Meditation: Harvard says it really works!

Meditative practices were developed thousands of years ago, in countries like Tibet, China, and India. The various practices made their way West and eventually grabbed the interest of mind-body enthusiasts and psychologists.

Today, there are enough people practicing meditation, and enough researchers and big institutions doing trials, that meditation is gaining ground as perhaps the best overall non-medical practice for self-development and promotion of well-being.

8 weeks to a better brain

Recent research from Harvard shows that practicing meditation regularly for as little as eight weeks can cause beneficial physiological structural changes in the brain’s grey matter. This is important because most of the brain’s neural cell bodies are found within grey matter, which itself encompasses regions of the brain that effect sensory perception (sight and sound), muscle control, memory, emotions, auditory functions and how we make decisions and apply self-control. In other words, this is amazing proof of the power of meditation to positively affect almost every aspect of your wellbeing.

For the study the researchers utilized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gain images of participants’ brains two weeks before and then right after the meditation study period. For eight weeks participants (meditation experts and novices) meditated using the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) method for 27 minutes per day using guided meditation recordings.

All participants self-reported feeling less stressed. Importantly, the MRIs showed a clear decrease of the grey matter in the parts of the brain known as the amygdalae (which help us deal with stress, anxiety and controls the ‘fight or flight’ response). Additionally, the MRI showed an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus (the area that controls memory, learning, self-awareness, compassion).

This is objective proof that meditation changes our brains in a positive way that helps us reduce our stress response while increasing our concentration, decision making, and compassion toward others.

Improved cardiovascular and neurological changes

A recent study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience shows the benefits that long-term meditation practice has on the heart and nervous system. For the study, researchers used wireless sensor technology to examine variations between novice and experienced participants while meditating, through continuous monitoring of vital signs (via EEG, blood pressure, heart rate variability).

Forty participants (half with experience and half novice) took part in a one week wellness retreat where their meditation sessions were monitored on their first and last days to compare changes in vital signs readings. Changes in EEG, BP and HRV showed that meditation does, objectively, produce improved physiologic responses in the body.

Performance and concentration improvement

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looked at changes in executive control and concentration during the performance of a 32-min response inhibition task, after 30 days of intensive, daily Vipassana meditation training. Vipassana is one of the most ancient traditions and means “insight into reality.”

When compared with controls, participants showed improved response accuracy, reduced reaction time, and self-reported increased concentration. The results suggest “a link between the experience of concentrative engagement and ongoing fluctuations in attentional stability” thus providing evidence that meditation improves adaptive, goal-directed behavior, and that such shifts may reflect accurate awareness of measurable changes in performance.

Heart rate variability (HRV) and headache control

A randomized controlled experiment published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that the associations between migraine and tension headaches and imbalances in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) are due to stress-related dysregulation in the activity of the parasympathetic-sympathetic branches.

Mindfulness meditation has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing pain-related distress, and in enhancing heart rate variability (HRV), which is a marker of ANS balance. This study examined HRV during cognitive stress and mindfulness meditation in individuals with migraine and tension headaches.

For the study 75 participants (36 with headache; 39 without) had their HRV measured at the start, during stress induction and after guided meditation practice. Results suggest mindfulness practice can promote effective heart rate regulation, and thereby promote effective recovery after a stressful event for individuals with headache conditions.

Many ways to meditate

There are many ways to meditate, and most have in common the practice of single-point focus with controlled breathing. In other words, they contain a mindfulness component, even if they are not strictly “mindfulness meditation.” If you are interested to learn about several types of meditation, I wrote a primer here.

With the above studies showing how meditation can directly affect positive physiological changes in our brain, body, senses and emotions I wanted to share a bit about Daoist meditation practice. Daoist meditation is among the very old forms of meditation and also contains elements of what the ancient Chinese refer to as “internal alchemy” or “internal elixir” development practices for improving and prolonging life.

Daoist meditation

The great sage Laozi (Lao Tzu) said, “Consider how empty and full exist in each other, difficulty and ease change into each other, long and short are elements of each other, top and bottom rest on each other, sound and noise blend together, back and front chase each other.”

He is referring here to the Daoist concept of yin/yang or the complimentary forces of seemingly opposites. In Daoist meditation the body and mind are still (yin) yet the body energy (physiology) is changing (yang). Along these lines, RJ Coons in his book, Internal Elixir Cultivation, writes, “Daoism as a practice is fundamentally rooted in creating something from nothing — or more exactly, the focus on the soft and feminine in order to create the strong and dynamic. Daoism views the ultimate outcome of concentration on the yin aspect of our being as being the birth and growth of the dynamic yang nature which we are trying to become.”

Let’s jump out of the philosophical (yin) and into the physical (yang) with the basic techniques of Daoist meditation practice.

Basic meditation practice

  • Sit upright on the edge of a chair.
  • Fold your hands at your waist, or put your hands on your knees palm down.
  • Close your eyes and relax your mind while focusing on the feeling of your breaths moving slowly in and out.
  • Begin to imagine the space around your entire body and gradually pull your attention inward and downward toward the belly button.
  • Gradually move the mind deeper into the abdomen and downward into the dantian area — your energy center — just a few inches under the belly button.
  • Simply let the mind rest there and breathe naturally.
  • It is okay at this point if your breath becomes either shallow or deeper; simply remain relaxed with your mind focused on the core of your body.
  • If the mind wanders, bring it back to the dantian as soon as you catch it.
  • Once you are comfortable, continue moving the mind downward and toward the qi xue point between the dantian and genitals.
  • Continue to breathe naturally and simply observe the phenomenon in the abdomen.

Simply remain still and silent and allow the meditation to stir and move energy in your body. Just observe your breath, not fussing over other bodily sensations. Wherever (e.g., head, back, legs) or however (e.g., feelings of warmth or cold) you feel the energy just allow it to move without focusing on it too much. Keep your attention on your breath, the meditative piece that releases the physical energy.

Many meditation practices rely on equipment to record and track physiological changes in the body, as we see in the above studies. I appreciate those studies because they prove to the Western scientific community that these “altered states” are real and not merely subjective. Yet, with practices like Daoist meditation described here and much more in-depth in this article, the sensations are felt as they unfold and the body changes are experienced quickly and even more so over time.

If you meditate once in a while now, or have never tried it, go ahead and begin a daily practice. You can learn from a class, or utilize guided meditation CDs and videos the lead you. The key is to begin a practice and stick with it, daily, for well… life. Why? Because it is free and offers amazing benefits to the body and mind and improves wellbeing overall.

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.