The practice of yoga involves physical postures designed to enhance the body’s flexibility, endurance, and suppleness. However, practitioners who choose to focus only on the physical fitness aspect of yoga are missing an important way to gain calmness of mind and a feeling of inner peace and overall well-being.
To reach the true yogi’s goal of samadhi, or spiritual liberation and union with the divine, the practice of pranayama is key. Pranayama, or the study of controlling the breath, is one “limb” of the traditional yogi’s eight-fold path. It involves focus on the cycle of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Through the correct practice of pranayama, a student of yoga is said to be able to span the gap that exists between his or her soul and the spiritual source of the universe.
The great teacher B. K. S. Iyengar taught that the practice of pranayama promotes energy, growth of the spiritual self, and an awareness of the divinity within each living being. He instructed his students that through the deliberate regulation of the breath, they could better organize their thoughts and direct energy from the outer world inward.
Both Iyengar and the ancient teacher Patanjali considered pranayama an advanced practice, one best developed after a student has become comfortable with the physical practice of the yogic postures, or asanas.
However, for those who undertake it, pranayama can reduce stress, improve focus and the ability to concentrate, mitigate stormy emotional states, and promote deep and restful sleep.
Several forms of meditation exist, until now, little research has examined if and how these variants affect the body. Recently, researchers from the University of Oslo, the University of Sydney, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have teamed to study exactly how different forms of meditation affect the brain.
The researchers have initially divided meditation into two techniques. Concentrative meditation involves intense focus on breath or mantra while suppressing other thoughts. Nondirective meditation is the term for meditation that involves focus but also allows the mind to wander. The team tested 14 experienced meditators in an MRI machine while they undertook both forms of meditation.
After the tests, the team found that nondirective meditation led to higher levels of brain activity than were seen in subjects at rest. Brain activity was especially high in the parts of the brain that process thoughts and feelings. Concentrative meditation, on the other hand, caused virtually no increase in activity in these parts of the brain.
These results were surprising because they show that brain activity goes down when one focuses. In addition, the results demonstrate how nondirective meditation can actually increase space for processing memories and emotions. Typically, the area of the brain involved has its highest level of activity during rest, making it remarkable that nondirective meditation increases activity levels even more.
Mindfulness meditation has a number of benefits that range from reducing stress and anxiety to boosting cardiovascular health. You may think that mindfulness is reserved for meditation. However, mindfulness can be integrated into even the most mundane activities, such as taking a shower. People may tend to let their minds wander during their shower while thinking about events from last night or worrying about the coming day. Mindful individuals focus on the sensation of the water on their skin and the smell of the soap.
Individuals can use mindfulness to relieve some of the more stressful parts of their day, such as the commute to and from work. Whether a person drives or takes public transportation, the commute can prove irritating and tense, causing individuals to let their minds wander. However, by remaining mindful, individuals can recognize that everyone around them – both on the train and in other cars – are having similar feelings of annoyance and discomfort. This newfound compassion can transform the entire experience.
A January 2014 article in JAMA Internal Medicine questioned the extent to which researchers can claim a direct link between meditation and health benefits. Since its publication, the article has received a great deal of criticism about the narrowness of its scope. The author failed to touch on many major studies and the randomized clinical trials that have been conducted around the question of health benefits. The debate has reinvigorated discussion about the health benefits of meditation and may prompt doctors to investigate the question themselves.
Medical research on meditation began in the 1970s when the first article on the subject appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Today, more than 1,000 articles have been published, more than half of which focus on a technique called Transcendental Meditation (TM). The American Heart Association conducted a long-term clinical trial that showed reduced rates of death, stroke, and heart attack among individuals who practiced TM. Other studies point to major cardiovascular benefits.
Some of the nation’s leading medical schools have become interested in the question of meditation’s health benefits. Many new studies have included research methods similar to those used to compare different drugs to look at the impact of different forms of meditation.