The use of meditation in various cultures dates back many thousands of years. As a matter of fact, it’s thought that the beginnings of mediation probably came about in the times of primitive humans. Some of the earliest written records of meditation come from Hindu traditions around 1500 BCE. Other forms of meditation developed in Taoist China and Buddhist India around 6th and 5th centuries BCE.
While many meditation practices stem from religious beginnings, over the centuries, meditation has also been adopted as a secular mainstream practice. Meditation apps like Headspace have become popular as meditation has been able to demonstrate both mental and physical health benefits.
What is mindfulness meditation?
One commonly practiced form of meditation is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation helps people observe their inner experience, giving them space to pay attention to internal stimuli. The practice of stillness in both body and mind helps us practice physical and emotional awareness that is often lost in the shuffle of our day to day.
With enough practice, people reach a meditative state, distancing themselves from their thoughts and allowing them to simply observe, rather than react to, their emotions and thoughts. Researchers have also been able to demonstrate that meditation improves not only stress reactions but also physiological factors such as blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption.
Read on below to learn about both mind and body benefits that can be achieved by focusing on daily meditation practices.
Mindfulness meditation helps us think and react in a more balanced manner when facing stressful and difficult situations. Scientists have been able to demonstrate stress reduction both on the self-reported level and the cellular level (reduced presence of biomarkers of stress).
Analyzing one’s automatic thoughts is a cornerstone for both mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, making mindfulness meditation a great supplementary tool for fighting stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Improving Memory and Focus
Researchers at UC Santa Barbara asked 45 students to practice 1 hour of meditation training per day for eight days over the course of two weeks. Students took the GRE before and after the two week meditation training course. Researchers found a significant improvement in their scores (460 to 520 on their verbal sections) and also saw improvement in tasks related to working memory and focus.
Stress and IBS
A number of research studies have found that meditation makes a significant impact on clinical symptoms from stress-triggered inflammatory responses in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A person suffering from IBS will have stomach pains, cramps, bloating and other poor bowel-related symptoms. This illness actually affects over 35 million Americans and, in total, about 15% of the world’s entire population.
While we don’t know exactly what causes IBS, researchers have found that stress exacerbates the condition. When the condition becomes exacerbated, the patient often becomes stressed, feeding a vicious cycle.
An Increase in One’s Immunity
Studies have shown that relaxation and mindful meditation exercises have increased the number of health-protection cells (lymphocytes) in the human body. This can provide one with a greater resistance to viruses and cancer-related tumors. These meditation health benefits were achieved after only one month of daily meditation practices.
A Simple Introduction to Meditation
Try the steps outlined below (provided by mindful.org) to try out meditation yourself. Remember, like all things, meditation takes practice so be kind to yourself if you become frustrated! There are also a number of great meditation apps like Headspace that make meditation even more accessible.
- Sit comfortably. Find a spot that gives you a stable, solid, comfortable seat.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. If on a chair, rest the bottoms of your feet on the floor.
- Straighten your upper body — but don’t stiffen. Your spine has natural curvature. Let it be there.
- Notice what your arms are doing. Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Rest the palms of your hands on your legs wherever it feels most natural.
- Soften your gaze. Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. It’s not necessary to close your eyes. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Feel your breath. Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest.
- Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
- Be kind about your wandering mind. You may find your mind wandering constantly — that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, practice observing them without reacting. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
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