Newer research from the University of Wisconsin shows a meditation habit can strengthen the body’s immune function, plus increase brain performance in the form of electrical activity. It validates the mind-body dynamic of meditation.
To gauge immune function, the researchers measured antibodies in the blood that fight flu and other infections.
Volunteer subjects in the study who meditated had significantly higher levels of these healthful antibodies than nonmeditators in just one to two months. In fact, it is interesting to note that participants who meditated for two months had significantly higher levels of antibodies than individuals meditating for just one month.
Results for brain-wave activity were even more amplified. The region of the brain most activated by meditation is the left frontal area associated with positive emotions and anxiety reduction.
You can do it Anyone who has tried meditation knows that quieting the mind can be difficult to impossible. Charles MacInerney, an Austin, Texas-based meditation and yoga teacher, has an answer for getting started and staying the course. He recommends a simple “awareness of breath” meditation.
“Initially it is best practiced while lying flat on your back on the floor with knees either straight or bent,” he said. “As you improve, it can also be practiced while sitting, standing or walking, as long as you can maintain good posture. Poor posture impedes the breath and distracts from the meditation.
“The secret of this meditation is to observe the breath without consciously trying to change it. Your observations of the breath filter down to the subconscious levels of your brain, which will begin subtly to shift and refine the breathing to lead you gradually along the perfect path toward perfect breathing.”
Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University cardiologist and author of the 1970s best-seller, “The Relaxation Response,” has a core message that puts meditation in perspective but also accentuates its potential power.
Meditation and breathing awareness “won’t eliminate stress, only change our reaction to stress,” Benson said.
Benson’s “Relaxation Response” meditation suggests that we repeat a word, sound or prayer to accomplish an effect. “It can be secular or religious,” he said. “It’s your choice. It could be ‘love,’ ‘peace,’ ‘calm.’ If you’re Catholic, you have it made. You can say ‘Ave Maria,’ or ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’ ”
Benson has a clear set of nine steps to help people learn to relax with purpose:
1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer rooted in your belief system.
2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Relax your muscles.
5. Breathe slowly. Say the focus word as you exhale.
6. Assume a passive attitude. When other thoughts intrude, just say, “Oh, well,” and return to your repetition.
7. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
8. Open your eyes and sit for another minute.
9. Practice once or twice daily.
What if you slip? Try another form of meditation, but one that still fits into your days and lifestyle. MacInerney, who has consulted for Apple, IBM and Motorola, suggests that a walking meditation is “wonderful initiation” for beginners and might prove to be easier to adapt than a sitting meditation.
Start a walking meditation by striding a little faster than normal, MacInerney said. Then gradually slow down to what you think is your normal walking speed. Next, slow down until you feel unnatural or even off balance. Finally, speed up just enough to feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically. This is your optimal meditative state for walking.
From there, strive for a “smooth gait,” which MacInerney said might mean you speed up a bit on the first few tries. Be mindful of your breathing and walking; your focus will take you away from stress and anxiety.
“The idea is to walk in silence, both internal and external,” MacInerney said. “Make each step a gesture. You will fall into a natural rhythm and move into a state of grace.”
Best of all The University of Wisconsin researchers report that some participants were particularly thrilled with one result of regular meditation: Road rage went down significantly.