Meditation is a state of presence, an awareness of our current life experience. The formal practice of meditation is simply the practice of being self aware, which then helps us to gradually become self aware in our everyday life regardless of where we are and what we're doing.
There are many different meditation practices but they usually involve bringing attention to our breathing. When we consciously engage with our breathing we experience an immediate shift in bio-chemistry. Heart rate slows, the nervous system calms down, blood circulation improves and an optimal level of oxygen flows to the brain.
The practice of meditation therefore allows us to become aware of our thoughts, emotions and physical states while remaining calm and relaxed. Anyone can meditate and many of the benefits of this ancient practice are now acknowledged by medical research.
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first scientific evidence that meditation can alter and enlarge the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators developed increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing of sensory input. In a striking part of the research it has been noted that in one area of gray matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. Typically those sections of the human cortex (the centre of thought) would get thinner as we age:
“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”
In a study presented in the Jan. 30th 2011 issue of 'Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging', a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) reported the results of the first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter:
"The analysis of MRI data, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress."
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