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How meditation improves health

Posted April 18

To be healthier, you can exercise vigorously for an hour five times a week, banish sugar from the pantry and consume alarming quantities of kale. Or you can sit quietly for 20 minutes a day, meditation proponents say.

Meditation, an ancient religious practice, has emerged as a popular alternative therapy for health problems ranging from high blood pressure to low back pain to migraines. About 18 million American adults say they meditate regularly, and the practice is increasingly recommended by even practitioners of traditional medicine.

The Cleveland Clinic, for example, offers meditation phone apps. The National Institutes of Health give cautious endorsement, saying research has shown meditation to be effective in treating some conditions. Medical students at Loyola University can take a class in Transcendental Meditation designed to help improve physician wellness. Even the U.S. Navy extols the benefits of meditation to its sailors.

For some people, meditation is a spiritual practice. But meditation doesn't require faith, just calm and stillness. In simplest terms, it is "setting time aside each day to go into a quiet place," said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the author of "Transcendence" and the forthcoming "Super Mind."

That quiet place is both physical and mental. The meditator strives to sit still and banish — or at least slow — the bustling parade of thoughts that normally march through the mind by focusing on an object, a word or her breath, or by simply detaching from thought and observing the parade without judgment.

Meditation's benefits derive largely from the resulting reduction in stress, Rosenthal said.

"But, wow, what a big deal that is, and it plays out in concrete ways," he said, noting studies that show lower blood pressure among people who meditate, as well as improved quality of life for cancer patients.

Meditation, Rosenthal says, is “a fundamental intervention” for a healthy life, as important as nourishing food, sufficient light and fresh air.

The price of quiet

Although it requires no special equipment or clothes, meditation has become a billion-dollar business, with videos, books and apps that teach meditation. There's meditation music, meditation cushions, even meditation vacations. A course in Transcendental Meditation, the type that Rosenthal practices, can cost close to $1,000.

Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a trademarked, mantra-based program that is formally taught. Mindfulness meditation, sometimes taught at free public programs, invites the meditator to focus on breathing and awareness of the current moment. There are dozens of other varieties, including Qigong, Vipassana, Om and Zen.

Consumers who pay big money are hoping to reap big benefits, among them improved physiological functioning said to occur when they gain better control of their minds.

Two years ago, researchers analyzed 47 scientific studies done on meditation and health, and concluded there is "moderate" evidence that meditation improves anxiety, depression and pain.

Dr. Madhav Goyal, the lead researcher, said the report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, considered only people who learned how to meditate from organized programs six to eight weeks in length, not people who were self-taught.

“We looked at what effect mindfulness had above and beyond the placebo effect, its magnitude, and how confident we were that it was real," he said.

While the researchers believe more study is needed, “currently we have pretty good consistent evidence that mindfulness programs do reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain,” Goyal said.

Moreover, a new study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that meditation offer both immediate and long-term improvements to people with chronic lower back pain.

In an accompanying editorial, Goyal, who is an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and practices at NorthBay Center for Primary Care in Vacaville, California, says the findings suggest that physicians should reduce their reliance on a "biomedical disease model" that emphasizes pain medication to one that is "biopsychosocial" with the patient employing a variety of pain-management tools.

Learning to sit

Many people believe meditation to be a Buddhist tradition, but in fact, “the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated,” wrote Robert Buswell Jr. and Donald Lopez Jr. in Tricycle, a journal of Buddhist thought.

“Typically a monastic practice, meditation was even then considered a specialty of only certain monks. Furthermore, it is only since the 20th century that meditation has been considered a practice appropriate to teach to laypeople,” Buswell and Lopez wrote.

Today, however, people of all faith traditions are turning to Buddhist centers to learn how to meditate, said Berget Jelane, a Buddhist minister and community dharma leader at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California.

“We have people who come sit with us on Wednesday evening and then go to church on Sunday or synagogue on Saturday. We have some who come who are Muslims,” Jelane said.

Most people who come to Insight are looking for spiritual benefits, not improved health, but they ultimately enjoy a release from stress, which can come simply from learning how to sit properly while meditating, she said.

“Often people don’t realize how they’re holding their bodies. They find that their shoulders are really raised — a sign of anxiety and stress,” she said. “When they begin to meditate, they relax their shoulders. That in itself relieves stress and over time, can help prevent damage to their lower bodies.”

Jelane is a practicing Buddhist who has meditated for 30 years, using the breath-based techniques that Buddha taught. Other forms of meditation, including Transcendental Meditation, employ a mantra, often a meaningless word or phrase that the person meditating repeats silently.

While Jelane believes that meditation can be beneficial to a person's health, that's a side effect, not the point. “It’s important to have an ethical context," she said.

Likewise, Goyal, who has practiced Vipassana meditation for 15 years, said he doesn’t do it for his health.

“That’s a departure from its original intent,” he said. “I don’t think meditation was intended to heal medical problems; it was intended as a path to purify the mind, to help us become more aware of what our mind is doing, what we’re feeling, and how those two interact to create our life experiences.”

A pleasant medicine

Rosenthal, who is best known for his research on seasonal-affective disorder, credits regular meditation over the past eight years with his good health. He is 65, has excellent blood pressure (120 over 80) and has lost five pounds over the past several years while enjoying improved productivity in his work and writing.

Consistent meditation, he said, acts as a “surge protector” for the body, inducing a base state of calm that helps deter the repeated assaults of everyday stressors.

“Surges in your sympathetic nervous system are bad for you. TM (Transcendental Meditation) steadies out your physiology,” he said.

“And the good news is, this is not a nasty medicine. The good news, this is really, really pleasant. Why wouldn’t I do it twice a day, just like brushing my teeth?” he said. But he and Goyal both note that consistency is important to gain meditation's benefits, and that it takes time to master meditation and to practice it.

“If you’re not going to actually do it, don’t even bother, but if you do bother, you will be richly rewarded," Rosenthal said.

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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