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Interest in mindfulness meditation, yoga, and related practices have skyrocketed throughout the Western world. Although meditation has been documented to have its origins in the Indian Vedas (1500 BCE), the oldest scripts of Hinduism, some argue that the practice could have existed as far back as 2600 BCE, where the Hindu deity Shiva is portrayed practicing Tantric Yoga (below). Only recently, with the help of medical technology, have scientists been able to discover the effects of meditation far beyond its psychological and spiritual background. We are now beginning to understand how this ancient practice effects humans and the mind on a biological level.
Meditation and Stress
In the modern world of work and education, it can be difficult to manage our stress, especially when we are responsible for maintaining a balance with family and friends as well. When we are stressed, it shows up in our blood as a special steroid hormone known as cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands located superior to the kidneys. Cortisol is an important chemical in our daily processes, responsible for inhibiting insulin and increasing the amount of sugar in our blood stream, reducing bone formation, and even promoting fat conversion into energy. However, when we are stressed, the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol and put it into the bloodstream to other tissues.
Now I don't want you to get the wrong idea; having a lot of cortisol in your bloodstream DOES NOT mean you will convert more fat into energy and lose weight. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Because the human body is so complex, cortisol affects different cells in different ways. Studies show that increased stress actually cause us to gain weight, especially in our abdomen, to have higher concentrations of glucose in our blood, to increase our arterial cholesterol buildup, and to increase our blood pressure.
According to the IDEA Fitness Journal (2005), a study published in the Annuals of the New York Academy of Science (2004; , 211-15) found in a sample size of 30 women between the ages of 65-92, that those who regularly practiced meditation had a reduced stress response to cortisol. "The researchers found that cortisol levels rose much higher and with greater speed among the controls than among the meditators" (p. 109).
A study published in Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress (2014; 65-70) found significant improvements in cortisol response in thirty-four Chinese undergraduates who were randomly assigned either to 4 weeks of integrative body-mind training (IBMT) or a relaxation control (RT). Researchers found that basal cortisol level decreased significantly in the IBMT group but not in the RT group after 2 and 4 weeks of training. They also found that the basal cortisol level of the IBMT group was significantly lower than that of the controls following 4 weeks of training.
Meditation and The Brain
We've all heard it a thousand times: "Meditation reduces stress and improves your ability to focus." But meditation has been proven in recent years to dramatically affect the brain from its apparent anti-aging benefits to reducing the effects of ADHD, causing it to physically rewire millions of its connections through a process known as neural plasticity. Doctors and neurologists define neural plasticity as the ability of the brain to change itself in response to certain stimuli. This change involves the destruction and recreation of synapses, the space between two neurons or the "connection."
A recent study published in the Frontiers of Psychology (2015) found that in 100 participants, individuals who practiced meditation for more than 20 years had significantly more volumes of gray matter in the brain than non-meditators. This study suggests that meditation may reduce the effects aging has on the brain, the dramatic reduction in gray matter being one of them. Gray matter is composed of neurons, the cells that are responsible for receiving, translating, and distributing information across the brain. White matter is composed of the long neural extensions which connect each cell together, known as axons.
As we age, the number of neurons we have is affected, which can occur from alcohol and drug use, stress, smoking, injury, and mere deterioration. Meditation, according to this study among many, can retain the volume of our brains for longer periods of time. Considering our entire existence is dependent on the brain, perhaps this is a technique worth adopting.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 6.4 million American children ages 4–17, according to Healthline. ADHD is a mental condition that affects an individual's ability to focus, concentrate, follow instructions, write tests, perform tasks, etc.
ADHD and Me
Personally, I was diagnosed with ADHD as a young child, and I can say that it is nothing to joke about. I often find myself distracted in a sea of thoughts, leaving me with slight anxiety and a sensation of detachment from the modern world. Sometimes trying to write an exam in a quiet space is like writing one in a room where three songs are playing at different speeds, thirty people are having different conversations, and the teacher is juggling three baby pandas on a unicycle. This may sound extreme, but it's entirely realistic.
Imagine trying to listen to your friend as she tells you a funny event from the passed weekend, and all you can do is think about what she's wearing, how hungry you are, what homework you have to complete that day, and what time you work and how much you're dreading it. Meanwhile, a song has been replaying in your head for three hours and you can't stop it. You then go home that day and attempt to recall what she said to you, but have no memory of the conversation.
