The Brain on Meditation
Disclaimer: The information shared in this post is incorporated from one of my favorite books, Healthy Brain, Happy Life as well as my research and training within the yoga community. All photos that are not mine are clickable links to journal articles if you are interested on reading more on those topics. Thank you for reading and enjoy!
Yoga, mindfulness, and mediation are all topics that I love to discuss and are well advertised in the media and society today - but the science and benefits behind these major topics are often overlooked. I've heard comments such as "Meditation can lead to a longer lifespan," or "Yoga and mindfulness can help the brain to heal." But how does this actually happen?
THE ELECTRIC BRAIN
The nervous system, which includes your brain, your spinal cord and all of the nerves that connect your body to your brain, is made up of electricity. The electricity within your nervous system flows effectively using chemicals that keep the brain alive and well. When the brain's chemical and electrical signals are dampened, it is noticeable in daily life and cognition.
What is cognition? Throughout my posts, I've noticed that I used the word "cognition" often, but never explained what that was. Cognition is the process of our mental state acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the world around us. This will be an important word moving forward while we dive into meditation.
THE BRAIN ON MEDITATION
Throughout our day-to-day life, many chemical changes are occurring within the brain. These chemicals are affected by lifestyle choices, predisposition, and environmental factors. At some point in each of our lives, these chemicals have been unbalanced and have had a wide range of effects on our lives. The crazy part is: we have a tactic to balance our emotions and imbalances that date back to the 15th century.
Quick History Lesson
Meditation first made an appearance in history sometime around 1500 BCE in the traditions of ancient India and was mainly used for religious purposes. Other forms and branches of meditation transformed from Taoist and Buddhist transitions shortly afterwards. Today, many use meditation to improve cognition, increase memory capacity, and for calming and relaxing the mind and body - even without the religious or spiritual aspect.
Meditation in the Modern World
Have you ever had what felt like the longest day of your life and once you're in bed you cannot fall asleep? Or you have an important interview or meeting and your heart will not stop racing? Or you have exams all day and decide to lie down for 20 minutes just to take a short nap to release some heat from your brain but your brain will not stop racing, (okay this may just be me and college was #hard). The point is - meditation during these moments can be vital to your health. I learned way too late in college that meditation in difficult times or stressful times was the best way to process stress and decide how to take action. I also learned that my meditation practice was important in daily life to help me start fresh and feel connected to myself and thoughts.
The Wavy Brain
The electricity in the brain works like electricity in houses - it depends on current and frequency. Without going deep into the physics behind it, the brain functions on different frequencies during particular times of the day for varying activities. What is frequency? Frequency is the change of current in the brain - or let's just say - different levels of measurements that show how hard our brain is working at any given time.
In my last post, I explained electroencephalograms (EEG) and how they record brain activity. Below is an EEG that explains the different types of frequencies in the brain, and what the brain is doing during these frequencies. Gamma waves are the highest frequency within our brain and delta waves are the lowest frequency.
Phew! Now that we have gotten through that, I want to tell you about why this is so important for meditation. Above you see that when we meditate, our brains are in a state of alpha wave frequency - we are calm and relaxed. Many researchers have devoted their career to studying how our brain reflects meditation and there is some astonishing data on it! One study asked participants who had never meditated before to meditate while their brain activity was being recorded. This studied showed that those who felt uncomfortable or like nothing was happening while they were meditating still showed heightened brain activity. This study alone changed my life because I could relate to that feeling, but it is amazing to know that the brain is actually changing during meditation.
My favorite study on meditation compared monks, who meditate for hours a day for years of their lives, to beginner meditators. Both groups' EEGs were taken while participants were not meditating and were awake and alert. The results revealed that monks brains have higher gamma waves present than the beginners. As a matter of fact, the monks brains showed the highest level of gamma waves that has ever been seen in normal humans without pathological conditions. This may be confusing because the chart above states that during gamma wave frequency, our brain is hyperactive; however, it also expresses that this phase is great for learning. For the monks, gamma activity is like a workout for their brain and suggests that this level of higher thinking is the reason behind monks' higher levels of mindfulness, awareness, and peacefulness. It also may seem counterintuitive to meditate if the brain becomes hyperactive - why does this calm you down when it seems like it should give you anxiety? A workout for the brain actually increases the volume of the brain, (this is good - the more volume there is in the brain, the more neurons are at work).
TYPES OF MEDITATION
When I first started to regularly practice meditation, I did not understand how I was supposed to sit somewhere, close my eyes, and somehow be in another dimension. Below are tips and helpful ways to introduce yourself to meditation.
Meditation on Mantras
Many yogis and meditators focus on one mantra, (a hymm or statement repeated throughout their meditation). A powerful and popular mantra is AH Meditation. "AH" is a sound that is presented in spiritual words, for example: namaste ⇨ nam(AH)ste, God ⇨ G(AH)d, Allah ⇨ All(AH), Buddah ⇨ Budd(AH), Om Shanti ⇨ Om ShAHnti (which translates to sweet peace). But this does not have to be a religious experience - Ah is meant to focus attention inward and is meant to bring out inner joy.
A breath meditation is exactly what it sounds like - closing the eyes and focusing on your breath for a certain amount of time.
Loving and Kindness Meditation
This type of meditation takes the mind and focuses it on love and kindness. The belief is that you must love yourself before you may love others. Many spend time meditating on their love and thankfulness for oneself and moves outwards towards others.
Letting Your Mind Go
There is a trend in the previous types of meditation - something to focus on. In a way, focusing on one thing helps us to be present in the moment and mindful of our meditation practice. Distractions are very real in meditation, and this is the hardest type of this practice. It takes a skilled meditator to be able to close their eyes and sit for a long duration of time and let their mind take them without being distracted by the outside world. This is possible and an amazing type of meditation - it just takes practice.
SO HOW DO YOU MEDITATE?
How Long Should I Meditate?
It takes a lot of practice to be able to stay in meditation for long durations of time and each meditation period is different for every person. I suggest starting at five or ten minutes and build on after that.
This is a fantastic question that I once had myself. I felt weird sitting on the beach or in the mountains with my legs crossed and eyes closed - trust me I get it. Do what feels comfortable and normal in your body! If this is laying down on your back, sitting up tall on your sit bones, or even sitting in a chair.
Prepping a Space
I recommend setting up an area for yourself to begin your meditation journey, even if this means a few drops of essential oils on a yoga mat on your bedroom floor, (more detail on essential oils to come next week). For some, it can be your back patio, your room or even your bed. This could mean dim lighting, bright lightning, hot or cold temperatures. You can sit outside in nature with birds chirping, inside in complete silence, or using meditation music or nature sounds, (Spotify has amazing playlists). Allow yourself time to adjust to whatever feels right for you.
I have challenged you in past posts to be mindful and given tips on ways to change and grow your brain. This week, I want to challenge you to take a step back and allow your brain to rest and meditate. Meditation is unique and different for every single person, so I urge you to find balance and space in your life to take this journey and to let your brain release some heat. With this, I hope your life is full of peace and tranquility.
NAMASTE, READERS! LIKE, SHARE & SUBSCRIBE! SEE YOU NEXT MONDAY!