It’s been another stressful day, and your muscles are in knots. You take a deep breath, try to focus on nothing in particular, and let the relaxation set in. Somehow, the tension seems to drop away, your muscles are no longer as stiff as a board, and the world seems not quite as hostile.
We all instinctively feel that relaxation is good for us, and some of us go so far as to practice formal meditation techniques. However, what is the reality behind meditation? Does it have real health benefits, and what are they?
One of the key benefits you will see from meditation is a boost to your immune system. A recent study at Ohio State University found that regular relaxation exercises raised the level of natural killer cells in elderly patients, which in turn conferred an increased resistance to viruses and malignant tumors. Another study at the university found that muscle relaxation exercises had significant benefits for breast cancer survivors – the risk of the cancer returning was significantly reduced.
It also appears that women who are looking to conceive a child can benefit from relaxation. A study at the University of Western Australia found that when women are relaxed, rather than stressed, their fertility levels are higher. The effects are not limited to women – another study at a Turkish university showed that stress reduced the motility of sperm in men, as well as overall sperm counts. It should be noted that there are specific sexual meditation techniques that couples can practice, such as One Taste.
Relaxation techniques may also have a profound effect on the health of our hearts. There are two potential mechanisms through which meditation can do this. First of all, it has been shown that meditation makes the body less sensitive to stress hormones, which in turn lowers blood pressure – high blood pressure being a major predisposing factor for heart disease. Secondly, one potentially deadly effect of stress is chronic inflammation, which in turn can lead to heart disease. In fact, inflammation is implicated in a number of diseases, including arthritis and asthma. The linkage between meditation and reduced inflammation was clearly demonstrated by research at McGill University in Canada, which showed that regular meditation lessened the symptoms of psoriasis, another condition that is caused by inflammatory responses.
Aside from physical benefits, meditation can also bring a number of positive mental changes. It helps people to take a more dispassionate view of upsetting or unpleasant thoughts or events, helping them to keep these in proportion. As a result, people who practice meditation tend to remain calmer even when they are not meditating. Meditation may also help people to focus better and concentrate for longer periods of time. A study of university students in California who practiced Zen meditation found that they tended to score better on tests – in fact, it was a good predictor of who was likely to pass or fail class quizzes. The results were seen when students meditated for as little as six minutes prior to starting a class.