Take a deep breath...
Inhale deeply and feel the air filling your lungs, expanding your abdomen...
Let your exhale be relaxed and slow...
How did that feel? If you noticed your shoulders dropping or your face muscles releasing, you've already started to reap the fruits of meditation.
We all know that sitting down, being silent, and breathing deeply can calm the mind. However, research shows that meditation can also powerfully enhance physical health. In a West Virginia University study on "mindfulness" - the meditative practice of bringing attention to the present moment - participants experienced an average 54 percent drop in psychological distress, and a 46 percent decrease in medical symptoms. Meditation can increase blood flow, slow heart rate, normalize blood pressure, improve sleep, and boost immunity. It's even been shown to increase serotonin levels (which relieve depression), and to slow the progression of HIV. How is this possible? What exactly is happening in a body that meditates?
In meditation, healthy breathing is both a means and an end.
Many of us hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we're stressed. Breath-holding deprives us of oxygen, a key player in the body's production of ATP energy - the fuel we need to function in daily life. Without enough oxygen, we physically can't produce energy.
Breathing also feeds our muscles and clears out carbon dioxide. Simply by resting our awareness on breathing, a meditator can regulate and slow the respiratory rate and give cells a plentiful supply of the air they need. As it calms the body and mind, meditation helps de-activate the sympathetic, "fight or flight" nervous system. The sympathetic mode is triggered by danger or stress. It doesn't care if we're being chased by a tiger or rushing to meet a deadline; it literally gets us ready to run. It pumps out adrenaline, speeds heart rate and breathing, raises blood pressure, and shuts down digestion and reproduction.
Because of our stress, many of us are stuck in perpetual fight-or-flight overdrive - making ourselves candidates for adrenal exhaustion, insomnia, infertility, stroke, and heart attack.
Meditation gives us a break from stress and allows the parasympathetic, "rest and digest" system to take its turn. Meditation also has the power to alter brain chemistry. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson conducted brain scan tests on Tibetan monks who were long-term meditators, and found "unusually powerful gamma waves" associated with higher levels of focus, memory and learning ability. "Longtime practitioners (of meditation) showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," said Davidson, who detected a high level of activity in the monks' left prefrontal cortex - the brain region associated with happiness and positive emotions. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance... the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one.
Meditation shines a light on the body and its sensations.
"The goal of mindfulness is for you to be more aware, more in touch with life and whatever is happening in your own body and mind at the time it is happening - that is, the present moment," explains psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center. Meditators are more likely to notice what's happening in their bodies and more aware of illness as soon as it appears. Over time, meditation also helps to ease the fears and anxieties that tend to feed on disease, so a meditator may be able to handle illness and aging with more stability and calm. Whether our meditation rests on awareness of breathing, yogic movement, or visualizations of golden light, we are making an investment in our physical well-being. So take another deep breath. Consider it a deposit into your long-term health savings!