While many Westerners have some familiarity with the concept of meditation, far fewer understand that various practitioners throughout history have developed their own techniques and traditions. While a huge variety of meditation approaches exist in the modern world, researchers have separated these types into two larger groups: concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation. The former group generally involves focusing inward and on the breath or, in the case of Transcendental Meditation, a mantra. The latter group is more closely identified with modern meditative practices, though the Zen tradition of zazen also involves nondirective methods of reaching a meditative state, ideally by reaching a state where one can passively observe the body and the mind.
While many people are content with finding a meditation technique that works for them, scientists have been working to discover how these techniques may impact the body. One recent study conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, as well as other institutions, used MRI technology to track how concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation affect the brain. The results showed that nondirective meditation tended to be more highly correlated with activity in the brain’s resting network, where self-related thoughts are processed, while concentrative meditation tended to look like the brain at normal rest. While the study size was small, involving only 14 subjects, the promising results indicate further research is merited.
A word with origins in Sanskrit, yoga has only recently become popular in the West after many millennia as an important component of physical and spiritual wellness in the lives of its Eastern practitioners. Recent scientific studies have revealed the discipline’s numerous benefits, and the National Institutes of Health has rated it among the 10 most useful complementary health practices. Although yoga is already well known as a means of treating back pain, improving circulation, and reducing stress, additional research is being conducted to uncover what are anticipated to be even more advantages.
One recent study found that one style of yoga, hatha yoga, leads to significant reductions in blood pressure among adolescents predisposed to high blood pressure. Specifically, the study associated yoga practice with a reduction in a-amylase activity, a key indicator of blood pressure issues. Older yoga practitioners in another study demonstrated the improved balance that yoga creates in its adherents; a meta-analysis of yoga studies showed that seniors who practice yoga have fewer balance-related issues or falls, as well as fewer fears about falling. Meanwhile, more extreme yogic traditions have also come to scientists’ attention. The tum-mo style practiced by Tibetans is well known for enabling these dedicated yogis to withstand extreme cold, and researchers have confirmed this extraordinary practice, showing that tum-mo helps practitioners regulate body temperature using brown fat and increased blood flow.
Based out of Sacramento, California, Yoga Across America has spread the value of yoga across the nation. The organization develops programs for schools, hospitals, parks, and civic groups in order to educate neighborhoods about the benefits that yoga can have on their lives. Yoga Across America utilizes a variety of yoga practices, such as yin yoga, Vinyasa yoga, and yoga nidra to promote a connection to spirituality and improvements in physical health. Along with producing a sense of community among its members, Yoga Across America receives support from Dr. Oz’s HealthCorps, the Mercy Cancer Institute, and other organizations.
One of Yoga Across America’s most important initiatives is Yoga for American Soldiers. Many active duty soldiers and veterans encounter physical and mental difficulties due to their time in the armed forces. Yoga for American Soldiers uses yoga to improve lives through physicality, breathing exercises, and meditation. Members of the armed forces have applauded the program for providing them with a sense of relaxation and personal strength. The organization also includes Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Lieutenant Colonel Michele Spencer as an ambassador. Her book, B.A.G.H.D.A.D. Yoga: A Shift in Consciousness: Fear to Love, War to Peace, highlighted the benefits of yoga in dealing with stress during war.