A Shamatha meditation study done in Colorado, written up in the UK newspaper the Guardian, suggests that meditation techniques can protect chromosomes from degenerating. The article cites many possible benefits of a regular meditation practice and the “jaw-dropping advances in the last decade or two” in the brain-body research.
Long-term retreats, such as the one in the study, are not feasible for most. However, short “bursts” of meditation during the day can be very effective as well. For mini-meditations that can be done throughout the day, the breathing meditation practices of pranayama are available as free downloads at Mahasri Yoga.
Here are some salient points extracted word-for-word from the article, though this article is highly recommended to get the full context.
* One result in particular has potentially stunning implications: that by protecting caps called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help to delay the process of ageing.
* Reported physical effects (of meditation) include lowering blood pressure, helping psoriasis to heal, and boosting the immune response in vaccine recipients and cancer patients. In a pilot study in 2008, Willem Kuyken, head of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed that mindfulness meditation was more effective than drug treatment in preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression. And in 2009, David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that it slowed disease progression in patients with HIV.
* So how could focusing on your thoughts have such impressive physical effects? The assumption that meditation simply induces a state of relaxation is “dead wrong”, says (Charles) Raison (Emory University in Atlanta). Brain-imaging studies suggest that it triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and cognitive processing.
* The question of how the immaterial mind affects the material body remains a thorny philosophical problem, but on a practical level, “our understanding of the brain-body dialogue has made jaw-dropping advances in the last decade or two,” says Raison. One of the most dramatic links between the mind and health is the physiological pathways that have evolved to respond to stress, and these can explain much about how meditation works.
* Meditation seems to be effective in changing the way that we respond to external events. After short courses of mindfulness meditation, people produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, and mount a smaller inflammatory response to stress. One study linked meditators’ lower stress to changes in the amygdala – a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.
* For those of us who don’t have time for retreats, (Elissa) Epel (University of California, San Francisco) suggests “mini-meditations” – focusing on breathing or being aware of our surroundings – at regular points throughout the day. And though meditation seems to be a particularly effective route to reducing stress and protecting telomeres, it’s not the only one. “Lots of people have no interest in meditation, and that’s fine,” says Creswell. Exercise has been shown to buffer the effects of stress on telomeres, for example, while stress management programmes and writing emotional diaries can help to delay the progression of HIV.
* For a scientific conclusion it sounds scarily spiritual. But researchers warn that in our modern, work-obsessed society we are increasingly living on autopilot, reacting blindly to tweets and emails instead of taking the time to think about what really matters. If we don’t give our minds a break from that treadmill, the physical effects can be scarily real.