Stress is an unavoidable aspect of student life. Studying, deadlines, financial concerns, and final grade results all can contribute to higher stress levels. At a subtle level, stress is a motivator creating a sense of urgency and a desire to accomplish goals. At extreme levels, stress becomes chronic. This type of stress can lead to headaches, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, heart disease, and possibly premature death. All of these stress problems seem to indicate a mind-body connection, which makes meditation all the more interesting to consider. The practice of meditation is thousands of years old, originating from East India.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is the main component of yoga – a practice popularized in the West by its physical aspect of poses. In the ancient Sanskrit language, the word yoga means ‘to yoke’ or bond – a reference to the unification of body, mind, and energy which is the ultimate goal of yoga practice.
Meditation is a part of this process since breathing has physiological effects, and how one breathes is fundamental in meditation. The breath is drawn out and slowed down intentionally, affecting the heart rate, which, in turn, affects the brain. Among other things, meditation has been shown to affect the sympathetic nervous system that controls the aforementioned functions.
Meditation Gaining Attention
Despite the ancient, eastern origins of meditation, the western world is now paying very close attention. A recent article from Harvard Women’s Health Watch points out that a “research review published in JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2014 found meditation helpful for relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. For depression, meditation was about as effective as an antidepressant.” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014)
The well-known magazine publication Scientific American created internet shockwaves when its November 2014 issue featured meditation on the cover along with the cover story written by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and neuroscientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson. In other recent research on meditation, scientists from Harvard University and the University of Sienna conducted an experiment with 24 participants having no prior meditation experience. During eight weeks of weekly two and a half hour meditation sessions, comparison results showed “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex of the meditation group.” (Saccaro, M. 2014) In turn, this increase gave participants “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression and alexithymia.” (Saccaro, M. 2014)
Types of Meditation
Because of the ancient, eastern origins of meditation, a common misconception is that all meditation has religious overtones. Undoubtedly, meditation is widely practiced in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen, but many modern day meditation techniques are practical and secular. The most common of these modern practices is called mindfulness meditation, which involves observing thoughts objectively while seated comfortably with an upright spine, focusing on the breath.
Another meditation practice that peaked in popularity during the 1970s is transcendental meditation, which utilizes mantras – words, phrases, or sounds – combined with breathing to calm the mind by focusing on the mantra.
Concentration meditation is also based on this principle, using outside objects such as candle flames, mandalas, and other images. In the religious world, the Dalai Lama – famous Tibetan exile and Buddhist spiritual leader- is perhaps the greatest proponent of meditation and its benefits in our modern age.
What You Can Do
Like many other things in life, there is no one way to meditate correctly, and Ashford students are all unique individuals with various stress levels. Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, says, “Religious and spiritual clubs on campus are sources of solace, support, and solidarity that help students navigate through their undergraduate years,” (Blumberg, A. 2014) Most yoga studios offer non-physical meditation classes of some sort. The website meetup.com also lists many meditation groups and events, some of them free of charge. The community bulletin-board at your local health food store will likely include flyers for meditation groups and events. For beginning meditators, even 5 to 10 minutes of stillness every day can have tangible benefits.
Stephen Moore is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English Language Learner Studies with the long term goal of becoming an English teacher and/or ESL Specialist. Stephen completed an online Nutritional Consultant Certification through ANMCAB and is currently a yoga instructor.
A version of this article first appeared in the Health Promotion Quarterly.