Western medical scientific research is finding ways to prove that meditation results in physiological changes. Beyond smoothing the never-ending waves of emotion and reaction, it actually, physically, changes the structure of your brain.
A Harvard University study conducted a few years ago, demonstrated that as little as 27 minutes of meditation per day changed the physical structure of the brain in just eight weeks. Participants in the study group who practiced meditation had an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and compassion, and a decrease in gray matter in areas associated with anxiety and stress. None of these changes were present in the control group.
While other studies have been able to replicate these results, some have also shown that different styles of meditation may affect the body in different ways. In one study, the brain activity of participants practicing either Vajrayana or Theravada meditation was measured. The two types of Theravada meditation, Shamatha and Vipassana, resulted in increased relaxation, seen through an increase in parasympathetic nervous system responses. Those practicing one of the two types of Vajrayana meditation, visualization and Rig-pa, showed increased arousal, seen through increased sympathetic nervous system activity.
Additional studies have shown that brain tissues may not only be the structures affected. A study of breast cancer survivors showed an increase in telomere length after participating in a weekly meditation program for 12 weeks. Telomeres are proteins at the ends of chromosomes that control how quickly a cell ages. They shrink over time, and when they are gone the chromosome begins to break down. While researchers are still unsure what impact telomere length has on overall health, research on slowing cellular aging through meditation can’t be far off.
For those that are already incorporating regular meditative and mindfulness practices into their lives, proving it “works” on a cellular level may seem a bit beyond the point. However, increased acceptance of these techniques in the western medical community could lead to more widespread implementation and opportunities for beginners to find and connect with these teachings.