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How Meditation Can Seriously Benefit Your Health

Meditation can have a major positive impact on our health and well-being, research is showing. For example, in a study reported in MIT News 5th May 2011 MIT and Harvard neuroscientists explain why the practice helps tune out distractions and relieve pain.

The study, published online in April 21 in the journal Brain Research Bulletin, found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms.

“These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.”

The subjects trained in meditation also reported that they felt less stress than the non-meditators. “Their objective condition might not have changed, but they’re not as reactive to their situation,” Kerr says. “They’re more able to handle stress.”

Meditation can alter brain structure and reduce stress and increase your life span - As reported in The Times, March 14, 2008

Kathy Sykes, a Bristol University professor, has long known that if she does not find at least 30 minutes a day in her frantically overcrowded schedule to lie down and listen to music, she is grumpier, more tired and less able to concentrate.

What Professor Sykes, who holds the chair in the Public Engagement of Science and Engineering at Bristol, did not realise until recently is that she was, in effect, practising a fairly crude form of meditation. She also didn't know that there was growing evidence to show that this ancient practice can make people healthier and happier. It may even increase life span, alter brain structure and change personality.

Ancient traditional therapies do not always stand up to close scientific scrutiny. But when Professor Sykes put meditation under the metaphorical microscope for the second series of Alternative Therapies: The Evidence, which she is presenting to the BBC, she was surprised to find that the saffron-robed monks of Kathmandu and the white-coated scientists of Harvard shared more common ground than might have been expected.

“Several people have told me that meditation can affect your emotions,” she says, “and one of the areas of the brain that scientists are finding may be affected by meditation is involved in processing emotions, among other things. These are early days and we need more trials, but this is potentially very exciting.”

Meditation now approved by NICE (The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence)

There are now signs that mainstream medicine has already started to sit up and take notice of meditation. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which is about 80 per cent meditation, has been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for use with people who have experienced three or more episodes of depression. And MBCT is now offered by some UK primary care trusts.

Finding a state of calm

About ten million people meditate every day in the West and, while there are many different techniques, the purpose is always to focus the mind - sometimes through the use of a mantra, a sound or the breath - and promote a state of calm.

Although Professor Sykes had always found her own ad hoc methods useful, she noticed a change after her visit to Kathmandu for instruction with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has been meditating for more than 30 years. “It would be absurd to say that I have learnt to meditate when people spend a lifetime doing that, but when I try to meditate now it does have a more powerful effect,” she says.

“My dad died from cancer about two months before I made the programme, but I had not cried about him for a while because I was just so busy filming. Matthieu had suggested I try to focus on unconditional love so, the next time I was trying to meditate, I thought about that and inevitably about my love for my dad. Within milliseconds I was bawling my eyes out. It was quite an intense experience and I found it comforting in my grief.

“Not long ago, I was on a crowded train where there was standing-room only going from Paddington to Bristol. I sat cross-legged on the floor to meditate and felt like I was transported to a delightful place. It was glorious to feel it was possible to ‘escape' like that.”

As a scientist, Professor Sykes wanted to know what was happening to her body to make her feel this way, so she checked into the famous Massachusetts General Hospital, where Dr Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School professor, put her through a barrage of tests.

After hooking her up to a range of monitors “like a lab rat”, doctors measured her resting pulse, muscle tension, respiration and sweat. They then subjected her to some humiliating mental arithmetic on camera, during which her stress levels and all her readings soared.

But after a short period of meditation, her pulse and breathing dropped below the resting rate. Dr Benson calls this the “relaxation response” and believes it can help with a wide range of conditions, including heart disease, asthma, diabetes and infertility. “To the extent that any disorder is caused or made worse by stress, regular elicitation of the relaxation response will counteract that condition,” he says.

Meditation changes the brain

For Professor Sykes, the most exciting part of her investigation took place in the laboratories, where scientists are demonstrating that meditation appears to be associated with changes in the brain. These studies suggest that we could all benefit from regular meditation.

MRI scans of long-term meditators have shown greater activity in brain circuits involved in paying attention. When disturbing noises were played to a group of meditators undergoing an MRI scan, they had relatively little effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making among those with the most experience of meditation.

