Ancient practices to calm, focus the body and mind help us manage modern life.
It may seem odd that ancient practices are becoming increasingly popular — but people with any number of choices about how to spend their free time are increasingly choosing to sit still and breathe deeply, or balance on their hands in “down dog” with their rears in the air. The percentage of American adults who practice yoga is now 9.5 percent, nearly double the figure in 2012, according to a new government survey. Almost as many meditate. At the same time, science is confirming that these techniques can improve well-being, health, and balance. They can also heal and prevent injuries, strengthen muscles, and open the body for meditation.
“Yoga” and “mindfulness” are broad terms that embrace a long history of varied practices. The word “yoga” comes from its Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means “to yoke” or join together — and refers to joining the mind and the body. Yoga traditionally included breathing and meditative techniques as well as body postures and movements that were intended as preparation for extended sitting. Most American classes offer Hatha Yoga postures, and only begin or end with a moment of meditation.
When researchers refer to “yoga” or “meditation” or “mindfulness,” they may be talking about very different experiences. That said, one literature review concluded that yoga helps fight depression and sleep problems, and it has been shown to help diabetics manage their blood sugar. There’s evidence that various kinds of meditation or mindfulness training can help seniors sleep, reduce symptoms of depression even in people without a spiritual bent, soothe irritable bowel syndrome, help people suffering from muscle pain and fatigue, and reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.
You don’t have to be a serious meditator to reap the benefits — measurable positive changes in the brain have appeared after as little as a half hour a day. In another study, only 12 minutes a day for 8 weeks produced happy results among a group under considerable stress — people caring for family members with dementia. Half of a group of caregivers listened to relaxing music. The other half practiced Kirtan Kriya which includes chanting, holding the body in certain positions, and a visualization meditation. The researchers gave everyone tests assessing symptoms of depression and mental skills and also checked their blood.
After 8 weeks, more than half of the Kirtan Kriya group did better on the tests, compared to less than a third of the comparison group. Most dramatically, the Kirtan Kriya group had an average 43 percent boost in the activity of an enzyme called telomerase — which was associated with the better mental health scores — compared to only a 3.7-percent change in the comparison group. The increased telomerase activity may be a sign that the chanting and meditation practice helps slow aging related to stress.
To get started on a basic mindfulness practice, Britta Hölzel, a neuroscientist who has coauthored studies finding brain changes from meditation, recommends the book “Full Catastrophe Living,” or a stress reduction mindfulness program offered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and online. She points out that the flurry of positive findings is typical for a new field of research, and that meditation researchers tend to be fans. “You can really find anything you want to find,” she says. But she predicts that more solid findings will come soon. “It does make huge difference in a lot of people's lives….It's just not understood exactly how and to whom and when,” she says.
February 24, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN