You might have made positive leaps forward with your diet and physical activity regime, but do you have your mental wellbeing in check? Your state of mind can affect your body on a physical level. Did you know that deep forms of relaxation, including meditation and yoga, have numerous health benefits? Take a deep breath, relax and welcome all of the benefits of regular meditation.
What is it?
Meditation is a state of deep relaxation, focusing your attention on the here and now, where tension is released from the body on a physical level and the mind eliminates the stream of jumbled or ‘noisy’ thoughts that might be crowding your mind and causing stress. This kind of relaxation is different to the kind of relaxation you might be used to, such as relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book or lounging on the couch. To achieve a state of deep relaxation takes practice and is achieved by learning a specific technique that works for you.
What are the benefits?
It changes your genes!
Deep relaxation can change our bodies on a genetic level. Research has found that long-term practitioners of relaxation methods, such as meditation and yoga, have more disease fighting genes activated compared to those who don’t practice relaxation. Genes that help to fight inflammation and protect against chronic diseases, can be ‘switched on’ with long-term deep relaxation.[i],[ii]
There is a large amount of research into the negative effects of long-term stress on the body. When presented with a stressor, the body has a ‘fight or flight’ response, releases stress hormones and goes into survival mode – heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and the muscles of the body contract and tighten. Our bodies normally turn this response on and off as needed, however the response can get over used or over activated if we are constantly anxious or worried. If this happens over the long term it can lead to increased blood pressure, lowered immunity, reduced fertility, metabolic syndrome, hardening of the arteries and even a loss of brain cells.[iii]
On the flip side, reducing stress and anxiety, through relaxation and meditation, has the opposite effect where the muscles relax, and heart rate slows allowing your body to renew itself. Relaxation is also linked to higher levels of ‘feel good’ hormones in the body such as serotonin. So the good news is that regular practice of relaxation techniques such as meditation, over time can reverse the effects of prolonged stress.[iv]
Some symptoms associated with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome can potentially be reduced with the use of regular relaxation techniques. As previously stated, the body’s natural response to stress includes contraction and tightening of muscles, which includes the muscles of the digestive system. With relaxation and reduced stress, the muscles can also relax, supporting healthy digestion function. Symptoms of bloating, diarrhea and constipation have been shown to improve through the use of regular meditation. [v]
And so much more…
The list really does go on, but just to list a few more benefits, there’s improved mood and sleep, reduced anxiety and feelings of depression, reduced pain, improved fertility, improved focus, increased energy levels and overall improved emotional wellbeing and coping strategies. It may even slow the ageing process![vi]
How do I do it?
There are many different types of deep relaxation and meditation, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and eyes closed – as you’re probably picturing right now! There is no one right way and it is about finding what works for you. Essentially, all you need is an open mind and a few minutes each day. The most common features of the different types of meditation are focusing your attention, relaxed breathing, a quiet setting and a comfortable position. As a beginner it may be helpful to have someone guide you or to take a class. Here are some of the main types of relaxation techniques:
- Guided meditation: this can also be called guided imagery or visualisation. It uses mental images of places or situations that you find relaxing and uses as many senses as possible such as smell, sight, sound and texture. It is helpful to use a teacher or guide to lead you through this type of meditation.
- Mantra meditation: in this type of meditation you silently repeat a calming word, thought or phrase to focus your attention and prevent distracting thoughts.
- Mindfulness meditation: this type of meditation is based on being mindful, which is an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment. Your focus is on what you experience during meditation such as your breathing. Thoughts and emotions can be observed, but they are let go of.
- Tai Chi: this is a form of gentle Chinese martial arts where you perform a self-paced series of postures or movements in a slow manner while practicing deep breathing. For beginners, a teacher or guide is recommended.
- Yoga: in yoga, you practice a series of postures, that require balance and concentration, and controlled breathing exercises, which promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. You’re encouraged to let go of ‘busy’ thoughts and focus more on the present moment. For beginners, a teacher or guide is recommended.
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 (Qu S 2013)
 (Hassed n.d.)
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 (Stephens 2009, Stephens 2009)
 (Stephens 2009)