“Attention can be trained in a way that is not that different to how physical exercise changes the body,”
says Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Long-term meditation seems not only to alter brain-wave patterns: early research suggests that it may also result in changes in the actual structure of the cortex, the outer parts of our brains. “We have found that brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditators than in the controls,” says Dr Sara Lazar, an assistant in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The data give credence to some of the claims of long-term meditators and suggests that meditation can play a role in reducing stress, improving emotion regulation and perhaps slowing the effects of ageing on brains - slowing the normal decrease in mental agility, ability to learn new things and memory that comes with age.”

All this means that Professor Sykes will be sticking with meditation and thinks the rest of us should try it, too. “I find it incredibly empowering to think that how happy we feel or our ability to focus or concentrate may not be fixed character traits but may be skills that we can train and get better at,” she says. “This must be worth investigating. If evidence is found that meditation can help us all to think better, to be happier and to be more compassionate, that would be amazing.”

The Science of Meditation

In a report initially published on May 01, 2001 and last reviewed on September 03, 2010, it has also been shown that as little as 10 minutes of meditation a day can help squash anxiety,

Many other studies have also shown that meditation not only has a mental but also a profound physiological effect on the body.

These studies have shown that, among other benefits, meditation can help reverse heart disease, the number-one killer in the U.S. It can reduce pain and enhance the body's immune system, enabling it to better fight disease.

Prevent a Stroke

More new research offers even more additional encouragement. In a study published last year in the journal Stroke, 60 African-Americans with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, practiced meditation for six to nine months. (African-Americans are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as are whites.) The meditators showed a marked decrease in the thickness of their artery walls, while the nonmeditators actually showed an increase. The change for the meditation group could potentially bring about an 11 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack and an 8 percent to 15 percent decrease in the risk of stroke.

A second study, published last year in Psychosomatic Medicine, taught a randomized group of 90 cancer patients mindful meditation (another type of practice). After seven weeks, those who had meditated reported that they were significantly less depressed, anxious, angry and confused than the control group, which hadn't practiced meditation. The meditators also had more energy and fewer heart and gastrointestinal problems than did the other group.

Other recent research has looked at precisely what happens during meditation that allows it to cause these positive physical changes. Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, found that meditation has a pervasive effect on stress. They looked at a group of people who had meditated for four months and found that they produced less of the stress hormone cortisol. They were therefore better able to adapt to stress in their lives, no matter what their circumstances were.

Meditation improves Relationships

Diana Adile Kirschner, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist, sometimes refers her clients to learn meditation and has seen firsthand how helpful it can be. "Not only is meditation an absolutely marvelous destressor, it helps people better relate to one another," she says. "I can tell when clients are following through with meditation. For instance, I had a couple who consistently bickered. After they started meditating, they came in less angry, more self-reflective and more loving."

While western scientists are still exploring exactly how and why meditation works, we already know that it has both physiological and psychological benefits. And many therapists consider it a valid complement to more traditional therapies. So perhaps we should simply take a leaf out of the Tibetan’s book, and simply do what makes us feel better in the end.

How Meditation May Change the Brain – as published in the New York Times on January 28, 2011.

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours daily, one hour in the morning and one in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Meditation Reduces Blood Pressure

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.

Learn Meditation on our One Day NLP, Hypnosis and Quantum Thinking Workshops.

I have been practicing meditation for many years now and I have personally found it to be a phenomenal tool.

It has helped me in my professional and private life and in my health and well being.

Over the years I have read many books on meditation and listened to many audio programmes. I have also learned from Buddhist Monks and attended Buddhist Temples to improve my practice and have followed the teachings and practices of many leading authorities in this field.

As a result, what I have decide to do, for those of you who wish to take part, is to include meditation practice as part of our one-day 'Introduction to NLP, Hypnosis and Quantum Thinking' workshops that we are running on the 3rd December 2011 and the 28th January 2012, and we will also be giving you a FREE Audio CD to enable you to leave the course and continue practicing what you will have learned on the day.

To find out more, or to book on the NLP. Hypnosis and Quantum Thinkng Workshops >>> click here <<<

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