INFOGRAPHIC: Why Meditation Works: A HealthCentral Explainer
To the uninitiated, meditation typically conjures up images of cross-legged yogis chanting “Om.” It may be hard to imagine how this behavior can improve your health, but more and more scientific evidence suggests that it does.A new study from San Francisco State University stresses the importance of beginners finding the form of meditation that best suits their needs. Too often people start meditating and quickly give up because the latest, most popular form mentioned in the media did not work wonders for them. The researchers concluded that it’s best to experiment with different methods until you find the most effective approach. With meditation, one size definitely does not fit all.
How was the study done?
Four popular methods of meditation were taught to 247 participants. They were asked to practice at home and report which method they preferred. Mantra and Mindfulness, the two most simple methods were each preferred by 31 percent of the participants. Qigong and Zen appealed to 22 percent and 14.8 percent of participants, respectively. (Each of these methods is described below.)
Researchers say the study highlights the importance of providing new practitioners with a simple method so that they can avoid the intimidation that leads some to cease meditating before it has positive results.
Researchers observed that older participants favored the Zen method, which was more popular in decades past. More recently, the Mindfulness method has been gaining widespread attention, which helped its popularity among the youngest participants. But exposure to other techniques that are less well-known is very important when it comes to finding an effective meditation routine and sticking with it.
How do meditation techniques differ?
While most meditation techniques focus on relaxing the body and mind, their methodologies differ. Here is a breakdown of the four most common techniques explored in the SF State study.
- Mantra – This form of meditation relies on the oral repetition of a sound, sentence, or series of words with positive personal significance. The use of the voice and focus on sound and vibration provides a focus for the mind detached from normal thought.
- Mindfulness – A meditation technique that focuses on paying attention to one’s current state and truly focusing on the present moment, eliminating the anxiety and fretting that can plague the unfocused mind.
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- Zen – Frees the mind by sitting and focusing all attention on an object. This technique includes many different seated positions and breathing techniques to enhance concentration. The idea of Zen meditation is to separate you from the ego and to experience consciousness in its natural form, unencumbered by concerns or negative stimulants.
- Qigong – This method is usually practiced while standing and utilizes concentrated breathing, basic hand movements, and physical exercises to calm the mind.
Is there any evidence to support the benefits of meditation?
Numerous studies in recent years have acknowledged the physical and mental benefits associated with frequent meditation. For instance a study from the University of Washington found that routine meditation reduces stress and aids in concentration and multitasking.
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Researchers studied three groups of 12-15 human resource managers, with each group practicing either mindfulness-based meditation, body relaxation training, or nothing (control group) for eight weeks, followed by a brief control training session.
Afterwards the participants were tested to evaluate their multitasking abilities involving e-mail, calendars, instant messaging, phones, word-processing tools, and other common offices tasks. The results were significant; the group with eight weeks of meditation clearly experienced lower levels of stress during the test. The relaxation technique group and the control group did not.
Researchers believe that those in the meditation group learned to concentrate longer without diverting their attention.
After the relaxation and control group received meditation training, they also showed reduced stress levels and better multi-tasking performance. These findings are important because reduction of stress can provide far-reaching health benefits associated with managing anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Additionally, studies have found that relaxation techniques promote a stronger genetic response to stress.
Why is meditation so effective in relaxation?
According to researchers at UCLA, the brain gets cumulatively stronger as meditation is consistently practiced over time. Brain strength is measured in amounts of gyrification, or folding of the cerebral cortex, which allows the brain to process information more efficiently. The cerebral cortex also plays a role in memory, attention, thought, and consciousness.
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The most significant finding in their research was the correlation of years of meditation and higher levels of gyrification. The researchers concluded that the health returns from meditation will not plateau, but only keep accumulating. Strengthening the brain and improving cognition through meditation allows you to process information easier, which likely improves your ability to relax, conquer health-sapping stress, and accomplish more through multitasking.
University of Washington. (2012, June 13). “Mindful multitasking: meditation first can calm stress, aid concentration.” Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/news/articles/mindful-multitasking-meditation-first-can-calm-stress-aid-concentration
UCLA. (2012, March 14). “Evidence builds that meditation strengthens the brain.” Retrieved from https://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/evidence-builds-that-meditation-230237.aspx?link_page_rss=230237
San Francisco State. (2012, July 6). “Finding right meditation technique key to user satisfaction.” Retrieved from https://news.sfsu.edu/finding-right-meditation-technique-key-user-satisfaction
Amanda is a former editor for HealthCentral.