As they say, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.” They, of course, being En Vogue of 90’s R&B fame. As fate would have it, mindfulness is very much “en vogue” today. With celebrity devotees as diverse as Cameron Diaz, Lena Dunham, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name just a few, it’s no secret that meditation is the new medication.
Meditation practitioners, whether famous or not, are claiming more clarity, more energy, and more serenity. Who among us would say no to benefits like these in today’s always plugged in world? But, what does it actually mean to “meditate?” What is happening in our brains and bodies when we make time for some zen? And is all the hype real? We spoke to triple-certified nutritionist Dana James and Bob Roth, co-founder of the David Lynch Foundation, and one of the most experienced, sought-after meditation teachers in the world, to find out.
According to James, “Meditation is a subset of mindfulness practices, just like an apple is a fruit. Mindfulness practices are designed to cultivate awareness. They may include prayer, meditation, visualization, body scan meditation, pranayama, [and] muscle relaxation techniques.” She adds, “Meditation is an intentional practice to decrease excitation in the mind.”
To confuse matters, meditation has it’s own subsets and comes in many varieties, from mantra-based meditations like Transcendental Meditation (also known as just TM) to mind-clearing varieties such as Zen Buddhist meditation to a new crop of quick-fix apps boasting inner clarity in seconds. “Just like different forms of exercise, you’ll find the right one for you,” explains James.
So how exactly does meditation create the calmness and serenity it’s renowned for? Research – and by this, we mean more than 340 studies from research teams in independent peer-reviewed journals, from the American Medical Association’s Journal to the Department of Defense – shows that during meditation, your body gains a state of relaxation deeper than the deepest part of deep sleep.
Roth explains: “Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands when we’re anxious. We secrete cortisol and become more anxious. It’s a vicious cycle. When we’re stressed or lack sleep, we have trouble remembering things or digesting and metabolizing food. With a good night’s sleep, cortisol levels can drop up to 10%. With 20 minutes of meditation, cortisol levels drop 30%.”
The skeptic in you may wonder, is the benefit of meditation predicated on belief in its result? Roth adds, “There’s nothing to believe in. You can be 100% skeptical and the benefits are just as profound.”
Meditation is well-known for its effects on anxiety and depression, but it also influences every system of the body including your hormones and your digestion.
James explains, “[During meditation], the frequency of the brain waves is lowering, enabling you to shift into a more relaxed physiological state. This produces a cascade of physical changes in the body.”
According to James, “Regular meditation can alter the immune system, nervous system, and endocrine system. It has been shown to increase DHEA (the youth hormone), melatonin (the sleep hormone), decrease inflammatory cytokines, and regulate cortisol levels. It’s been shown to decrease PMS, migraines, anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, and high blood pressure. It’s about the greatest wonder drug you can get!”
If you’re still finding the idea of meditation hard to digest, note that it can also have incredibly positive effects on your intestines. James notes, “Meditation been shown to reduce IBS, constipation, bloating, and acid reflux. Let’s think about it from a purely anatomical perspective — when you’re stressed, you’re constricted and closed off. The body follows suit and that includes constipation and slowed bowel motility.”
But are the effects as immediate as pill-popping? James caveats, “You’ll feel an instant calming benefit with all mindfulness practices, but some are more effective than others. If you want that ‘instant’ benefit, try Kundalini yoga as it uses breath, mantra, music, and specific poses to alter your mental state.”
While James does claim that certain mindfulness practices can have immediate effects, she adds: “It’s transitory, just like going to a one-off fitness event is, if you want the longer-term benefits of meditation, practice it daily. Even ten minutes [daily] is effective, and we all have ten minutes.”
While it may sound like one more thing to add to your already busy agenda, the irony is that this add-on can free your schedule and your mind of unwanted stress.