ADHD can make me really stressed out, especially when I can't remember simple instructions or recall important events in my life. Furthermore, I find that it can be difficult to sit still, as I often twitch my foot; however, this doesn't bother me, because it's a part of who I am.
My doctor prescribe me with Ritalin, a common medication given to children with ADHD to calm them down. However, I found that this drug dramatically changed me as a person and, in some cases, I felt worse than I did before. That's when I began to meditate and practice yoga.
A recent study published in Sage Journals (2013), found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped participants' ability to focus and recall events or information. The study also found that meditation reduced "mind-wandering," a common symptom of ADHD. Personally, I found that meditating for a few minutes a day can dramatically improve my ability to recall information and stay relaxed throughout my day. It also helps me to focus my thoughts and stay on-task.
Finally, a study conducted at Yale University and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2011), found that mindfulness meditation decreased neural activity in the default mode network (DMN). This region of the brain is activated when we are not thinking of anything in particular, responsible for mind-wandering. Therefore, these results can also be interpreted to reduce the effects of ADHD by improving one's ability to focus their thoughts and reduce useless wandering.
As shown in this clinical research analysis on meditation and its effects on the human brain, mindfulness techniques can reduce volume loss, improve attention and concentration, reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, improve metabolism, and improve endocrine function.
Below is a step-by-step for beginners on meditation to help you better understand the myths about meditation and how to perform this ancient brain exercise.
- “There is Only One Way to Meditate”
There are in fact hundreds of ways to meditate, from prayer to simply closing your eyes for a few minutes and focusing on deep breathing. Because of this, there is, therefore, no “correct” way to meditate because it all depends on the person and what they prefer. The goal is to just be comfortable.
- “You Must Have No Thoughts During Meditation”
This is probably the most common belief for beginners, but it is entirely false. Meditation’s goal is to calm the mind and to help you sort through your thoughts. With over 86 billion neurons in the brain, it is impossible to have no thoughts at any given moment. However, you can relax your mind to help you better understand your thoughts. If you are meditating because you are stressed, staying relaxed can help relieve the anxiety wandering thoughts bring and help you to better understand how to manage them. Furthermore, if you find that you are having unwanted thoughts, you can use meditation to center your focus on something else. Use meditation as a cognitive exercise; workout the areas you want!
- “You Must Sit at a 90 Degree, Criss-Crossed, and Say 'Om'”
As I stated before, there is no singular way to meditate. You could meditate lying down on your back, closing your eyes while on the bus, or even standing in the middle of the woods as the sun’s rays shine upon you. The point here is not how your body is positioned while meditating, but HOW you meditate. You want to make sure you are comfortable and that you can soothe and relax your mind. Some people find more comfort in lying down then sitting, and vice versa for others. It's totally up to you!
How to Meditate
- Get comfortable! You may want to wear comfortable clothing and/or create a peaceful environment. Personally, I like to use sage or incense to set the mood and relax.
- Meditate in a location that is free from noises, people, or other factors that may distract you. I find that the best way to cancel out noises in a loud home is to use music. On YouTube, there are thousands of resources you can use from guided meditations to binaural beats or even static.
- Sit on the floor or on a chair with your spine upright and your head up. If you prefer to lay down, choose a position that is comfortable for you! I like to close my eyes and rest on my back.
- Relax every part of your body. You will physically feel your muscles relax, giving you a "loose" sensation.
- To focus, you can count numbers or concentrate on your breath and/or repeat a mantra until you reach the meditative state. You'll know when you have reached this state as you no longer have focus on the physical world and are solely focused on the psychological one.
- Don’t restrict your thoughts. Let your thoughts flow! They know what to do in the meditative state. This is when I have the best realizations and receive the most inspiring advice from within myself. Most of my articles are created from experiences I have had during meditation, which have changed my perspective and, ultimately, my life.
- Don’t force or expect anything to happen. Just be accepting in the calmness and silence. When you have expectations on how your session will be, you may find yourself disappointed in the results. Remember, nothing is absolute. Take whatever happens as a lesson.
- Meditate for a length of time that is appropriate for you. Even five minutes a day can be effective. There is no time limit or minimum requirement for meditation.