Meditation: it really works


You don't have to sit cross-legged or close your eyes. All you need is an open mind and a few minutes each day to meditate, writes Amy Molloy.

For many people, meditation falls into the same category as cycling, drinking more water and exfoliating. We suspect we should be doing it; we have friends who swear by it, but who has the time? And will it really make you feel better? The answer is yes: there's even cold, hard science to prove the benefits.

A 2012 study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found regular meditation cut the risk of heart attack and stroke by 48 per cent.

In a series of studies, Professor Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School also found meditation could help lower blood pressure by making the body less responsive to stress hormones. He also showed it could reduce symptoms of PMS, ease chronic pain and fight insomnia.

A 2006 study by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston found that mindfulness meditation could alleviate cancer patients' psychological and physical suffering. And many cancer treatment centres, such as the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, now teach meditation techniques to ease the side effects of chemotherapy.

The Cancer Council of Western Australia offers free meditation classes across Australia for people living with cancer and the Cancer Council of NSW offers free meditation CDs to download from their website.

Medical conditions made worse by stress - such as irritable bowel syndrome or infertility - can also benefit from daily meditation.

Taking time out to meditate may even make us smarter. A study by the University of California's neuro imaging department found that brains of long-term meditation practitioners were larger and had more grey matter than those of people who never meditated. That's why meditation has been dubbed the "push up of the brain".

So, how to begin? Meditation teacher Kathryn McCusker says beginners shouldn't be intimidated. She says you don't need to be spiritual to reap the benefits. "Everyone has the capacity to calm a chaotic mind," she says. "Techniques don't have to be complex or lengthy, in fact three minutes a day is enough to begin with."

Despite the common image, meditation doesn't always involve sitting cross-legged on the floor, praying for inner peace. In our busy lives it can be as simple as setting a kitchen timer for five minutes, sitting still, taking deep breaths and vowing not to check your phone until the bell rings. To set the tone for the day, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommends lying in bed and "half smiling" at the ceiling while taking three slow deep breaths.

In a 2009 study, Doctor Ramesh Manocha, a researcher at the University of NSW, found that, after eight weeks of meditation, occupational stress was reduced by 26 per cent.

Corporate meditation teacher Sarah Fletcher teaches "circuit breaker" breathing exercises, which can be done while queuing for an elevator or waiting for a computer file to download. And your colleagues need never know you're even doing it. "Close your eyes and imagine you're breathing in through your right nostril and out through your left," Fletcher says.

"Then reverse the cycle, imagining breathing in through your left nostril and out through your right. Repeat this at least three times or until your head feels clearer." Even busy mums can incorporate it into their day with their child. You are never too young to learn how to meditate.

Children's yoga teacher Connie Mah teaches a fun exercise called "parent is pillow". "The child lays their head on their mum or dad's stomach and tries to synchronise their breathing," says Mah. "Another favourite is 'magic star meditation' where parent and child lay on the floor holding hands and pretend they're floating through space."


You have to close your eyes
Many schools of meditation, such as Raja yoga, teach open-eyed methods. This is a good option if you want to meditate outside or if you're inclined to fall asleep easily. It can be distracting at first, so try half-closing your eyes and focusing on one point on the floor.

You have to sit still
A growing number of sports psychologists are teaching "active meditation" to encourage athletes to cope with pain. For example, a runner should focus on the feel of every footfall, the wind on their skin and individual droplets of sweat running down their face to anchor them back in the "now".

You have to be alone
It doesn't have to be a solitary activity; in fact, many people find group meditation boosts their experience (and stops them skipping out early).

It's anti-technology
Meditate the 21st century way with the Headspace smartphone app, which allows you to download guided meditation, track your mental wellbeing and even time your sessions. Or download the Mindfulness Bell app, which will remind you throughout the day to stop and take a breath.

Fairfax Media