3 Reasons to Stick to (Or Start!) Your Meditation Practice

September 29, 2016    BY Kathryn Ashworth

While one might think sitting meditation would be an easy, manageable task (you're sitting down, after all, which isn't exactly physically exhausting!), I'm learning that some of the most challenging work in yoga is simply being still. More often, I'd rather watch a movie than my own distracted mind.

But whenever I do manage to subdue my restlessness and sit, even if briefly, I begin to feel the benefits of the practice rather quickly. My mind becomes less scattered and more peaceful—far more balanced—and balance is a hard thing to beat once you get a taste for it. It's even tastier than movie popcorn.

Scientific research conducted over the past several decades suggests that mindfulness is quite good for you, no matter how you go about it.

The yogic tradition I study teaches mantra meditation (meditating on a sacred word, sound, or phrase), but meditation comes in many forms (including loving kindness meditation, Vipassana meditation, open monitoring meditation, walking meditation—you get the picture). Yet, while there are a variety of practices, the connective quality is mindfulness. And scientific research conducted over the past several decades suggests that mindfulness is quite good for you, no matter how you go about it.

If you’re like me and you’re a little touch-and-go with your meditation practice, the results of three studies in particular, which demonstrate the major benefits of regular meditation, could convince you to practice a little more regularly. If you’re new to meditation, these results may inspire you to begin your practice, quite possibly today.

1. Meditation can preserve our brain as we age.

Recent findings suggest that developing a consistent meditation practice can preserve our minds as we age. And considering that a large percentage of the global population is living longer than ever, that's encouraging news.

A recent UCLA study focused on the effect meditation can have on grey matter (an area of the brain involved in long-term memory, speech, muscle control, and intellectual capacity). Researchers compared two groups: those who had meditated for years and others who didn't practice meditation at all. What they discovered was that while each group had lost grey matter density over time, the grey matter of the meditators was better preserved.

While the scientists involved said they could not definitely draw a direct causal relationship between meditation and preserved grey matter (other lifestyle factors could be the cause), the results were a promising sign that such a relationship might exist.

Why should we care? Grey matter is one of the first areas of the brain to deteriorate—and it's particularly vulnerable as we grow older. A reduction in its density is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and even schizophrenia. If we could use meditation to better preserve our grey matter, we might be less susceptible to such diseases.

2. Meditation boosts creativity and enhances problem solving.

Do you consider yourself a creative person and/or wish that you were more creative? There's evidence to suggest that a specific type of meditation might increase creativity—and that another type might help with problem solving.

A 2014 review conducted by Leiden University explored how meditation can affect cognitive processes, one of those processes being creativity. The subjects of the studies were both novice and experienced meditators, practicing two different forms of meditation: open monitoring meditation (being receptive to every thought and sensation) and focused meditation (focusing on a particular thought or object).

The review included one study which analyzed the effect of OMM (open monitoring meditation) and FAM (focused awareness meditation) on both convergent thinking  (“a process of identifying one ‘correct’ answer to a well-defined problem” and divergent thinking (“a process aiming at generating many new ideas”). The results of the study concluded that “the two types of meditation affected the two types of thinking in opposite ways.” Namely, convergent thinking can be improved by open monitoring meditation while divergent thinking can be enhanced by focused attention meditation.  

So, the next time you have a "think-outside-the-box" project, or need to problem solve quickly, why not try a little meditation first to get the ideas flowing?

3. Meditation may reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

It's not uncommon to hear of therapists recommending meditation to their patients. Mindfulness stress-reduction techniques are gaining traction in the field of psychology as a supplementary treatment for mental illness—and for good reason. Scientific research suggests that meditation may prevent or at least reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins University reviewed 47 clinical trials, most lasting for eight weeks, that had involved 3,515 participants. Each trial had studied the effects of meditation on various mental and physical health concerns (depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance abuse, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain). The Johns Hopkins researchers found that in all these trials, participants who were suffering from depression and anxiety showed gradual improvement in their symptoms when meditating for 30 minutes a day.

While meditation is not a substitute for medical care, the evidence suggests that for many people it could become a useful tool for managing symptoms.

Ready to meditate?

Enhanced creativity, emotional stability, and a healthier brain certainly seem to be among the likely gifts of meditation. Are you a touch more motivated to begin or continue your practice?

Kathryn Ashworth
is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."