Meditation is one of the most popular forms of physical and mental relaxation. Some forms of meditation are based on religious beliefs, while others focus solely on breathing and relaxation. The meditative state involves a deep centering; a quieting of the mind, emotions and body. This state can be reached through a daily structured practice, or through an unstructured practice, such as walking alone in the woods.
One form of meditation, called “The Relaxation Response,” was developed by Herbert Benson, at Harvard Medical School, over thirty years ago. As a cardiologist, Benson regularly saw patients with high blood pressure. Then one day, he encountered practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM) who claimed they could lower their blood pressure by their daily meditative practice.
So Benson decided to conduct research to see if TM produced effects in the body that were measurable in the laboratory. From his research, he found “…that the repeated mantra replaced the arousing thoughts that otherwise keep us tense during most waking hours. Result: lower metabolic rate, slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and slower breathing.”
Benson then theorized that these observed changes in the body were not the result of a particular mantra but could be produced by using other words. He tested his theory by measuring the physiological responses of meditators using new words instead of the TM mantras. Benson found that it didn’t matter what words were used; different words produced the same positive changes in the body.
Here are Benson’s directions for evoking the relaxation response:
(1) Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
(2) Close your eyes.
(3) Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
(4) Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “ONE,” silently to yourself. Breathe easily and naturally.
(5) Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
(6) Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “ONE.” With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the relaxation response.
Mindfulness is a meditation technique which has been scientifically proven to reduce the symptoms of stress and improve the quality of life in persons suffering from a variety of physical and mental conditions.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, “Mindfulness is the foundation of happiness…Mindfulness is the practice of stopping and becoming aware of what we are thinking and doing. The more we are mindful of our thoughts, speech and actions, the more concentration we develop. With concentration, insight into the nature of our own suffering and the suffering of others arises. We then know what to do and what not to do in order to live joyfully and in peace with our surroundings.”
Here are Thich Nhat Hanhs’s directions for mindful breathing:
“To practice mindful breathing, just observe the natural rhythm of the breath. Please do so without forcing it to be longer, deeper, or slower. With attention and a little time, your breath with deepen naturally on its own. Occasionally, your mind will wander off. Our practice is simply to take note of this distraction and to bring our attention gently back to our breath. If you like, you may use the sentences listed here to help you in focusing your attention. During the duration of several in and out breaths, follow your breath from beginning to end. Use the keywords at the end of each pair of sentences to help you maintain your awareness:
1. Breathing in, I am aware only of my in breath. Breathing out, I am aware only of my out breath…In, Out
2. Breathing in, I am aware that my in breath grows deep. Breathing out, I am aware that my out breath grows deep…Deep, Deep
3. Breathing in, I am aware that my in breath goes slowly. Breathing out, I am aware that my out breath goes slowly…Slow, Slow
You can practice mindful breathing in any situation: while sitting, lying down, standing, driving, or working. Breathing consciously will bring more awareness and concentration to whatever you are doing.”
I hope that these techniques are helpful in reducing the harmful effects of stress. If this page has been useful, please send me an email me at: Mikki@fitnesstransform.com. This page is part of a “communicating peace” project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.