The Health Benefits of Meditation

"Meditation" to some people evokes an image of a long-haired yogi sitting cross-legged and chanting “om.” While chanting, or mantra meditation, is one method, other techniques have become more mainstream, and those who do it regularly say it provides mental, spiritual, and physical benefits.

Doctors recommend meditation not only as a way to reduce stress but also as an adjunct therapy to treat ailments such as chronic pain and high blood pressure, based on a growing number of studies that support its health benefits.

For people who use meditation to help improve existing health conditions, it’s generally categorized as a form of complementary medicine; that is, it enhances—but doesn’t replace—traditional treatments.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness refers to the state of focusing your attention wholly on the present moment. In mindfulness meditation, you practice being aware of the present by observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without making judgments or allowing yourself to think about the past or worry about the future.

Mindfulness meditation is based on principles of Buddhist meditation. Several therapies have been developed around mindfulness meditation, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, the origins of which go back to the 1970s, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which was originally developed to help people avoid depression relapses. Mindfulness meditation is often combined with yoga or stretching and incorporated into daily activities like walking and eating.

Edward M. Phillips, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard University's School of Medicine, and the director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, uses a less formal type of mindfulness as a tool to help patients adopt and sustain improved health behaviors.

Being mindful can be particularly effective when trying to curb unhealthy eating behaviors, he says. “If you could just add a momentary pause before you took a bite of food, and you mindfully decided, am I hungry—or am I just thirsty and responding because there’s a pile of cookies next to me—you might be able to stop and realize that you’re not really hungry and opt for a glass of water instead. This is mindfulness. You’re doing a quick self-assessment, and it becomes mindless when you start to do it as a habit.”

Eric J. Lenze, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Healthy Mind Lab at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says mindfulness training is something that beginners can pick up readily. “I think many older adults will be surprised at how easily they can learn meditation and how much they actually like it, and find that it really is stress relieving.”

Transcendental meditation

Another form of meditation is transcendental meditation. With this technique, you silently repeat a personally assigned mantra—a word, a sound, a phrase—with every slow breath. The goal is to help your body settle into a state of rest and relaxation in which the mind achieves a state of peace, without concentration or effort.

Transcendental meditation is derived from Hindu traditions but requires no belief in any religion or lifestyle. Instead of focusing on awareness of one’s thoughts, transcendental meditation practitioners close their eyes and use their mantra to help prevent distracting thoughts.

The goal of transcendental meditation is to achieve ever-quieter levels of thought through 20-minute, twice-daily sessions until you achieve a silent state of transcendental consciousness, a process called “transcending,” from which the practice draws its name. Transcending is defined as the opposite of anxiety, physiologically.

While transcendental meditation proponents say the technique is effortless, it does require one-on-one instruction from a certified teacher, which can be costly.

Breath meditation

Anxiety and stress promote short, shallow breaths, in turn worsening anxiety. Breath meditation is one of the easiest ways to start meditating. Try this four-step breathing exercise to encourage increased oxygen intake. Finding a comfortable position, you’ll focus only on your breath while breathing deeply.

As your mind wanders, continue to bring your focus back to your breath:

1. Take a deep breath from your diaphragm (the muscle between your lungs and abdomen).

2. Hold the breath for however long is comfortable for you. Exhale slowly.

3. Repeat the first two steps twice more.

4. Relax and let yourself experience calm.

Learn more about how spirituality and meditation can boost your health and which complementary therapies may be your best bet for back pain.