The term “psychosomatic” has finally gained its rightful place in serious medical consideration. For decades, ailments labeled as “psychosomatic” were believed to be caused by the mind and not real. Since the term “mind-body” replaced “psychosomatic” in alternative medicine and traditional practices, the stigma has been lifted. The power of prayer, meditation, positive attitude and belief are now popular techniques for those with an eye and a spirit toward working on their whole body/mind/spirit. The effects of the mind on the body and the body on the mind (mental, emotional states) are enormous and undeniable. Thanks to researchers like Herbert Benson, M.D., these practices have received scientific evidence to their results.
Altered States Of Consciousness
Often, when folks think of practices like meditation, yoga and tai chi, they think of esoteric practices of past masters and sages. When psychologists began researching these practices, they noticed how the mind (or mental state) of the practitioner was able to affect the body (or physical state). These mind states were often referred to as “altered states.” In addition to deep relaxation, they produced excited visions, mental clarity, apparent insanity and states in which physical pains were not felt.
Internal and external deep relaxation of the body is one healthful side effect of these practices. For some reason, all the various “altered states” practices and “energy” practices produce an underlying state of relaxation. This occurs in different techniques that may originate in widely diverse belief or religious systems.
This “relaxation response” was discovered across all methodologies by Benson decades ago. His research using the scientific method proves its value on a cellular level.
The Relaxation Response
Benson is a pioneer researcher who has studied mind-body methods and medicine from the perspective of a Western scientific model. He spent time in China researching the effects of qigong. More than 20 years ago, he participated in conversations between scientists and Buddhists initiated by the 14th Dalai Lama. These discussions were organized by the Mind & Life Institute.
According to Benson, the relaxation response is “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.” The fight-or-flight response, an elevated state of excitation that causes harm in the body when it goes on too long, can be reduced or countered by employing meditation.
Benson proved that practicing meditative techniques to induce the relaxation response creates a healthier environment within the body. Heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure and body pain are all reduced through this type of relaxation. But Benson also investigated to see if the meditative state of deep relaxation had prolonged effects on human biology that were not merely temporary.
The Scientific Proof
In his book Relaxation Revolution, Benson describes his research into the significant biological differences between those meditators and the rest of the population. In other words, he set out to prove or disprove scientifically the effects of the relaxation response on the genetic structure within the body.
He devised a study that looked at two groups of 19 individuals. The first group consisted of people not involved in any form of mind-body practice. The second group encompassed individuals who had been involved in mind-body practices (like meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer) for an average of 9.4 years.
In the study, Benson and colleagues used highly sophisticated gene-analyzing technology to microanalyze the activity of all 54,000 genes within both groups of participants. Blood was drawn from each person, and samples were placed in a centrifuge to separate its components. The scientists then harvested the red and white blood cells containing the genetic material (genes, DNA, RNA). Eventually, they were able to isolate all 54,000 genes and identify which were actively expressed.
Benson found there were “dramatic differences” between the group of experienced mind-body practitioners and the other group. “Specifically, 2,209 genes in the experienced practitioners were being expressed differently than the same genes in the inexperienced participants. The probability of this result being due to chance was less than five in 100.”
These results gave the world scientific proof that ancient practices like yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong, religious chanting and others were not just games and pastimes but real contributors to the health and mental states of those participating in them. He proved scientifically what others knew intuitively and felt experientially: that these practices aren’t based in random beliefs or wishful thinking, but have profound effects on our genetic structure.
Benson and colleagues found that the specific genes that acted differently within those who practice meditation or some form of mind-body method “have been associated with stress-related medical problems, including unhealthful regulation of immune responses; various forms of inflammation, premature aging, including thinning of the cortex of the brain; and other health conditions that may involve oxidative stress.” These health issues can be reduced or reversed through meditation, yoga, prayer and other forms and methods both religious and secular that induce the relaxation response.
From his research into and analysis of a plethora of mind-body practices around the world, Benson distilled their essence into a simple, secular method for bringing the practitioner into a deep state of physiological relaxation. His method is clear and easy to do, and it is concerned only with the relaxation response (not spiritual enlightenment or other goals).
Benson’s method contains two parts:
Part 1: For 10-20 minutes, one continuously repeats a word, phrase, sound, prayer or movement and aligns it with the breathing cycle.
Part 2: When outside noises or thoughts intrude during practice, the practitioner simply takes notice and avoids judgment or response to them. One simply returns to the task at hand.
These two parts are the basic guidelines. There are eight steps to the actual practice that helps bring you into a deep state of relaxation when the relaxation response can be induced. The steps of Benson’s relaxation response include:
1. Choose the focus of your meditation (a single word, prayer, movement, etc.).
2. Lie down or sit still, being sure to be in a comfortable position.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Relax your muscles. (This can be done progressively, scanning from the toes to the tip of the head.)
5. Focus on your breathing. (Observe your breath as it moves in and out of your body, without stressing over it.)
6. Silently repeat the chosen word or prayer or do the selected motion with each exhalation.
7. Repeat this process of focusing on your breath while repeating the word or movement for 10-20 minutes.
8. After completion, sit quietly for a few moments with eyes closed, to reawaken into the world.
9. Do not stress or overthink how well you are meditating or are able to hold the phrase or observe the breath. Just allow it to happen.
Like anything else, progress is made slowly and gradually over time. It is advised to practice this meditative exercise twice per day, in the early morning and late evening before bed. In this way you relax at night for optimal repair and wake refreshed and ready to start the day in the best state possible. Continue the daily practice for an extended period of time (months and even years), and the results you experience may be life-changing.