The health benefits of meditation have long been claimed by yoga instructors and enthusiasts alike. Over the past few years, research has produced significant insights into the effects of meditation on health and wellbeing. Some of the most interesting results have come from studies involving brain imaging, and it is exciting to know that the impact of meditation occurs quite quickly.
A recent study by Harvard neuroscientists looked at the effects of a short course (8 weeks) of regular meditation on the brain. After 8 weeks, there were significant changes in brain volume in 5 different regions of the brain in those who meditated when compared to the control group. The participants in the study undertook no formal meditation prior to the study.
In most of the brain areas measured, there was an increase in brain volume following the short course of meditation. This included areas of the brain responsible for learning, understanding, memory, empathy and compassion. In addition a region of the brain stem called the Pons showed an increase in volume. This is where many neurotransmitters are produced. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that either produce or inhibit processes within our body and are essential for regulating normal body function. Some examples of neurotransmitters that most people have heard of are serotonin, dopamine and glutamate.
The one brain area that showed a decrease in volume was the amygdale which is the area of the brain associated with stress, anxiety and fear. While it is desirable for brain volume to increase in most other brain areas, a decrease in brain volume in the amygdala gives us a greater ability to deal with stress as well as reduced anxiety and fear.
So how does one engage in meditation? There are many methods and resources available both online and in the library to get you started. The study mentioned above incorporated simply 30mins a day of meditation practice which yielded some substantial results in a short time period. Meditation involves different things to different people. It can be guided meditation where an external party draws your attention to the various body parts to improve your self awareness and presence. Alternatively it can simply involve spending some time concentrating on deep breathing and allowing your mind to relax.