Meditation and Mindfulness: It’s not all monk-ey business!


02/08/2017 | 4 minutes

While the first instances of meditation can be traced back to Indian scriptures, and wall art discovered by archaeologists in the Indus Valley, meditation is no longer a practice that is purely reserved for dedicated Buddhists and glamorous temples.
    In this age of the iPhone, where everything is accessible by simply downloading an Application, meditation and mindfulness is no exception, and you can experience these things and all of their benefits from the comfort of your own home.
    If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably already been given a verbal list of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. These may have been listed while you were straining yourself into the down-ward-facing dog, or as you melted into the floor during child’s position; regardless, you probably enjoyed the information as nothing more than a soothing soundtrack to accompany yoga. But there is evidence! And while your yoga instructor may not have mentioned the multiple studies conducted by neuroscientists and Harvard graduates on the subject of meditation and mindfulness, believe me when I say there is some weight to her words.
    In 2015, neuroscientist Sara Lazar from Harvard Medical school conducted several studies on the subject of meditation and mindfulness. Lazar’s first study focused on the brains of long term meditators. Twenty people who had practiced meditation for around seven to nine years were chosen, and it was found that they had more gray matter in their insula and sensory regions than the average brain of someone their age. As gray matter serves to process information in the brain, and is related to things like memory, emotions, self-control, and speech, Lazar’s discovery shows that meditation can maintain the efficiency of these characteristics that are usually dampened with age.
    Meditation not only makes you feel good, but it can physically transform you. The frontal cortex, which deals with important cognitive skills, is known to shrink as we get older. Yet, those within Lazar’s first study were found to have ones which were just as thick as the average 25-year-olds, despite being twice the age.
    Still unconvinced? Lazar undertook a second study on meditation and mindfulness. This was a reaction to her first, and asked whether those included in study number one, simply had more gray matter in their brains to begin with. To test this theory, Lazar sent a focus group of 17 people, who had never meditated before, through an eight-week mindfulness-based, stress reduction program. The results showed thickening in four regions of the subjects’ brains: the posterior cingulate, the left hippocampus, the temporo parietal junction, and the brain stem called the Pons. These regions all contribute to things like focus, memory, emotional regulation, and other important abilities which can decrease in efficiency overtime. Lazar also noted an area which became recognisably smaller in these subjects. This was the amygdala, or the fight or flight part of the brain which deals with anxiety, fear, and stress.
    Lazar’s findings are promising as they not only show that meditation really does have benefits - and physical ones at that! - but they also show that you can experience these benefits after only eight weeks of practicing mindfulness and meditation. Even more exciting is that you don’t have to sign yourself up for an eight-week program to enter this new and untouched territory, meditation is now big business, and it is easily accessible.
    In 2015, the meditation and mindfulness industry was estimated to have earned nearly one billion according to research by IBISWorld. Scientific recognition of meditation and mindfulness benefits have encouraged its commercialisation, which has in turn transformed how it is used, and who it is used by.
    Meditation and mindfulness has become extremely accessible with the free iPhone Application, HeadSpace; allowing anyone, anywhere, to experience guided meditation. Head Space raised 30 million dollars last year and has been downloaded over six million times. It begins with a ten-day entrance into meditation and gives handy tips on how to practice as a beginner. I downloaded the app expecting to try it once and return to my usually regime of Body Balance at the gym once a week, but it is more convenient and easy than the word ‘meditation’ makes it out to be. The first few sessions range between three to five minutes and are directed at those who have never meditated before. So you don’t need to feel intimidated by your experience or your attention span if you want to try this.
    In this day and age, Google offers a mindfulness training program so that businesses and employees can experience the benefits of meditation. A headband which measures and monitors brain activity during meditation can be bought from a brand called Muse.
    Meditation and mindfulness is not all monk-ey business! It is researched, proven, and now free, and accessible. So what do you say? Are you ready to partake in some activities of meditation and mindfulness? Or does their accessibility through apps and iPhones have you shaking your head?
    Either way take up the challenge for a week. Try to relax your mind for three to five minutes a day, and if you get a little more time to yourself, tell us how it goes.


Avalon Adams