Meditation, the art of tuning the mind out of normal, conscious thought and into a relaxed state of awareness, is becoming increasingly popular in Western culture, and it’s about time. Meditation has been an integral part of Eastern life and religion for centuries. Health professionals report that people who make meditation a regular part of their lives experience a wide range of neurological, emotional, cardiovascular and immune system benefits. Specific types of meditation have also been identified as being particularly healthful for pregnant women.
What is Meditation?
While there are many different types and methods of meditation, the main goal of all meditation practices is to help individuals find calmness and peace within themselves. This is achieved by gradually disciplining the mind to focus solely on only one thought, object, or “point” to the exclusion of everything else. The focal point can be a phrase, a prayer, or even listening to the sound of your breathing. The purpose is to quiet the mind and learn to block out all other distractions.
Studies have consistently shown that people who practice meditation regularly enjoy a number of neurological benefits. These include an increased ability to concentrate, a decreased risk of depression, higher levels of self-confidence and a significant decrease in anxiety and feelings of stress. Meditation is linked to an increased production of the mood and behavior-influencing hormone serotonin, as well as a shift in brain activity to the left frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for feelings of calmness and happiness. Together, these neurological changes are thought to cause many of the benefits of meditation.
Experienced meditators have a slower heart rate, a lower rate of oxygen consumption, and a lower respiratory rate than non-meditators. In addition, meditation is effective in controlling high blood pressure and is thought to aid in lowering blood cholesterol levels. Scientists are not certain about all of the mechanisms that meditation causes to occur in the cardiovascular system, however one theory suggests that meditation switches the body from the active, sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed, parasympathetic nervous system and that this switch is responsible for the benefits.
Immune System Benefits
Meditation increases the effectiveness of the body’s immune system cells and helps protect against diseases such as arthritis and allergies. The ability of the immune system to function effectively is helped, in large part, by meditation’s ability to significantly decrease the amount of stress, anxiety and unhappiness that a person feels. The immune system of an anxiety-ridden person does not function as well as the immune system of a relaxed and calm person.
Benefits During Pregnancy
For most women, pregnancy is a time filled with intense emotions, stress and a need to be as healthy as possible. Beginning meditation during pregnancy is an excellent choice, and mantra japa meditation (a type of meditation in which a spoken chant, word, or phrase is repeated over and over in order to help clear the mind) is thought to be especially useful in helping pregnant women and young mothers deal with their new responsibilities and anxieties.