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Meditation or Vacation?

Research shows that meditation has a positive effect on your mental health, helping to improve mood and lower stress levels. But a 2016 study has found that the practice may also have quantifiable physical health benefits, too. In fact, when compared with the de-stressing health benefits of a relaxing vacation, meditation’s effects may be even stronger and longer-lasting.

For the study, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School recruited 94 healthy women, aged 30-60 years. Thirty of these women were experienced meditators who had enrolled in a six-day meditation retreat at a resort in California. The remaining 64 women were not regular meditators and half of these women were randomly selected to simply enjoy the vacation, while the other half followed a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being. The meditation training involved classes in mantra meditation, yoga and self-reflection, all designed by best-selling author and spiritual guru Dr. Deepak Chopra, although he was not part of the study.

For all three groups, researchers collected blood samples and self-reported wellness surveys immediately before and after the retreat as well as one month and 10 months later. They examined more than 20,000 genes from each participant to understand what biological changes were occurring in the body.

Researchers found that all three groups showed some differences in their molecular makeup after a week at the resort. The most significant changes in their “post-vacation biology” were in molecular pathways related to stress response and immune system function.

Evaluations of the participants’ self-reported wellness surveys found that the women who learned meditation techniques at the retreat reported fewer symptoms of depression and less stress than their non-meditating peers. They also maintained these benefits for a longer period than the women who did not meditate. Studies have shown that these mental health benefits have direct physical health benefits, too, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved digestion, more physical energy, and a more robust immune system.

“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said study co-author Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, a neurology professor at Harvard University and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement.

One thing that wasn’t clear was whether the women who learned to meditate continued to do so after the retreat or if the mental and physical benefits they reported were the direct result of their one week of practice. But either way, the benefits of meditation were evident long after the initial sessions.

Meditation can change your genes

On top of helping to ease stress and symptoms of depression, another study discovered that meditation can even help lower blood pressure.

A 2018 Harvard study analyzed 24 people who suffer from high blood pressure. They attended weakly relaxation sessions with a trainer and listened to a meditation CD at home for eight weeks. The study found that meditating for just 15 minutes day (for at least eight weeks) alters the expression of the genes that regulate inflammation, glucose metabolism, circadian rhythms and immune regulatory pathways.

“With the new guidelines, patients and physicians alike are going to be more and more interested in non-drug therapies that might control blood pressure or potentially augment their medications,” Dr. Randall Zusman told NPR.

In other words, daily meditation can be beneficial for your physical and mental health.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Is there a meditation technique that is right for you?

The data is in, and meditation works; not only does it help us live happier, less stressful lives, but it has measurable effects on physical health too. But if you’ve tried and (feel like you’ve) failed at meditating, it might be because you haven’t found the right meditation type for you. Below, you’ll find seven different ways “in” to a meditation practice; the benefits of each type are similar once you are practicing regularly — whether you find your way into meditation via walking and chanting, taking a class from a Transcendental Meditation teacher, or via meditation paired with your existing faith.

The most important part of meditation is not doing it a certain way, wearing particular clothes while doing it, or being in a specific place — or whatever your preconception of the “right” way to meditate is. It’s about finding what works with your life. Unlike a spin class, there are no rules you have to follow (though it’s useful to get a grounding in how other people meditate). There is only the regular practice and sticking with it, day-by-day. Think of meditation more like making a positive, life-long shift to a healthy eating, rather than a specific diet program (with celebrity endorsement and a thick book) that you follow for a month and then abandon. A truly beneficial meditation practice will take time and persistence.

So check out the styles of meditation below, and try them out — play with what works for you, and what doesn’t. Don’t be rigid about what meditation is, or looks like, or what you think it’s going to feel like. Ask yourself questions: Do you like to move, or does stillness work better for you? How about vocalizations? Do you want to focus on something or nothing? Your particular way into meditation may be different, but the stress relief, reduced anger, feelings of well-being, lowered blood pressure, and other benefits are available to everyone.
Focused meditation is an umbrella term for any kind of meditation that includes focus on some aspect of the five senses, though visualizations are the most popular. Focusing on an image of a flower, a flame, or moving water are all ways to keep the mind gently focused so you are less likely to become distracted. You can also try concentrating on the feel of something — your fingers against each other, the way your breath feels moving in and out of your body, or the alignment of your spine. Focusing on a simple sound (a gentle gong, a bell, or music) or sounds from nature are another option.

Guided meditation is a focused meditation that is led by someone other than yourself and usually includes one or more of the techniques in focus meditation, above. You will get led through breathing instructions and some kind of visualization, body scan, or sound, or perhaps a mantra (see below).

Spiritual meditation is interchangeable with what most of us understand as prayer. If you are already part of a spiritual tradition, this may be an easier way into meditation, because you have already been practicing some elements of it. You can try it as an extension of what you already do in your place of worship if being in the church, sanctuary, mosque, hall or synagogue helps you dive into a quieter, more reflective state, or you can conjure up that feeling at home or in another place. Start with the words you have heard or said yourself, but instead of stopping at the end of a prayer or song, keep sitting quietly. You can ask a question and listen for an answer — sometimes people feel that an answer comes from outside of them; or you can enumerate what you are grateful for. Use your experience of prayer to access that quiet, meditative mind space.

Mantra meditation is when you use a sound or a set of sounds, repetitively, to enter and stay within the meditative state. It may seem like a contradiction to make noise when meditating, because many people have the idea that meditation equals silence, but that’s not the case at all, and mantras have a long history within the tradition. Of course, you can chant quietly, or even whisper your set of words, draw them out, make them more sing-songy, or even quite loud. You can say them in your head and maintain outer silence. You can choose a word or words in any language: (Peace and love and happiness, for example), or a sound like “Ohm.” You can make up sounds or words if you like or take them from another language; the sound or words you choose are really up to you and are simply a way to prevent distracting thoughts.

Transcendental Meditation (often abbreviated as TM by practitioners) is the type that’s most likely been studied by scientists when you hear about the various physical and mental benefits to meditation. With over 5 million practitioners worldwide, it is considered the most popular form of meditation, with the bonus being that it is usually easy to find free or low-cost classes in most places. It is a little more formalized than some of the other meditation types mentioned here, but it useful for beginning or exploring meditation if you are new to it. According to their site, TM is: “… a simple, natural, effortless procedure practiced 20 minutes twice each day while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. It’s not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle.”

Movement meditations are exactly what they sound like; instead of sitting quietly, you get to move around the room, the house, a woodsy path, or the garden (or wherever) — usually in a relatively simple and calming way. Walking meditation, most types of yoga, gardening, and even basic housecleaning tasks can be moving meditations. This meditation type is great for people who already sit all day at work and want to move and meditate when not at a desk, and for those people who find sitting still to be a distraction from being able to meditate at all.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that is an ongoing part of life, rather than a separate activity. A great way to address stress in the moment it is happening, and over time becomes more like a mental skill than a time separate from the rest of life. It can be easier to get into a mindful state of mind if one has already been practicing meditation separately.

Credit: Starre Varten

5 calming quotes about meditation.

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day” ― Deepak Chopra

“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.” ― George MacDonald

“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Looking at beauty in the world, is the first step of purifying the mind.” ― Amit Ray

 

Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan