Health correspondent

Conventional medicine increasingly recognises the positive, calming effects of meditation. Here's a beginner's guide.

Millions of ordinary people have experienced the health benefits of meditation, especially its ability to reduce stress.

By focusing the mind for just a few minutes a day, on a thought, an image, or a repetitive movement, you can begin to feel more relaxed, think more clearly and have a better perspective on stressful situations.

How it works

In most people the left side of the brain is dominant, controlling logical functions such as rational thought, calculation, speech and writing. The right hemisphere is more intuitive, dealing with creativity, imagination and emotions.

Meditation is believed to create a fusion between the two hemispheres. This may be demonstrated by measuring the intensity of alpha waves (the brain waves associated with quiet, receptive states) produced while meditating.

Electroencephalograph (ECG) readings taken during meditation show that alpha waves are emitted at far greater intensity, and with greater integration between the two hemispheres, than during periods of other 'relaxing' activities such as sleep.

In alpha states, the body gradually relaxes as the parasympathetic nervous system predominates. This system is the part of the autonomic nervous system that deals with conservation and restoration of energy, by slowing blood pressure and heart rate, and facilitating the digestion and absorption of nutrients and the excretion of waste products.

When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over there is a reversal of the 'fight-or-flight' response, the body's initial reaction to a challenge, shock or stress.

It is characterised by the secretion of stress hormones such as adrenaline; tension around the head, neck, lower back and abdomen; and thoughts focusing on escape or attack.

The meditative state allows you to reduce the immediate physiological symptoms of stress such as raised blood pressure, muscle tension and shallow, fast breathing.

It can also help reduce stress-related conditions, including high blood pressure and muscle pain.

The evidence

Studies have associated the benefits of meditation with the following:

  • more orderly brain functioning
  • improved circulation in the fingers and toes
  • increased cerebral blood flow
  • lower levels of stress hormones

Choose your method

You can teach yourself to meditate from books or tapes, but to get the most out of the discipline it makes sense to join a class.

Details of local courses are often found in GP surgeries, leisure centres or adult education institutes.

Transcendental Meditation

In the 1960s the Indian yogi Maharishi Mahesh introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the West.

The practice was widely adopted by a young generation and popularised by high-profile followers, including The Beatles.

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