How does meditation work?

Meditation is a widely-used mind-body technique in which relaxation and focused attention (contemplation) are combined to produce a heightened state of self-awareness. This is often achieved by concentration on an object, such as a flame, beads, a thought or visualization, or a process, such as breathing, a repetitive prayer or mantra, a sound or an exercise. This concentration serves as an anchor to prevent our thoughts from drifting off into the ‘busyness’ and ‘noise’ of our minds, and keeps us focused on the present.

How do I meditate?

There is no best way to meditate. Many different meditative disciplines exist, encompassing a wide range of different practices, often with specific goals. Some can do their meditation when they are out running, when they sit by the sea or in a church. What will work for one individual may be inappropriate for the next. Yet once found, a means to meditate can be an important step to transform our lives and find the stability and confidence we need to live and age well.

A meditative state has effects on both the mind and the body. Like many successful relaxation techniques, meditation reduces stressful brain activity.  Depending on the depth of the meditative state, it can also increase the brain activity normally associated with deep sleep, essentially rewiring the circuitry of our brain, albeit temporarily. A meditative state is also associated with improved balance of the autonomic nervous system, increased heart-rate variability and improved release of beneficial hormones, such as melatonin and DHEA, which decline with age. Cortisol levels, which increase during periods of stress and in the aging body, are also normalized by meditation.

Meditation is an important tool for relaxation. Yet it has also been shown to have a number of independent actions in promoting physical and mental health, as well as longevity. For example, meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve glucose metabolism, weight control and immune function. Improvements in hearing and vision have also been documented with meditation.

Breathing guidelines

Almost all mind-body therapies include focused breathing techniques. Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches you that a tranquil mind produces regular breathing, and conversely that regular breathing produces a concentrated mind. By consciously mimicking the unconscious ‘relaxation response’ in our body, we gain some of its benefits, as well as greater mastery over ourselves.

Breathing techniques are among the simplest forms of self-regulation, freely available to anyone wanting to reduce the effects of stress on body and mind.

The great thing is that we don’t need to do it in a special environment or even sit in a specific way. Once we know how to breathe correctly, we can practice our breathing techniques wherever we are.

Most techniques involve slow-paced, steady breathing, using our diaphragm, rather than our chest muscles, and slowly increasing the volume of air as we inhale and exhale. Think: LOW, EVEN, SMOOTH, SLOW and gain a growing awareness of the processes involved in our breathing.

A regular practice of slow, deep breathing has been shown to have a number of beneficial effects on human health, particularly when used in combination with other modalities. When we breathe slowly and deeply, we stimulate the relaxation response associated with calm, digestion and healing.

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals