Scientific Research: The Benefits of Meditation for Beginners

When you hear the word meditation, what comes to mind? Peace? Clarity? A particular practice or technique? The image of a yogi in lotus pose? Or perhaps you think, “Sounds great, but I really don’t have the time to meditate.” Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits, how meditation reduces stress levels and produces a calmer state of mind. Maybe you’ve even experienced these benefits yourself.

For those who are interested in the healing effects of meditation, there’s been plenty of research over the past several decades that attests to the validity of many a meditator’s anecdotal evidence. Time and again, researchers are finding that people who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma. While the causal relationship between meditation and these psychological benefits may be (as of yet) somewhat unknown, evidence does suggest that they may have a lot to do with a restructuring of the brain itself.

People who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma.

Recently a team of researchers from the University of Sienna came together to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They described the practice as a “meditation-based program in which participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and behaviour over a period of eight weeks with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.”

The purpose was to measure the possible scope of neuroanatomical changes resulting from meditative practices, specifically at both the cortical and subcortical brain levels. The research was groundbreaking as most studies over the past decade have focused on highly accomplished meditators, while all of the 48 participants in this study were “meditation-naïve subjects.”

Requisites to their participation included a score higher than 27 on the Mini-Mental Status Examination (a 30-point questionnaire often used to measure cognitive impairment), the absence of psychiatric or neurological disorders in their personal medical history, and the ability to participate in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. Participants were divided into two groups—24 of the subjects underwent MBSR training and were primarily taught methods such as body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements, while the remaining 24 (the control group) were not. Those involved in the training were asked to attend in-class sessions for 2.5 hours every week and encouraged to use the meditative techniques they learned in their developing personal practice for 45 minutes daily. They were also asked to journal about their experience. Between the sixth and seventh class, the participants were invited to a silent retreat.

Meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

Both the trainees and the control group submitted to MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the eight-week training period. Among the MBSR-trained participants, the results indicated “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex,” as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia.” (Alexithymia is difficulty in experiencing and describing one’s emotions.) In short, meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

What does this mean for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners of meditation? According to Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, the findings are not only validating for beginners they also speak to a larger inquiry.

“The findings suggest that even beginning-level meditation training can have potentially powerful neurological effects. And as the researchers involved in this experiment have taken a broad-minded approach in their examination of meditation, it also raises an intriguing question: What is the active ingredient that makes meditation meditation, the ingredient that is responsible for any changes observed in the study?”

According to the researchers themselves, the benefits of meditation may simply have been the result of the practitioners’ increasing non-judgmental awareness of their moment-to-moment bodily sensations. In his 2012 interview with Omega, Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of MSBR training, came to a similar conclusion, emphasizing the transformative ability of the meditative process. “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways.”

As to the power of focused attention, author and teacher Sandra Anderson states that it gives us a key to our inner life and offers the potential for mastery over the mind (which is, of course, the goal of yoga). She likens a life lived on autopilot to doors within a mansion that are never opened. “To be able to find a way to see what’s present in those unused rooms, and to be nonjudgmental about it, that’s a huge part of what this gives you. To be able to do that means you’re living [from] a bigger part of your psyche, and that expansiveness gives you a groundedness and a capacity to entertain things that you couldn’t otherwise. Your mind is freer. Your responses are more spontaneous. And the world becomes much bigger because you now have more space, as well as the ability to understand the reality of situations and your responses to them.”

Anderson states that the study is validating and encouraging in a number of ways. For instance, because these practices have such subtle effects, their benefits aren’t always easily recognizable and so practitioners sometimes become discouraged, believing that meditation is a “waste of time.” This study demonstrates that an investment in meditation is indeed a powerful means to reclaiming mental health. “What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life,” says Anderson. “And the fact that [meditation] also changes the way that your brain functions is hugely reassuring to people. It also validates the understanding that we have from the scriptures of the mind being habituated and falling into grooves. When you start practicing, you begin to catch your mind running in certain patterns, emotionally laden patterns perhaps, and you come to realize that they’re not inevitable.”

“What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “Yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.” And while this study was not specifically tailored toward yogic meditation techniques, sitting meditation and mindful stretching movements are, without a doubt, central components of the yoga tradition. Yet perhaps what is most exciting about this and other neurological studies is that they suggest that these practices may cause an increase in emotional resilience and brain elasticity. They also indicate that there does seem to be a sort of “active ingredient” that ties practices of meditation and mindfulness together. As to what that is, whether it’s the process of attending or something far more mysterious, the suggestion seems to be that the healing effects of these practices are powerfully real.

Has your practice changed you? Please leave your comments below.

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This Yoga Routine is Perfect for Small Spaces

Good Morning All.  I hope today is finding you with joy in your heart.  I was woken up at 5am by my youngest son.  On days that a shaping up to be wild like today, I need a practice that I can do inside and easily in the camper.  So I am re-posting this sequence which is easy and quick and can be done easily with just the space for a mat.  Enjoy!

Sun Salutations

Regular yoga sun salutations are a great way to get in some yoga without needing much space. Simply reach your arms straight up and down with the moves, rather than out, to prevent hitting any furniture or walls that may be close. This is also a great way to practice in a crowded class.

