quiet or that has environmental sounds that are soothing (like birds chirping) and not competing for your attention. Many simply select a silent, dimly lit room where they can sit and be uninterrupted.
Many people have an image of sitting cross-legged and straight-backed when they think of meditation. The truth is, you can get all the same health benefits of meditation no matter what position you take. The key is to feel comfortable—relaxing your mind will be pretty hard if you’re focused on how sore your knees feel as you try to fold yourself into a full lotus position. You can sit in a chair, lie down on your bed or on the floor, or even walk the length of the room as you meditate.
Focus on Your Breath
Slow, steady, deep breathing—about six breaths a minute—triggers a relaxation response in your brain. It also gives your mind something to focus on as you learn how to meditate, helping you thwart distracting thoughts that may keep you from fully relaxing. If you find your mind wandering, push your other thoughts aside (acknowledging that you’ll come back to them later) and bring your focus back to your breath and the feeling of air entering and exiting your body.
Remember, learning to meditate takes time. Don’t chastise yourself or give up if you find your thoughts wandering at first. Over time, you’ll find quieting your mind easier to do, so stick with it. Your body will thank you for it.