The Physiological Benefits of An Ancient Health Practice

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The advances of modern medicine in the 20th and 21st centuries have been nothing short of miraculous when considered in relation to the shorter life spans of the 19th century and earlier. Injury and disease ceased being death sentences with the advent of penicillin, vaccination, chemotherapy, joint and organ replacement, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and genetic therapy.

We can joke about Botox, Rogaine, Propecia and the various drugs for erectile dysfunction, but each of those was developed as a direct or indirect result of research on important health questions. Certainly, we’ve come a long way since opium-laced potions were the cure-all.

Yet the “medicalization” of health left behind the idea that the mind can play a role in physical well-being. Forms of treatment such as hypnosis and meditation were lumped under the term “alternative medicine” (along with acupuncture, homeopathy and massage) and were largely ignored by the Western medical establishment. But practitioners in the United States and throughout the world have been persistent in their belief that alternative therapies can be both preventive and healing, such that we now have scientific studies documenting certain positive outcomes.

This article looks specifically at the health benefits of meditation. This is a practice that takes many forms and has been used for thousands of years in distinct cultures the world over. Scientific study reveals there can be concrete physiological results.

Meditation when you are ill

In the United States, meditation has had a scientific home for more than 30 years at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

One study co-authored by the Center’s founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn (Kabat-Zinn, J. Wheeler, et al., “Influence of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Intervention on Rates of Skin Clearing in Patients with Moderate to Severe Psoriasis Undergoing Phototherapy and Photochemotherapy,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 1998), indicated that patients with psoriasis who listened to guided meditation tapes while undergoing light treatments healed at a rate four times faster than a control group. In other words, medical treatment plus meditation was more effective. Significantly more effective.

More than a thousand peer-reviewed studies have been conducted and published regarding the physiological effects of meditation. Most of them indicate beneficial stress reduction for practitioners — as experienced by individuals with chronic pain or pre- or postmenstrual syndrome (PMS) or by those undergoing medical treatment such as chemotherapy. For anyone who understands the links between stress and illness, this suggests something very big for the treatment of disease and prevention as well.

And what about the brain itself? A study conducted jointly by Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (S. Lazar et al, NeuroReport, “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness,” 2005) found that 20 study participants, all of whom were long-term meditators, had a cortical thickness that exceeded the average (thickness is good). These brain regions are associated with attention, interoception, and sensory processing, which can affect sensation perception (hearing, visual, and touch), plus heart rate and breathing.

No serious research indicates that diseases can be cured purely with meditation, it should be noted. Meditation gurus and authors Ed and Deb Shapiro (Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World [Sterling Ethos, 2009]) are quick to point out that meditation should not be considered a treatment for illness except as an adjunct to traditional (Western) medicine. “Meditation helps you release resistance,” says Deb Shapiro. “It enables you to leave the fearful place, to make friends with illness.”

By “friends,” we assume she means something like houseguests — gone after three days.


Meditation synergy: when fitness is also mindfulness

Meditation is much like yoga in that one can learn a lot by watching it but that doesn’t translate into knowing how to do it. Classes, books and just doing it are the best teachers.
But for anyone who frets about finding the time to meditate, take heart (fretting is discouraged anyway); on a certain level, it can be multitasked. It can happen while pursuing another health goal, specifically, such things as walking, running, yoga, and other physical activities that allow mindfulness (the state that meditators achieve when meditating) to blossom.

That may strike you as a contradiction. Meditation might appear to be the antithesis of fitness, particularly in a society that equates (simplistically) movement with caloric burn or muscle development. The above-cited study on thicker cortexes resulting from meditation suggests otherwise. You can actually achieve a meditative state while practicing yoga or while long-distance running. Ed Shapiro ticks off a list of activities during which he finds it possible to meditate:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Skiing
  • Firewalking (not for amateurs, obviously)
  • Surfing
  • Yoga
  • Dancing

Deb adds housekeeping and gardening to the list. “It helps to sit still for some people,” she notes. Yet “moving meditation,” as they both describe it, is about “bringing the mind to what we’re doing, instead of thinking about six things at the same time. These are moments when you can get rid of negative thoughts. You let them happen; then you move on. It’s the most natural thing in the world, and yet most people don’t find it naturally.”

From my own experience, it’s possible to achieve a meditative state while running or doing yoga. The handful of times I’ve experienced an out-of-body-like sensation, it seemed to be while engaged for an hour or more in the activity, a time when endorphins were likely circulating. Was this meditation? Most likely, yes.

The combination of a free mind and those natural pain reducers makes for a truly fantastic experience. I don’t doubt for a millisecond that the wash of hormones from such moments is extremely beneficial to my health. I highly recommend for everyone to try it as well.