Meditation is an ancient health and wellness practice utilizing mental focus, breathing and body movements to calm the mind and body. It is a simple, powerful tool known to reduce stress, foster physical relaxation and enhance well-being. In the midst of busy, demanding and stressful lives, meditation is gaining popularity. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, adult use of meditation in the United States tripled between 2012 and 2017 (from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent) and meditation by children is also significantly increasing.
Although there are many types of meditation, most share four common elements: a quiet location free of distractions, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention –whether that be a word, set of words, object, or breathing, and an open, positive attitude.
In the US, the three most popular meditation practices are Kundalini yoga, breath awareness meditation and mindfulness meditation. Kundalini yoga practice is typically offered in a class with a certified teacher and students are given phrases to repeat while doing yoga poses. Breath awareness meditation can be practiced anytime, anywhere. The idea is to simply focus on your breath and be present in the moment, wiping out all thoughts that may be causing you anxiety. Similarly in mindfulness meditation, practitioners focus on something specific and positive, while concentrating on their deep breathing. The idea is to have awareness of your surroundings without passing judgment. Mindfulness meditation can be for five minutes or an hour.
Many medical researchers and health experts agree that meditation has physical and mental health benefits that positively affect the “whole person” - mind, body and soul. By calming the mind, meditation can help lower blood pressure, decrease pain, improve sleep, enhance concentration and focus, improve immunity and reduce anxiety, frustration, resentment, and /or depression.
These are some examples of how meditation improves our health:
Mental and physical stress cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol which can release chemicals that promote inflammation. These effects can increase anxiety, interrupt sleep and increase blood pressure. According to a study reported in the British Medical Journal, patients who practiced meditation had considerably lower blood pressure than those in the control group. Experts believe that meditation reduces the body’s response to cortisol and other stress hormones, similar to how blood pressure medications work.
Stanford University researcher Emma Seppälä notes that meditation can allow people to take charge of their own nervous system and emotions. "Studies have shown improved ability to [permanently] regulate emotions in the brain," adds Seppälä."It's very empowering."
Ronnie Newman, Director of Research and Health Promotion for the Art of Living Foundation, points to studies which have shown that with meditation brain signaling increases in the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for positive emotions, while activity decreases in the right side of the brain and the area responsible for negative emotions.
Some even claim that meditation slows aging. According to Harvard researcher, Sara Lazar, studies show that meditation changes brain physiology to slow aging. "Cognition seems to be preserved in meditators," she says, adding that meditators also have “more gray matter – literally, more brain cells.”
Whether you are looking to improve your cardiovascular or immune health, reduce negative emotions or simply feel happier and calmer, give meditation a try. There are many different types of meditation to explore and most you can do anytime, anywhere without special equipment or costly fees.
Not only is it a great way to improve your quality of life, but it can have a ripple effect that radiates joy and peace to others.
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