There are many types of meditation experiences out there, from the popular mindfulness exercises to the more spiritual transcendental, but the subtle differences between them can alter your perception of reality. Some will physically alter the density of brain matter while others can enhance the neural connections between hemispheres. It’s not a case of one size fits all, but more like a smorgasbord of neural workouts.
While there are common factors running through each of the various disciplines, such as paying attention to breathing, mantras or having an intention, some strengthen brain regions while others help to mute our more obsessive tendencies. Rather than sticking a pin into a list of courses and hoping for the best, it behoves you to research the different types of practice so that you can tailor your experiences to your specific needs.
There are two broad categories of meditation which can be sub-divided further; calming practices and developing insight. To achieve calmness, the practitioner might focus on an object, the breath, a visualisation or a physical sensation in order to lessen distractions. Those seeking insight style meditation are people who have an intention to develop qualities such as compassion and empathy. Some forms of meditation combine both in their approach.
Types of Practice.
This is the populist practice also known as Mindfulness. It encourages the practitioner to focus on the present moment, feeling or sensation to promote calmness. In doing so, it helps to prevent feelings of aggression and frustration from taking over. Rather than allowing oneself to become agitated over delays or obstacles, the meditator alters their perception of reality by ignoring the factors which exacerbate stress and favours those which ease tension. This type of meditation is said to improve memory and attention, reduce fixation on the negative aspects of life and lessen impulsive reactions.
This involves the cultivation of love and kindness towards everyone and everything while looking for positives in antagonistic relationships and stressors. Sometimes mantras are used to reinforce kindness sentiments and train the brain into feelings of compassion for oneself and others. It is supposed to be a particularly useful tool in overcoming anger, depression and low self-worth. I suppose this is the epitome of fake it until you make it.
Body Scan Relaxation
While meditating, practitioners of this method analyse each part of their bodies looking for areas of tension or pain. Once identified, visualisation techniques help to release the knots and stresses until calmness and relaxation are achieved. This simple but effective practice is useful to promote healthy sleep patterns and reduce chronic stress.
This approach takes full concentration and practice. The concept involves focusing entirely on slow, rhythmic breathing until all other thoughts are pushed from the mind. As tough as this sounds, the effects of mastering this technique are supposed to include reduced anxiety, improved concentration, and greater emotional resilience.
Active Yoga Meditation or Kundalini.
As the name suggests, this form combines yoga poses and movements, mantras and breathing, balancing core strength with a positive mental attitude. The benefits of yoga are widely known and can include the reduction of pain.
This is a part of the Buddhist teachings which involves particular postures, breathing exercises and observation of the thoughts passing through the mind without judgment. In some respects, it’s similar to mindful meditation but it requires greater focus and practice.
The pinnacle of spiritual practice, this one requires a qualified teacher for one on one coaching and a deep commitment to achieve. It involves sitting in a comfortable posture and twice-daily meditation sessions.
One of the ancient traditions involving intense contemplation of your own existence with the view to discovering the true nature of reality. Practitioners are encouraged to think about key areas of the human condition, such as suffering, dissatisfaction, impermanence, non-self, and emptiness.
This method assumes that the practitioner has belief in body chakras or centres of energy which can become blocked or imbalanced resulting in physical discomfort. The meditation practiced is supposed to allow the body to achieve balance, thus alleviating symptoms.
Another of the ancient practices from China involving energy flowing through meridians. In a similar way to the Chakra practices, practitioners aim for balance and healing.
The science behind the techniques.
The ReSource Project, at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, studied the effects of three different meditation techniques on the brains and bodies of 300 volunteers for 9 months.
The first technique was based on the popular ‘mindfulness’ approach, where people were taught to concentrate their attention on the breath or body. The second technique taught was based on the Metta Meditation principles, where the volunteers were encouraged to project thoughts of kindness followed by the sharing of problems without judgement to another individual. The final method chosen for the study asked the volunteers to contemplate issues from another point of view sometimes in partnered sessions and sometimes during solo meditation. After each course, the volunteers were tested in MRI scanners and compared to a control group.
The findings were quite remarkable. The brain regions responsible for attention, control and higher intelligence grew thicker in the mindfulness meditators, while the region related to emotional response and empathy increased following compassion meditation. The last method also showed a correlation between brain areas involved in social-cognitive skills and increased brain matter density.
Oxford University neuroscientist, Roi Cohen Kadosh thinks these findings deserve serious consideration. It suggests that we can shape our responses and reactions to emotive events by applying a tailored approach to brain training. Meditation could provide the vehicle by which targeted regions of the brain are enhanced and cultivated.
Just as diverse physiotherapy exercises can improve joint and ligament mobility, different meditation exercises can strengthen the connections and regulatory responses of neurotransmitters, stress hormones, circadian rhythms and our general outlook on life.
What is most exciting is the possibility that in the near future, doctors and specialists might prescribe a course of mental exercises to cure our conditions in place of the pharmaceutical alternatives.
This scientific justification has taken what was traditionally viewed as the domains of faith and made it accessible to all of society. The best part is that there are few downsides to practicing meditation and it is freely available to everyone who wishes to improve their mental health and resilience.
Just knowing that the different meditation methods affect a range of brain regions should be enough to choose which method would best serve your health, but it also involves a degree of honest reflection. If you cannot identify your weaknesses, you are unlikely to choose a technique that could enhance the corresponding brain region.
For example, do you find yourself bottling up fury over work issues that you can’t change? Do you struggle to calm busy thoughts especially at night when trying to sleep? Do you feel desolate and lonely even in crowded situations? Do your shoulder muscles stay tensed and tender even when you think you are relaxed?
By asking yourself those difficult questions, you are already on the path to improvement. If your first choice of meditation fails to soothe frayed tempers and nerves, you can always try out another. What is clear though is that long-term meditators of any of the methods score highly on all aspects of brain health compared to non-practitioners. Is it time to jump on the mindfulness bandwagon? It certainly could do no harm.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?