  • Stand with big toes touching and heels slightly apart; outer edges of feet are parallel. Relax arms on either side of body, palms open in a gesture of receptivity. This is Tadasana, also known as mountain pose. Each breath will have a move.
  • Inhale, lifting arms straight up, and take palms together to form a prayer over head. Exhale, taking prayer down the midline of the body while folding down to a forward bend.
  • Inhale, coming to a long flat spine with fingertips on the ground, or if you need more space, hands on shins. Exhale, plant palms shoulder-width apart on the ground, and jump back to Chaturanga (hold body halfway between a plank and the ground, like a triceps push-up, where elbows graze the ribcage).
  • If this is not manageable, step back to plank and lower to Chaturanga. Inhale, pulling chest through arms and coming to the tops of feet for upward-facing dog.
  • Exhale, flipping over toes, lifting hips—keeping legs long—and pressing chest back between arms. Reach heels toward the ground for downward-facing dog. (Optional: Breathe here for 3 to 5 breaths.)
  • Inhale, coming high to the balls of feet, softening knees, and looking between hands. Exhale, piking hips up and jumping to the front of the mat. (Step feet one at a time to the front of the mat if jumping isn’t healthy for your body.) Inhale to a long flat spine, and exhale to a forward bend.
  • Inhale, hinging from hips with a long spine to come up to stand. Reach arms all the way up to high prayer, above your head. Exhale prayer to the center of the chest. Breathe here. This is 1 round. Try doing 5 full rounds.

Get a full-body workout in one pose, using the walls of a small space to your advantage.

  • Press palms firmly into the ground about a foot and a half in front of the right foot and about half a foot away from a wall, shoulder-width apart, wrist creases parallel, fingers spread.
  • Come high onto the ball of right foot. Using left leg to lift you, transfer weight onto hands or take little hops off right foot until you are upside down.
  • Hop lightly until top foot catches on the wall, then bring the second leg to the wall and breathe there. Engage shoulder blades down and together and press into your fingertips for stability.
  • Try to work your way up to a minute—you can lean against the wall as much or as little as you want. Every other time you try this, switch the leading leg.

Pigeon

A hip opener is a must in any yoga flow, and pigeon is a great one that requires no width.

  • Begin in down dog. Bring right shin forward, as close to parallel to the front edge of the mat as it can get, with right knee toward right wrist and right ankle toward left wrist.
  • With back leg extended long behind you and toes tucked, lower hips to the ground.
  • Reach torso forward and down, and then take your hands together as a pillow for your forehead with your elbows winging out to either side.
  • Breathe here for at least 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Tricky One-Legged Standing Poses

 

The wall is a great help when you are working on finding single-leg balancing poses. Try dancer:

  • Facing a wall standing, shift your weight onto your right leg. Bend your left knee and grab the inside of your left foot with your left hand, using your right hand on the wall to counter balance.
  • Gently lift your left leg and press your ankle into your hand to open your back.
  • Reach your right arm up the wall, or work on any other challenging variations you’re playing with.
  • Stay in your chosen variation for 5 long, deep breaths and then repeat on the other side.

Drop Backs at the Wall

  • Begin in wheel pose. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground hip-width apart.
  • Outer edges of your feet are parallel. Bend your elbows and place your hands on either side of your head, shoulder-width apart, with fingers pointing toward shoulders and your wrists lined up at the wall. Pressing into your feet and hands equally, lift your hips and lengthen your arms.
  • Keep pressing into your feet through the big toes and reach your chest toward the wall as you stay here for at least 3 deep breaths.
  • When you feel ready, transfer most of your weight into your feet, and one at a time walk your hands up the wall until you are standing.
  • Take a breath with your hands at your heart to steady yourself.
  • Then, making sure your feet are still parallel to one another, and not turning out, reach your prayer up and behind your head, reversing the crawl of your hands down the wall and into your wheel pose. Repeat this as many times as you like.

Supine Spinal Twist with Eagle Legs

Your spine and entire body will thank you for closing out your yoga practice with a twist, especially after back bending. This eagle-legged variation of a supine spinal twist is perfect when you don’t have space to stretch in both directions at once.

  • Lie on back. Bend both knees in toward chest and cross right leg over left once, and then twice if possible, crossing right foot behind left ankle for eagle legs.
  • Scoot hips to the right and allow knees to fall to the left.
  • Keeping both shoulders on the ground, take your left hand to the outer right thigh and reach the right arm out to the side. Look to the right.
  • Stay here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.

 

 

Yoga for Ankle Sprains

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I am so grateful for this article written by Julie Lawrence, which walks through yoga asanas that can be done while healing from an ankle injury.

You can do several poses without placing stress on your injured ankle. The mantra here is ahimsa (nonharming). Learn to practice with love for yourself by staying out of the realm of pain.

Initially, you should rest your ankle while focusing on other areas of your body. Eventually you can incorporate gentle strengthening and stretching poses as part of your recovery. I suggest you wear an elastic ankle brace even while practicing poses that do not involve the ankle.

To take all the pressure off your ankle, try some upper-body stretches while seated in a chair. Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana (Upward Interlaced Fingers Pose), Urdhva Namaskarasana (Upward Prayer Position), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Paschima Namaskarasana (Prayer Position Behind the Back) will keep your shoulders flexible, chest open, and breathing fluid.

You can also do twists such as Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja’s Twist), which stretches your back while massaging organs that can get sluggish when you’re immobilized by an injury. Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) strengthens your abdominal muscles and opens your chest without putting pressure on your ankle. Also try straight-legged seated forward bends. As you align your legs without bearing weight, you can begin to explore the range of motion in your ankle. Be sure to stay in the pain-free range. Dandasana (Staff Pose), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) will stretch your hamstrings, increase mobility in your hip joints, and lengthen your spine.

Absolutely incorporate inversions, which help drain fluids from your swollen ankle. You can do Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) with a chair or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). Both are calming and bring lightness to the mind.

Practice gratitude for the ease you take for granted when you’re free of pain. Injury can inspire you to embrace humility and provides a renewed compassion for others with differing abilities.

Julie Lawrence, director of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center (www.jlyc.com) in Portland, Oregon, is a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor.