Recommendation: This is both the easiest and hardest of any recommendation I’ve developed. It’s difficult because there isn’t any single accepted medical definition which defines the state of effective meditation, but since there is so much data–clinical, observational, and obviously testimonial–to support a recommendation for meditation, some form of it clearly has a place in maintenance of health. So, I recommend meditation–at least either 15 minutes per day or 2.5 hours weekly (as with the “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program)1. Specifically, a short daily routine should include sitting or lying down while focusing on relaxed, controlled breathing and sustaining a calm, but freely wandering mind.
Find your ‘minimum effective dose’
Before getting into the details, it might help to examine meditation from a different perspective. Meditation is supposed to result in reduced stress, better emotional control, and a healthier mindset in general. But I would argue that these can be achieved by other behaviors–perhaps even more efficiently. For example, when I attended a 90-minute yoga class as part of research for this article, I meditated in a small room with only 4 people for the last 30 minutes. Needless to say, I felt great. However, I feel the same sense of mental clarity after writing in a journal, even though I’m distracted in a coffee shop. After the 90 minute session, which included a breathing exercise, I got about the same feeling of wellness as I do from a moderate 30-minute jog. I felt no better than I do after a 20 minute nap–immediately or later that evening. Finally, as I meditated and ‘became aware of my surroundings and inner thoughts’ I can’t say I gained nearly as much insight as 20 minutes of simple silent reflection while relaxing on the couch. I would even say what’s more important than any benefit from meditation is to identify a priority–to really reflect on what’s important to us and align our activities toward meeting that goal. My point is that the yoga class may be good for health, but it didn’t make me more effective than these alternatives would, and therefore wouldn’t create as much of a lasting reduction of stress. Actually, I got a sense that there is an attraction to the idea of meditation that increases the perception of its value. This was my first session, so maybe I need to give it a few more chances to win me over, but from an efficiency standpoint I’m not convinced it’s the most effective investment of time. (Of course, honestly we might not be using all our time effectively, anyway, so it could be a reasonable addition to our daily routine.)
What is meditation?
To fully cover the concept of meditation would require several articles and the research (good and bad) of its health benefits would fill at least one hefty book. Much of this is because ‘meditation’ is rarely considered alone. It’s more often studied in combination with other practices. It’s just as difficult to extrapolate from the available research that the proposed long-term benefits are directly caused by meditation. Even harder to prove would be the theory that a certain benefit comes once you’ve meditated for a certain length of time. (Based on the data, that point seems to fall roughly between 6 months and 30 years–roughly–with about 50% confidence). I soon learned the vast array of behaviors which qualify as meditation; I couldn’t get far without running into meditation as part of a yoga routine, as these two seem to be inseparable to many habitual meditators. At least, the research around meditation often views it as part of a routine of practices associated with the 8 limbs of yoga.
Outside the scope of this article is the spiritual side of meditation (a foundation of Yoga), and it could definitely be argued to be one of the major benefits. But put simply, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind”2 While we may not be interested in joining a yoga class, we all have a mind which can be controlled. For this reason, I feel like health benefits can be achieved along the whole spectrum–from casual to structured “meditation”–which I’ll consider to be mental focus combined with controlled breathing.
I liked this description from one study:
“Many meditation practices place emphasis on experiencing the present moment. To counteract the natural tendency of the human mind to think about the past or future, skill in concentration is developed to allow the practitioner to focus primarily on immediate conscious phenomena. The inevitable wandering of the mind is acknowledged when it is noted to occur and attention is then directed back to where it is intended to be. This process occurs time and again and serves to strengthen concentration and ultimately the connection with the present moment. In more intense practices3, the mental state of “thoughtless awareness” with a deep sense of physical and mental calm and enhanced pure awareness may result.4
Current medical research and known physiology
The benefits of controlled breathing are often measured while watching activities of the voluntary (sympathetic) and involuntary (parasympathetic) systems. Heart rate variability (HRV), even during six 10-second breathing cycles (1 minute), is “among the simplest to record and most sensitive” indicators of this activity.5 Therefore, I’ll focus here on research that explicitly measures HRV and describes the specific behaviors subjects did under the label of “meditation”. This will give us at least a few practical ideas to achieve these benefits, which have been shown to exist.
In the last few decades, a large amount of research has been focused on the cardiovascular benefits of meditation. Imbalance of the “autonomic nervous system” is involved in poor heart health and is the system that appears to benefit most from these practices. Healthy individuals have been shown over and over to enjoy measureable benefits from various practices, even without long-term participation. In a 2011 study, just 15 days of 2 hours/day spent on breathing exercises, meditation, and prayer led to significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and mean arterial blood pressure in 50 people (average age: 38).6 This reinforced earlier results in a 2002 study among 5-year yoga participants in the 40+ age group.7 Though health can improve in the short-term, there is evidence that benefits are greater the longer you practice meditation. In 2012, a group of 100 meditators (27 “short term meditators” and 73 “long term meditators”) were examined 15 and 30 minutes after performing yoga. “Long term meditators” (over 5 years) enjoyed added benefits to cardiorespiratory function as compared with meditators of 5 or fewer years.8 A different study referenced research showing a significant neurological benefit from at least 10 years of daily meditation, which expands the probable benefits from this practice beyond circulatory health.
In fact, a lot of current research is being done in this regard, focusing on increasing brain power via meditation. Since 2005, we’ve seen increased brain thickness (cortical plasticity)91011, preservation of gray matter with ageing (in a region associated with attention)12, higher regional gray matter density (in all groups: short-term, emotion-based, Zen/Yoga meditators, etc.)13141516, healthier signaling pathways 1718, denser gray matter in the brain stem 19, and enhancing brain-wave activity as meditators progress over time20
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s enough to convince me–and all the published authors of these studies–to conclude that making a long-term effort to meditate is one of the rare risk-free ways to improve health and wellness. If your goal is to reduce stress, I still recommend identifying a priority first by simply spending time thinking about what’s important to you. But if you’re trying to lower blood pressure or stay sharp as you age, or if you’re just the type that enjoys this kind of thing, it’s certainly a healthy way to spend a few hours each week.