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How does meditation work?

The impact of meditation on wellness and health outcomes
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GEORGIA KELLY/THE VARSITY
GEORGIA KELLY/THE VARSITY

Meditation, sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social connectedness are just a few of the practices that can help people achieve and maintain optimal physical and mental wellness. Meditation is increasingly being recognized as a practice to maintain well-being due to the growing research surrounding meditation, its prevalence in popular psychology, and the relative convenience of practicing meditation compared to other fitness activities.

The term ‘mindfulness’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘meditation,’ but mindfulness is, in fact, a form of meditation. Meditation more broadly consists of setting aside time to do something that is good for you. This can include exercising meditation, where you set aside time to engage in physical activity to clear your mind, or mindfulness meditation, which involves intentionally paying attention to whatever is happening in the moment without passing judgment on your thoughts or feelings.

How does meditation work?

Meditation is a popular practice commonly associated with improving calmness and physical relaxation. There are many different types of meditation, some of which have been practiced for thousands of years. These different forms include guided meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and tai chi. 

While each of these different forms of meditation involve different processes, there are a few common elements across all of them, including focused attention, attitude, breathing, setting, and position. 

Maintaining your attention during meditation involves clearing your mind of distractions and focusing on being present. Having an open attitude requires you to let your thoughts flow freely in your mind without passing judgement. Relaxed breathing involves slowly taking deep and even breaths. This allows more oxygen to be taken in, which can reduce muscle tension and help you breathe more efficiently. 

A quiet setting with limited distractions will also help you focus on your meditation in the present moment. Finally, finding a comfortable position to practice meditation is important. Whether you’re sitting down, standing up, or walking, a comfortable position can help you practice your breathing and focus your attention.

The efficacy of meditation

Several research studies have found that meditation is effective for improving health conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. However, the overall research on meditation and its efficacy for improving health outcomes has come to conflicting conclusions. While some studies suggest meditation may be effective for improving certain health conditions, some of them are compromised because they don’t use a consistent definition of meditation or using a poor study design. 

A 2015 review found that only nine per cent of research into mindfulness meditation interventions have been tested using clinical trials that included a control group. Ultimately, while there are studies that support the benefits of meditation for some health conditions, other researchers suggest that there is not enough evidence to draw definitive conclusions on the benefits of meditation.

Nevertheless, even if there is a lack of conclusive evidence to support the effects of meditation on specific health conditions, it can still be useful for relaxing and clearing the mind.

Practicing meditation

As a busy university student, it may appear difficult for you to practice meditation, but it does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. There are many different types of meditation, and the principles of meditation can be applied in many different settings at any time. This means that you can practice meditation in a way that works for you, regardless of location or time.

One way to practice meditation is by doing it as you walk. If you’re walking to a lecture or meeting, use a portion of the path to your destination as an opportunity to practice a structured meditation exercise. Start walking slowly and focus on being aware of your thoughts in the moment and the sensations of standing and walking. A key aspect to this exercise is being present in the moment, which involves keeping an open mind and being accepting of the experiences around you in that moment.

Breathing exercises are also great to practice. If you ever feel consumed by recurring negative thoughts, try to close your eyes and take deep breaths while paying special attention to your breathing and your body in the present moment. Have a couple of minutes before your next lecture? Whether it is virtual or in person, take at least a minute to close your eyes, take deep breaths, and focus on your breathing.

The next time you are walking to class or are waiting for your next virtual meeting to begin, try practicing some meditation in a way that works for you and focus on your thoughts, feelings, and movements in the moment.