Spa Wellness: Shedding Light on Meditation

DAYSPA spoke to a few experts to help shed light on what meditation is—and isn’t—and what we now know about its effect on the mind and body.

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Mention the word “meditation” and some people instantly tap into a sense of peace and perspective, while others launch into a guilt-ridden round of shoulda-coulda-woulda: “I don’t have a quiet place to go!” “I tried but I couldn’t do it!” “I didn’t feel anything, how can I tell if I’m doing it right?”

Meditation is a subjective experience so, not surprisingly, its definition is also subjective. But in general terms, it is a technique used to take the mind beyond conscious thinking. Used for thousands of years in cultures around the world, meditation sprang from spiritual or religious tradition. For some it is still a spiritual experience; for others, it’s a simple and natural component of wellness.

The word “meditate” comes from the Latin root meaning “to contemplate” or “to ponder." Meditation is referenced in the Old Testament, and information dating back to prehistoric times suggests that early civilizations used repetitive chanting and meditative processes for devotional purposes. Although many cultures use it today as part of their religious practices, it has also become an accepted form of mind-body medicine, which focuses on how emotional, mental, spiritual and physical health are interconnected and, in fact, cannot be separated.

There are almost as many types of meditation as there are cultures that practice it. Some focus attention solely on the breath to block out distracting thoughts. Others use a mantra to eliminate thoughts from the mind. Meditations can be contemplative or concentrated on a particular thought, image or object. Or, they can seek to still the mind through prayer or sound. Still another type seeks to increase awareness of the present moment in order to quell the barrage of thoughts going through the brain.

Regardless of the approach, practicing meditation can induce many positive changes in the brain, and in the body. Thankfully, scientific research and modern medicine now enable us to examine the viability of meditation as an integral part of wellness.

The Body Listens

It isn’t fully known exactly how meditation creates physical changes, but studies confirm those changes do occur. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, one theory is that meditation affects the central nervous system, which controls not only organs and muscles, but functions such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion. When a person is under stress, for example, the sympathetic nervous system can cause her heart rate and breathing rate to increase, and her blood vessels to narrow and diminish blood flow. Meditation may decrease those responses in the sympathetic nervous system and increase those of the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes the heart rate and breathing to slow down and the blood flow to increase.

Often, physical response begins in the brain. Take the condition of anxiety. “Anxiety may originate in the cerebral cortex of the brain,” explains Dr. Gary Kaplan, a neurologist and meditation advocate based in Lake Success, New York. “But the effects can be felt physiologically with, for example, increased blood pressure.” Kaplan concurs that science cannot yet fully understand how and why physiological changes occur during meditation. But we do understand that, just as the brain can negatively affect bodily functions like blood pressure, it can just as easily affect them in a positive way.

Kaplan cites three physiological components linked to the effects of meditation—metabolic rate, oxygen consumption and brainwave patterns—“which can all correlate to a lot of positive health changes.”

Kaplan not only recommends meditation to his patients, he himself has practiced Transcendental Meditation, or TM (a trademarked method of meditation), which relies upon an individualized mantra. “Studies on TM show that it can bring the mind to a deep, psychological rest that changes the electrical signature of the brain,” Kaplan says. “It’s a wakeful hypo-metabolic state, a state of restful alertness that allows the body to rejuvenate. It’s a far deeper state than sleep or even hypnosis.” The technique put meditation into the pop culture consciousness in the 1960s, when popular celebrities such as the Beatles flocked to India to study with its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The National Institutes of Health has funded more than $24 million dollars to research TM, and with favorable results. A 2007 study concluded that subjects using TM showed both significant clinical and statistical reductions in blood pressure versus four other therapeutic methods they tested. Another study from 2006 suggested that TM improved the blood pressure and insulin resistance components of metabolic syndrome as well as cardiac autonomic nervous system tone, compared with a control group that received health education only.

Currently, meditation is being studied for its potential effect on almost every malady: IBS, chronic pain, allergies and depression. It appears to have a profound impact on the mental state. Indeed, for centuries, people have spoken about the clarity, insight and creativity they’ve experienced with the aid of meditation.

”The Space Between Thoughts”

The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is devoted to examining the mind-body connection. Here, decades of research have resulted, among other things, in the coining of the phrase “relaxation response”—the opposite of the fight-or-flight response (otherwise known as stress). The Institute has identified two basic steps consistent with most meditative techniques: 1) the repetition of a sound, word, movement or focus; and 2) the passive setting aside of intruding thoughts.

Susan Taylor, Ph.D., and founder of the Center for Meditation Science in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, teaches meditation to individuals and also trains meditation specialists. Taylor uses five steps to help people “take the wild horse of the mind and rein it in,” she explains. “First, you still the body. You don’t need to sit like a pretzel on the floor if that’s not comfortable, but the head, neck and trunk need to be aligned. Second, you establish diaphragmatic breathing to calm and relax the nervous system. Third, you move into mindful relaxation, loosening your grip on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual tension. Fourth is breath awareness. And fifth, you focus on the breath.”

The goal is to reach a non-reactive state so that the mind can rejuvenate. It is sometimes called “the space between thoughts.” “I’m trying to achieve an even mind, a state of equanimity,” says Marygrace Naughton, yoga and meditation supervisor at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona. “If I can learn to let thoughts be fluid and not hold onto them nor push them away, this will create the calmness that affects the central nervous system. It also lowers the hormonal response, the cortisol.”

Naughton uses a mindfulness-centered practice based on the teachings of the Buddha. Mindfulness methods have become very popular in recent years; they’re often employed for specific therapeutic purposes such as addressing weight or addiction issues, and are used institutionally by schools and corporations. The technique is to bring focus to the present moment. “I’m taking a bite of a delicious apple,” explains Naughton. “I notice its crisp crunch. I notice what it feels like when I’m chewing it. At first it tastes tart but then it is sweet. I stay with it.”

There are many formal, and informal, methods of meditation. “Even sitting still with your eyes closed will have some benefit,” says Kaplan. Comparing techniques should be both an objective and subjective process for each individual.

Pay No Mind

The elephant that always seems to be in the meditation room: doing it "correctly." Experts agree that there is no such thing as doing it right or wrong, there is only doing it or not. “People get the idea that if their mind isn’t totally quiet, they’re not meditating,” says Naughton. “It’s almost the opposite. I’m following my breath but a thought from the past arises and I’m agitated. So I work on accepting the thought.” Taylor adds, “You become an observer of your mind.”

Next on our perfectionistic Western brains is the how, when and where of it all. Many people begin by taking a class, working with an instructor or practicing in the energy of a group dynamic. “Guidance is helpful, especially in the beginning,” says Naughton. “Sometimes it is actually easier in a group.” Some people prefer to meditate upon waking, others before bed. Some make it an outdoor experience, in connection with nature. Again, Taylor reassures, “There are many paths. All programs are respected. Your own inner dweller is your guru.”

Some people make meditation such a central part of their life that they structure everything else around it. Some attend retreats or meditate for hours daily. People who practice TM generally do so for 20 minutes, twice a day. But there is no prescription. Taylor takes all lifestyle factors into consideration. “You’re not going to see an improvement in your body or in your mind if you meditate for 10 minutes and then go to a drive-thru and eat a bunch of GMOs,” she says.

Kaplan cites the most misunderstood part of a meditation practice. “We don’t meditate just for the session itself,” he says. “It’s not even important how we feel while we’re at it. What matters is how we’re doing the rest of the day.”

Learn more about meditation and the brain by reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson (New Harbinger Publications, 2009)