Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
As Americans, we spend a lot of energy caring for our hearts. We research heart-healthy diets, schedule cardio classes, take aspirin, and buy blood pressure monitors. Pharmacies across the nation have entire walls dedicated to heart medications. And not surprisingly-cardiovascular disease is a top killer in this country.
But new data suggests that one of the keys to life-long cardiovascular health doesn’t come from outside, but inside. Specifically, research is showing that a simple meditation practice can be profoundly beneficial for our hearts on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
The Results Are In
In recent years, breakthrough clinical studies have demonstrated meditation’s powerful effects on brain structure and function. Regular meditation-even just 5-10 minutes per day-improves areas related to concentration, memory, decision-making, and emotional stability. Of course, the association between a healthy brain and a healthy heart isn’t new, but we may have underestimated the power of that relationship.
For example, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that a positive outlook can keep heart disease at bay. It didn’t matter whether participants were old or young, rich or poor-happy thoughts proved to be good for the heart.
Another study, conducted in India, examined the health benefits of meditation and yoga. Participants who adopted these practices for 15 days experienced significantly lower resting pulse and blood pressure. This data is especially significant because the window was so brief. The benefits were almost instantaneous.
Other research, conducted at the Georgia Health Sciences University, showed that teens who practiced regular meditation were able to reduce their hearts’ left ventricle thickness, which can increase from high blood pressure.
The research also indicates one of the prime reasons for these benefits: when we calm the mind, everything else in the body relaxes, including the autonomic nervous system. As a result, fewer stress hormones are produced, heart rate slows, and blood pressure goes down.
In addition to benefiting cardiovascular health, recent clinical data shows that meditation reduces stress and associated high cortisol levels, boosts emotional health, strengthens immunity, protects neurons, and even benefits DNA.
Ancient Keys to Healing
One of the simplest ways to calm the mind and body is an ancient form of meditation called Shamatha, which means “calm abiding.” In Shamatha, you focus your breathing and attention on a single object, such as a small pebble. As you place your attention on both the object and your breathing, you learn to let go of your surface distractions and neurotic patterns.
As the saying goes, “The mind is like a blind rider on a wild horse.” Too often, many of us have no control, and don’t know where our thoughts are leading next. We are literally held captive by our everyday mental processes. Shamatha helps peel away these layers of distractions. As you relax, you begin to experience peace, clarity, and healing.
To begin, find a quiet space. Sit comfortably. Place a small object in front of you, and focus on the object and your breathing. It won’t be easy at first. Your busy mind will likely distract you with to-do lists and other chatter. This is a natural part of the process. Gently bring your focus back to your breathing and the object. As you nurture this inner calm, it will become easier to access over time.
Retreats are an excellent way to begin a meditation practice. Personalized instruction and group support make it easier to let go of stressors. But even more important, developing the practice in a healing environment can help you incorporate meditation into your regular routine.
Often, people undergo visible transformations in just a few days. For some, results can be as simple as improved sleep. Others, who have struggled with chronic pain, describe the simple joy of being able to sit comfortably. Still others report reduced blood pressure, improved emotional health, and enhanced well-being. Those suffering from cancer and other forms of chronic illness can also often derive great benefits from meditation. Meditation can work for everyone-once you feel the benefits, it becomes an important part of your life.
In addition to supporting heart health, meditation provides numerous other benefits, including:
- Enhancing immunity
- Alleviating depression and anxiety
- Boosting cognitive function
- Reducing pain
- Fighting cancer
- Controlling inflammation
It isn’t always easy to adopt a regular meditation practice. One great way to start is by attending a retreat for inspiration, guidance, and support. As a life-long practitioner of meditation, I’ve had the opportunity to study with renowned teachers, and I’m passionate about sharing my experiences to support others on their paths. I offer weekend retreats in Santa Rosa, Calif. that are open to everyone, incorporating guided meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, energy medicine, and insights from Tibetan and Chinese healing systems. Buoyed by personal guidance and group support, participants are free to uncover their natural inner peace in a deeply healing environment. It’s a transformational process that extends well beyond the retreat. These practices can infuse us with a lifetime of healing. -Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc
For more information, visit dreliaz.org.