If you’ve ever spent a few minutes meditating at the end of yoga class, you know that trying to slow down your thoughts is a bit trickier than it looks.
“Our minds are constantly moving-worrying about deadlines, evaluating our own performance or that of others, or dwelling on interactions from the past,” explains psychologist Dr Nina Smiley.
But practicing mediation trains your mind to focus your awareness on the present, which can help you achieve that coveted Zen. This state of calmness doesn’t just feel good-it’s actually good for your health, too. Even mainstream medicine is starting to acknowledge the ancient practice as research surrounding its benefits grows.
“I recommend all people-that includes all patients I have-learn which
Meditation be beneficial to staving off a cold. In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, researchers assigned 150 participants aged 50 and older to one of three groups for eight weeks: mindfulness meditation training, moderate-intensity exercise training, or a control group.
Meditation and exercise both reduced their susceptibility to colds compared to the control group-the latter two groups took just over half as many sick days as the people in the control group during the course of the study.
Again, the relaxing effects are likely a factor, says Dr Goyal, since stress can actually get in the way of your immune system’s ability to fight an infection.
Deal with pain
If pain is really in the mind, theoretically so is your ability to shut it down-and a small study published in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at how meditation might help you do that. To establish a baseline, 15 people with no meditation experience were told to simply focus on their breath in an MRI machine; during the scan, researchers alternated applying a small amount of heat to their calves and asked them to rate their pain after the experiment.
Meditation can help your brain reframe pain and make it easier to experience.
The participants were then given four days of mindfulness training before repeating the entire process. After learning mediation techniques, they reported a 57 percent reduction in unpleasantness and a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity.
Meditation doesn’t exactly change the physical pain, Brown explains. The brain scans in the study show meditation reduced brain activity in areas associated with sensation, so it likely changes our relationship to the feeling, she says. In other words, it can help your brain reframe pain and make it easier to experience.
During meditation training, “one is actively taught how to observe what they’re feeling and then not react to it,” says Dr Goyal. “It’s one way of training the mind to reduce one’s negative reaction.”
How to practice meditation
Starting a meditation practice can be simple-and doesn’t have to involve chanting “Om” (unless you totally want to!).
“Meditation can take many forms, whether it’s a breathing exercise, use of a mantra, or a guided visualisation,” says Smiley. “Mindfulness meditation can be easily incorporated into your daily routine, such as your morning shower or coffee breaks. For beginners, I recommend that they start practicing meditation through a breathing exercise.”
Here’s how to do it: start by centering yourself with a few deep breaths. “As you inhale and exhale deeply, silently say ‘in’ and ‘out’ with each breath,” Smiley says. “During this cycle, if a thought comes into the mind, gently and non-judgmentally acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the breath.”