Q: I keep hearing that meditation is good for your health. Is this true? And if so, why?
It’s absolutely true. In fact, meditation has been researched for decades, and its benefits have been documented in literally thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies. One anonymous sage once tweeted, “Meditation is like multivitamins for your brain,” a sentiment that contains quite a bit of truth.
There are many systems of meditation, but most couple some type of relaxation with focused attention – you sit quietly and focus on your breath or a mantra, word or feeling. Meditation is not a religious practice and doesn’t require any particular theology – if anything, it’s a spiritual practice compatible with both mainstream religions and atheism. And anyone can do it.
You want benefits? We’ve got benefits! Meditation decreases depression, helps regulate mood and anxiety disorders, relieves and improves stress and anxiety in general, improves memory learning, self-awareness, decision-making and information processing, and even lessens the experience of pain.
Studies have shown that having more folds in the brain may promote better memory and allow the brain to process information faster. Recent evidence from UCLA shows that long-term meditators have a lot more folds than people who don’t meditate at all.
There’s also evidence that it changes the anatomy of the brain through a process called gyrification, a technical name for the formation of folds in the cerebral cortex. Studies have shown that having more folds in the brain may promote better memory and allow the brain to process information faster. Recent evidence from UCLA shows that long-term meditators have a lot more folds than people who don’t meditate at all.
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Even meditation-like activities can have demonstrable benefits. In the 1970s, Harvard Medical School’s Herbert Benson, MD, began doing research on what he called “the relaxation response.” The relaxation response just involves quieting your mind and going into a state of deep relaxation – instructions can be found in a million places online. Benson is the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine and has published over 190 scientific publications and 12 books showing that the relaxation response helps turn off stress hormones and improve health in a myriad of ways.
All meditation and related techniques (such as the relaxation response) calm your stress hormones, reduce your blood pressure and improve brain function. Bottom line: Stress is a killer and meditation reduces it. That’s really all you need to know – and hopefully that’s enough to motivate you to look into it. (Full disclosure: I started practicing transcendental meditation last July and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. I also magically found the 20 minutes twice a day to do the practice – a miracle in its own right.)