3 min read
By Ece Ozkan
In earlier posts I’ve written about the various dimensions of yoga such as pranayama (breathing) and asanas (yoga postures). In this post I’ll dig into meditation briefly. After a definition, we’ll talk about how meditation impacts/ changes your brain, and examples of online classes/ applications you might use.
For starters, meditation is one of the eight limbs of Yoga, which I wrote about in a previous post. In terms of a definition, meditation literally means to reflect upon, ponder, or contemplate. It can sound a bit too vague to some, yet the blue sky metaphor could help to visualize how meditation helps our overthinking patterns (check this beautiful animation from Headspace). Think of your mind as a bright blue sky where your thoughts, feelings and experiences appear as clouds. When your mind is calm and happy, it’s a clear blue sky. Yet, there are also times with dark and stormy clouds that we lose sight of the blue sky though it is still there– it’s just obscured.
“Sometimes we get so obsessed with the clouds that we forget about the blue sky altogether. But it’s still there…It’s easy to forget that what we’re looking for is already here.” – Andy Puddicomben –
The above imagery is quite fascinating as it visualizes the impact of meditation on our brains. It is common knowledge that meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and helps with several other modern day challenges. Yet we don’t really know how exactly that happens. Until recently there was not really a physiological evidence on that. The proof that meditation causes measurable changes in the human brain came in 2015 with the publication of a study by the Massachusetts General Hospital. Briefly, the research study included a group of people who did 30 minutes of mindfulness activities every day, after participating in an eight-week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique course. Researchers took magnetic resonance images of test subjects’ brains two weeks before and two weeks after they participated. Then they compared the results with a control group who did not participate in the study. The before and after images for each group showed distinct and measurable differences in key brain areas:
- Hippocampus: This is the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for “emotional regulation, and plays a large role in the formation of memory and in cognitive functions like self-awareness, compassion and reflection”. The group that participated in the MBSR course displayed increased grey matter density in this area of the brain, while the control group showed no increase as such.
- Amygdala: This part plays a role at generating sensations of stress and anxiety. The group that participated in the MBSR course showed decreased grey matter density in this area of the brain, while the control group showed no such decrease.
There are several measurable changes in the brain chemistry such as an increase in brain alpha waves which are associated with relaxation, increase in GABA which counteracts anxiety and stress, increase in Serotonin which improves mood, and reduce in Cortisol which is a stress hormone. Hence, as you can see, meditation can literally change your mind. That’s why there is a plethora of research suggesting that meditation can be effective as a complementary and preventative therapy for depression, anxiety, trauma, chronic pain, cancer, and more.
There is an abundance of online meditation resources, apps, podcasts, courses – which can feel overwhelming. I’ll list down a few options that I tried over the years and found helpful. Hope his can be a good start for you. The key here is persistence. Meditation is like any other habit, you need to practice it consistently over a certain amount of time – for some it is two weeks and for others it can take 2 months – to see its benefits. And you will see the benefits, even if they are not visible to you at first 🙂
Tara Brach: With a PhD in Clinical Psychology, Brach is one of the most well known figures blending Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices. She offers online talks and short meditations (4 – 25 min) which can be accessed through her website, or any podcast platform from such as Spotify, Apple and Google.
Insight Timer started out as a way of timing your own meditation practice, with different starting bells, including the traditional Tibetan singing bowl. You can set the duration, number of intervals and ambient background sound to create different presets for your meditation sessions. It has quickly evolved into an online meditation community, which allows you to connect with other meditators around the world.
Insight Timer has a huge, ever-increasing library of guided meditations and talks including ‘big names’ such as Tara Brach, Wim Hof and Judson Brewer. You can search for topics centred around different emotions, benefits, types of practices and traditions. It’s free unless you want to upgrade to access 10-30 day courses in subjects as diverse as anxiety, grief, Buddhism, Chakras, addiction, fertility, masculinity, tantra, attracting love, Ayurveda and mindfulness for teens.
Headspace: One of the apps that popularized meditation in Western world. Its co founder Andy Puddicombe is a Buddhist monk who aims to teach meditation and mindfulness to masses. They offer several meditation packages specialized for issues like anger management, dealing with change or performance mindset. The app also has brilliant short animations and blog posts on the web version to simplify complex matters like why do we spiral in overthinking and how can we get out of it, or how to relax.
Calm: Another popular meditation app, Calm offers several guided meditations, sleep sounds as well as audio programs taught by mindfulness experts. They also have lovely free resources such as mindful living calendars or mental fitness training guide.
Scientific research / resources:
Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Harvard are some institutes who invest a lot in meditation research.
Engineering Health: Introduction to Yoga and Physiology: This online course offered by NYU on Coursera focuses on yoga, meditation and mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention in chronic illness and long term treatment.
The Science and Practice of Yoga: Online course offered by University of Texas on edX, goes through yoga practice both on the mat and off the mat.