1 March 2021

Um, this could be relaxing

Picture of Suvi Mahonen

Suvi Mahonen

Suvi is a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications in Australia and overseas

After a year that saw a spike in mental health issues caused by the pandemic and lockdowns, it is not surprising people have been seeking new ways to relax, including meditating. While the health benefits of meditation have always been assumed, there is increasing interest from both practitioners and health professionals to back up these assumptions with more rigorous scientific proof.

Macquarie University PhD student, Gemma Perry, was motivated to do just this after she experienced first-hand what she calls the “powerful” effects of mantras. She suffered severe depression following the breakup of a long-term relationship. Recognising that she needed help she turned to a yoga therapist who suggested she try chanting mantras.

It wasn’t long before Gemma began to feel benefits from her new daily ritual. “It gave me more mindful awareness throughout my days,” Gemma, 37, said. “Even when I wasn’t chanting there was just this spaciousness that would be there, from training my mind, and that allowed healing to occur.” 

Gemma, who is midway through completing a doctorate, is currently gathering data on chanting practices from all over the world to study commonalities and differences between divergent traditions, and how chanting can impact people’s lives.

“Even when people are doing it as an individual practice there’s positive effects on the parasympathetic nervous system,” she said. “You see improvements in focussed attention, because when you’re focussing on a sound, you’re training the brain to use those muscles, and this can lead to an increased capacity for mindfulness and being aware of negative thought patterns.”

Research has shown that audible chanting may have positive effects on physical health, emotions and social connections.

Backing these findings Gemma published a proceedings paper in 2016 on the findings of 62 participants who chanted “Om” for a single, ten minute, session, which showed that chanting had a positive effect on pro-social behaviour traits such as empathy and altruism as well as increasing attention and feelings of social connectedness[1].

A follow-up study by Gemma, the results of which are yet to be published, showed that chanting “Om” for a single, 12-minute session, increased feelings of altruism and decreased feelings of stress.

“When we sit down to chant, we have this concrete sound to come back to,” she said. “Chanting has incredible potential to decrease stress and increase social connection.”

No-one understands this more than Meditation Australia president and mindset and leadership coach Asher Packman. After more than two decades working in the corporate world as a communications senior executive, several challenging life events – including being diagnosed with a blood cancer – caused him to pause and look deep within himself.

“I found meditation and yoga as a way of helping me through those difficult times, and as a result of that I just became incredibly passionate about it and wanted to share the practice with others,” Mr Packman said.

Studies have shown that meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, lengthen attention span, improve sleep, help to control pain, and decrease blood pressure.

In a 2001 study published in Physicology and Behavior, researchers found that subjects who regularly practiced meditation had significantly lower levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine as compared to those who did not engage in any relaxation techniques[2].   

A 2007 systematic review of 107 studies on stress reduction and blood pressure concluded that “among stress reduction approaches, the Transcendental Meditation program is associated with significant reductions in blood pressure”[3]

And a 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging documented for the first time the physiological changes that occur in the brain because of meditation. Harvard affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital took before and after magnetic resonance images of 16 participants two weeks before and eight weeks after the subjects undertook mindfulness and meditation practice.

The results found a noticeable increase in the grey-matter density in the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain associated with higher brain functions such as learning and memory. There was also a decrease in the density of grey-matter in the amygdala, which is associated with anxiety and stress[4].

“The amygdala is like the fear centre at the back of our brain, the worry and anxiety part, and when you use it a lot it gets bigger, just like anything else. So, if you’re an anxious person you’ve got a big amygdala,” Mr Packman said.

“But we find that with meditation, very quickly what starts to happen is that the amygdala starts to shrink in the brain, so the volume of the fear centre starts to decrease. The flip side of that coin too is that the cortical lining and hippocampus at the front of the brain starts to increase, which is about focus and clarity and memory. So, you’ve got these two things going on, where we’re worrying less, and we’re getting clearer, and these things are actually physiologically, literally happening in our brains in terms of the volume.”

Mr Packman says meditation helps keep our minds calm. “Most of us walk around reacting to life’s triggers,” he said. “Before you know it, you’re probably angry or frustrated or yelling at the person. But with meditation, over time you can learn to create that space and it’s like, ‘What would be the most appropriate thing to do right now. It’s probably not getting all stressed and yelling. Maybe I just need to calm.’ And over time that becomes more spontaneous. You just build it into your life.”

Mr Packman believes that yoga and meditation can also help to maximise the effectiveness of traditional medical treatments by keeping the mind and body strong. “Even if you are on a chemotherapy regime, it’s so important to make them as effective as possible and I think that in working with your immunity and other things, these lifestyle therapies can help on so many different levels.”

For those of us who would like to meditate but are unsure how, Mr Packman has some sage advice. “You really can’t fail at meditating,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I just tried it and I’m really bad at it.’ But no-one’s ‘bad’ at meditating. It’s just that over time you become better at catching yourself and bringing yourself back to the one point of focus.

“Our belief at Meditation Australia is that meditation should be an integral part of everyone’s daily life. But particularly in times like this, during a pandemic, when we need a bit of resilience, these are the times when meditation, as a tool, becomes something really impactful.”

The book Body, Mind, Spirit is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $28.95. See page 48.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319851087_Chanting_Meditation_Improves_Mood_and_Social_Cohesion

[2] https://tmhome.com/benefits/study-on-catecholamine-levels/

[3] https://tmhome.com/benefits/study-on-stress-and-blood-pressure/

[4] https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/

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