Meditation for Mentation and Peace of Mind
Whether you prefer to move while you meditate or sit in stillness, the effects of regular meditation on the body, mind and spirit are both well documented scientifically and, in my opinion, vastly under-emphasized in our fast paced culture of instant gratification.
As previously mentioned, deep regular breathing induces a profound relaxation response which has a multitude of healthful ripple effects in the body and psyche. The reason why, is that meditation actually changes the action of the brain waves.
Dr. Brogan puts it succinctly when she says, “Brain waves in the right frontal cortex, which is a stress center, transfer to the calmer left frontal cortex.” This shift in brain activity may explain why meditators are so notably calmed and contented after reaching their meditative space.
Not to mention, those who meditate regularly actually have physically larger brains! Researchers at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital published an imaging study in 2005 that found that people who meditated regularly had thicker cerebral cortex tissue, associated with higher intelligence and better memory.
Dr. Kelly Brogan also makes an interesting case for meditation in regards to gene expression, claiming that “meditation can directly optimize your genetic expression.”
While epigenetics is a burgeoning new field of study and awareness in scientific literature and is not exactly at the forefront of conventional knowledge, the basic idea of epigenetics and gene expression is this: yes we are born with a set of genes that we have inherited from our parents, but those genes express themselves throughout our life based on our environment and lifestyle. The things we do and experience, as well as ingest, actually turn certain genes on or off, resulting in either the optimization of health or the diminishment of it.
One of the ways meditation impacts gene expression, Dr. Brogan explains, is that it “stimulates the expression of genes that are powerfully anti-inflammatory in nature and help stabilize blood sugar.” And as we all know, wonky or chaotic blood sugar levels peaking and troughing throughout the day are nowadays considered to be one of the primary, underlying causes of disease.
Dr. Brogan also mentions in her book an intriguing study where researchers had subjects simply pop in some ear buds and listen to a 20 minute guided meditation. The researchers calculated the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before, after twenty minutes, after eight weeks of practice and after long-term meditation routines.
The studies of the eight week and long-term time frames showed clear evidence of positive changes to gene expression as a result of the relaxation response, and further, that gene optimization and relaxation response is dose-related: the more you meditate, the more you optimize gene expression.
“The scientists,” Dr. Brogan concludes, “Theorize that the biological events that take place during meditation essentially prevent the body from translating psychological worry into physical inflammation. Which helps explain why mindfulness-based meditation practice has been demonstrated in randomized trials to improve depressive symptoms in fibromyalgia and to have lasting anti-anxiety effects after only eight weeks of group practice.”
Aside from its powerful physical implications, there is a great deal to be said in regards to the connection of meditation and one’s mood or state of mind.
Dr. Emma Seppala, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, has done a great deal of study and writing on this topic in her work with veterans, in which she helps veterans of war deal with the highly disabling symptoms of PTSD by teaching them various breathwork techniques.
One of the studies Dr. Seppala mentions in her article in the magazine “Psychology Today”, was conducted by a man called Pierre Phillipot who basically demonstrated that certain emotional states are associated with specific patterns of breath. In his study, he had his subjects generate a certain emotion such as anger, joy or fear. Then he and his team took measurement of the breath patterns emitted by the subjects and recognized a pattern. Specific emotions had specific breath patterns.
What’s even more interesting is, for the latter half of the study, he brought in a group of new subjects and instructed them on how to replicate certain breath patterns and, upon doing so, asked them what emotions they were feeling. Sure enough, the subjects named the same emotions that Phillipot’s team had associated with that breath pattern!
This means the way we breathe fully impacts our mood and state of mind.
Dr. Stapleton also corroborates this when he observes, “Deep concentration slows the breath. Worry can cause us to hold the breath for long periods of time. You might find yourself observing how thoughts and emotions are connected to your breath patterns. When the mind becomes scattered and confused, the breath pattern is usually simultaneously chaotic. By noticing connections between breath patterns and mental states, you begin developing a tool for changing your moods and mental states.”
Being able to alter our mental state in the midst of a crisis is a powerful tool for anyone to have. Feel free to try the following breath exercise, called Alternate Nostril Breathing, when you are experiencing a time of upheaval in your life. Incidentally, this technique is one of the breath techniques Dr. Seppala teaches the war veterans.
Breath Exercise for Calming the Mind
- Find a comfortable seated position and place your left hand on your left knee while you raise your right hand to your face.
- Place the index and middle finger of your right hand on the center of your forehead and use your thumb to plug your right nostril.
- Breathe deeply into the left nostril, maintaining the plug of the right nostril.
- At the top of the inhale, bring the pinky finger to plug the left nostril and release the thumb from the right nostril.
- Exhale through the right nostril.
- Keeping your fingers where they are, inhale through the right nostril fully.
- At the top of the inhale, plug the right nostril and open the left nostril, exhaling all the breath through the left nostril.
- Keep the fingers as they are and inhale through the left nostril.
- Continue breathing in this manner for seven rounds of breath.
- Release control of the breath and receive the effects of this potent breathing exercise, noticing any differences in your body or mental state from when you began.
Whether your goal is to gain some modicum of control over your emotional landscape, increase your mental capacity, or do what you can to help your genes express in ways that optimize your health, cultivation of a consistent meditation practice is the key. Sign up for a yoga class, or make a commitment to breathe in stillness for 15 minutes of your day. One small simple act made each and every day can literally change not only the size of your brain, but the outcome of your health in years to come.