Scientific Research: The Benefits of Meditation for Beginners

February 24, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

When you hear the word meditation, what comes to mind? Peace? Clarity? A particular practice or technique? The image of a yogi in lotus pose? Or perhaps you think, “Sounds great, but I really don’t have the time to meditate." Maybe you've heard about the benefits, how meditation reduces stress levels and produces a calmer state of mind. Maybe you've even experienced these benefits yourself. 

For those who are interested in the healing effects of meditation, there’s been plenty of research over the past several decades that attests to the validity of many a meditator's anecdotal evidence. Time and again, researchers are finding that people who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma. While the causal relationship between meditation and these psychological benefits may be (as of yet) somewhat unknown, evidence does suggest that they may have a lot to do with a restructuring of the brain itself.

People who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma.

Recently a team of researchers from the University of Sienna came together to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They described the practice as a “meditation-based program in which participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and behaviour over a period of eight weeks with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.” 

The purpose was to measure the possible scope of neuroanatomical changes resulting from meditative practices, specifically at both the cortical and subcortical brain levels. The research was groundbreaking as most studies over the past decade have focused on highly accomplished meditators, while all of the 48 participants in this study were "meditation-naïve subjects."

Requisites to their participation included a score higher than 27 on the Mini-Mental Status Examination (a 30-point questionnaire often used to measure cognitive impairment), the absence of psychiatric or neurological disorders in their personal medical history, and the ability to participate in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. Participants were divided into two groups—24 of the subjects underwent MBSR training and were primarily taught methods such as body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements, while the remaining 24 (the control group) were not. Those involved in the training were asked to attend in-class sessions for 2.5 hours every week and encouraged to use the meditative techniques they learned in their developing personal practice for 45 minutes daily. They were also asked to journal about their experience. Between the sixth and seventh class, the participants were invited to a silent retreat.

Meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

Both the trainees and the control group submitted to MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the eight-week training period. Among the MBSR-trained participants, the results indicated “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex," as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia." (Alexithymia is difficulty in experiencing and describing one’s emotions.) In short, meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

What does this mean for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners of meditation? According to Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, the findings are not only validating for beginners, they also speak to a larger inquiry.

“The findings suggest that even beginning-level meditation training can have potentially powerful neurological effects. And as the researchers involved in this experiment have taken a broad-minded approach in their examination of meditation, it also raises an intriguing question: What is the active ingredient that makes meditation meditation, the ingredient that is responsible for any changes observed in the study?”

According to the researchers themselves, the benefits of meditation may simply have been the result of the practitioners' increasing non-judgmental awareness of their moment-to-moment bodily sensations. In his 2012 interview with Omega, Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of MSBR training, came to a similar conclusion, emphasizing the transformative ability of the meditative process. “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways.”

As to the power of focused attention, author and teacher Sandra Anderson states that it gives us a key to our inner life and offers the potential for mastery over the mind (which is, of course, the goal of yoga). She likens a life lived on autopilot to doors within a mansion that are never opened. “To be able to find a way to see what's present in those unused rooms, and to be nonjudgmental about it, that's a huge part of what this gives you. To be able to do that means you're living [from] a bigger part of your psyche, and that expansiveness gives you a groundedness and a capacity to entertain things that you couldn't otherwise. Your mind is freer. Your responses are more spontaneous. And the world becomes much bigger because you now have more space, as well as the ability to understand the reality of situations and your responses to them.”

Anderson states that the study is validating and encouraging in a number of ways. For instance, because these practices have such subtle effects, their benefits aren’t always easily recognizable and so practitioners sometimes become discouraged, believing that meditation is a “waste of time.” This study demonstrates that an investment in meditation is indeed a powerful means to reclaiming mental health. “What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life," says Anderson. "And the fact that [meditation] also changes the way that your brain functions is hugely reassuring to people. It also validates the understanding that we have from the scriptures of the mind being habituated and falling into grooves. When you start practicing, you begin to catch your mind running in certain patterns, emotionally laden patterns perhaps, and you come to realize that they're not inevitable.”

“What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life."

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “Yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.” And while this study was not specifically tailored toward yogic meditation techniques, sitting meditation and mindful stretching movements are, without a doubt, central components of the yoga tradition. Yet perhaps what is most exciting about this and other neurological studies is that they suggest that these practices may cause an increase in emotional resilience and brain elasticity. They also indicate that there does seem to be a sort of “active ingredient” that ties practices of meditation and mindfulness together. As to what that is, whether it’s the process of attending or something far more mysterious, the suggestion seems to be that the healing effects of these practices are powerfully real.

Has your practice changed you? Please leave your comments below.

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn 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."

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