It’s been known for a long time now that meditating will help keep you in better health both physically and mentally. The scientific literature goes back many years and shows how effective meditation can be both for healing if you are sick, and also for keeping yourself healthy. In fact, because the scientific evidence is clear, many doctors are happy to recommend meditation to their patients.
At the Lifeflow Meditation Centre we’ve noticed the incredibly diverse reasons people have for coming to learn meditation. They range from those who come on the recommendation of their doctor or psychologist to those who are seeking to explore their inner life, awakening and the big questions.
I was attracted to meditation because I had explored both psychology and philosophy at University but found that it left my inner life untouched. The path I followed in meditation fulfilled this completely and also, to my surprise, had a profound effect on my body and physical health. Here are some of the ways meditation can benefit your health.
The deep relaxation meditation gives is the key to the physical benefits it provides. You can relax more quickly and deeply because this surprising simple yet profound tool gives you the means to relax your body to the point of sleep while your mind is still alert.
Releasing physical tension
As Dr Andrew Weil in his book Spontaneous Healing says: “All illnesses should be assumed to be stress-related until proved otherwise. Even if stress is not the primary cause of illness, it is frequently an aggravating factor”.
With stress comes physical tension which can lead to chronically tight muscles. They malfunction because they have become rigid and hard. This burns up our energy resources and is exhausting. Also tense muscles are vulnerable to tearing when used because, not being flexible, they are not so able to stretch when a demand is made on them.
On the other hand, when we relax our muscles become flexible and supple and so burn far less energy. Our bodies are much healthier and we don’t get so tired. Rigid muscles are the hallmark of stress whereas a healthy body is supple.
Stimulating the immune system
Tension and anxiety have a very detrimental effect on the immune system because they are the signals of an outer emergency. All the body’s resources are then directed to the emergency and it produces cortisol and adrenaline which suppress the immune system’s function of combating disease and helping the body repair itself. The body’s self-healing mechanism is then shut down. So when you are tense or anxious the immune system is switched off, when you relax it is switched on.
And so it is only at those times when we are sleeping or relaxed that the immune system has the opportunity to function properly. This is why meditation can have such a profound effect on stimulating the immune system. It provides the ability to attain states of deep relaxation consciously and often.
Improving breathing and blood flow
When stressed, we breathe in tight, short, jerky patterns. Our muscles automatically tighten and so this restricts blood and oxygen flow to all the organs. Our muscles and organs become starved of oxygen. When we are not aware of how we are breathing, we perpetuate this tight, shallow breath pattern and so, without realising it, keep our stress levels on full alert.
Meditation gives you the ability to change your breathing pattern quickly and easily. A short spot meditation using the breath takes only 20 seconds and this can restore your whole body to balance. When the body reaches its state of homeostasis it takes in the amount of oxygen it needs.
Being able to develop and maintain your emotional and mental health is the hallmark of meditation. We have much more control over this than we realise, and learning how to use meditation can save us from many of the problems that have become endemic and which are totally preventable.
How our minds and bodies work together
For example, whatever emotional or mental state you are experiencing is reflected in the way you breathe. And, as I have shown, the way you breathe is an immediate indicator of your stress levels and of how tense or relaxed you are. The smooth, open, relaxed breathing of meditation balances our minds and thoughts just as much as our bodies.
Balancing the brain and the emotions
In experiments which Lifeflow and Flinders University conducted it was very clear how both sides of the brain were equally active in states of meditation. Both sides were coordinated and balanced.
Instead of the thinking and feeling functions being out of balance, or, as they often are with many people, virtually in conflict with each other, they can work together. This conserves energy and means that meditators can have the ability to think clearly and feel deeply at the same time.
Maintaining emotional health
Of course there are many causes of stress and the ill health which follows. However, a fundamental cause is how we react – not being able to free ourselves from the thought patterns we often get stuck in. And this is completely in our control.
With meditation you can see the old emotional patterns and, by becoming aware of them in this way, you can allow them to release. And then, as you become stiller and your balance deepens, you enter the deeper meditation states which are some of the most incredibly healthy mental and emotional states we can experience.
Just as we feed ourselves physically, so we can nourish ourselves with healthy emotions through meditation. You can do this consciously with certain meditations, but all meditation can bring you to a state of clarity and bliss. And even if this is only for a few seconds it has a profound effect on your mind and body. You are totally free from any unhealthy emotion and inner conflict. This blissful, clear state is loving and accepting, life-affirming and the essence of health.