Meditation and science, even a decade ago this combination would have raised some eyebrows. The concept of a body- mind connection is relatively new in the modern, scientific approach. In recent decades the question what the long-term health benefits of meditation are, has become a subject of increased research. Scientists and medical professionals have started to realize that merely treating the physical symptoms is not enough. They have started to understand that the human being is so much more complex and interrelated than what was believed.
The practice of concentration and meditation has been shown to have profound effect on our health and well-being. An emerging evidence base from countless studies is now suggesting that meditation practices have the potential to:
The autonomic nervous system is also known as the involuntary nervous system. It maintains homeostasis in our body. Homeostasis is the maintenance and balance of relatively stable conditions within your body’s internal systems, despite changes happening inside and outside of your body.
Our autonomic nervous system consists of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for action. It is famous for its fight-or-flight response.
For example, if a dog attacks you, your heartbeat will quicken, your pupils will dilate, and the majority of blood will be sent to your muscles to prepare you to either fight or flee. Adrenalin is released into your blood and basically all your body’s systems are put into emergency mode in order to manage and survive the immediate threat. Meanwhile, all your internal functions not related to the threat, such as regular functions for growth and healing of your body, are put on hold.
Your other subsystem is the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings your body into a rest-and-digest mode. It counterbalances your sympathetic nervous system, restoring your body to a state of calm and activating regular functions such as the secretion of saliva in your mouth or digestive enzymes in your stomach.
Only one of these two subsystems can be active at a time. They alternate according to the need and situation. The balance between these two systems is of utmost importance. In a healthy person, the transitions between the two systems are regular, smooth, and swift.
Apart from external factors, the sympathetic nervous system also gets activated if your mind is running wild. Psychological stress like worry or anger, shift our nervous system into the sympathetic state, therefore increasing our heart rate, our breathing and triggering the release of adrenaline into our blood. This actions in turn are triggers of the sympathetic nervous system, which then creates more stress. This stress-induced cycle is considered to be a great contributor to many common chronic diseases and conditions. It is common knowledge that prolonged stress is unhealthy and this circle of mental anxiety, leading to sympathetic arousal is exactly the reason why.
Most of us are already too often and too long in a state of sympathetic arousal. Therefore, the need to train our body and mind to easily relax into and stay within a parasympathetic mode more frequently. If we do not want to break down like an overheated car, we have to understand the importance of this in order to live on with good physical and mental health.
What are physical triggers for the nervous system to shift into the rest-and-regenerate mode?
These parasympathetic triggers are
The practice of concentration exercises and meditation do exactly that!
Stillness in the body and focus on the breath are the key element of the majority of meditation practices from varying traditions. By making our body still and focusing on the breath and letting it become easy and deep, we literally nudge our nervous system to switch to a parasympathetic state. As our body shifts into the rest-and-regenerate mode, our heartbeat and blood pressure drop, digestive and endocrine functions are being carried out and the gas exchange in the lungs is improved, which leads to improved oxygenation of the heart and brain.
The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system during meditation practices and all the benefits connected to it can positively affect how you handle stress in daily life too. Through regularly practicing the shift to the parasympathetic nervous system, you’ll increase your capability to shift from one state to the other in your daily live as well.
Beta waves, are what most of us experience most of the time in our always-on society. They allow us to concentrate hard on tasks at hand. The downside of beta waves is that they can drain our energy and reduce emotional awareness and creativity.
Once we get home at the end of the day, if we’re lucky, we shift into a relaxed, reflective alpha wave brain activation. However, if our brain struggles with shifting from beta to alpha—due to a stress-induced phenomenon called “alpha blocking”—we might experience insomnia, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
During concentration and meditation exercises we trigger our brainwave pattern to move from beta-wave alertness, to alpha-wave inner awareness. Regular meditation has been found to permanently increase alpha activity and decrease beta activity in daily life. This is especially significant to “beginner” meditation, which lasts for shorter periods and the main focus and challenge is to achieve a certain stage of concentration.
The benefit of meditation that we can experience in daily life is that we train our brain to more easily shift into the relaxing and calm alpha states when we do not need to perform any high concentration tasks.
More experienced meditators however are able to move into an entirely different state of brainwaves, and enter gamma wave activation. Gamma waves are often associated with insight, peak focus, and expanded consciousness. These occur rather rarely, showing up for split seconds when the brain regions suddenly click together in harmony. This hyper-focused, tranquil attention is characteristic of accomplished and experienced meditators, which makes sense because gamma is thought to increase awareness and make us very in tune with ourselves and our environment (which is essentially the higher goal of meditation).
Studies of expert meditators showed that their extremely high levels of gamma-wave vibration was present non only during meditation but also in resting state. This basically means, that with long-term practice a transformation in the default mode of our brains takes place, and that long-term practitioners are able to experience an ongoing state of awareness in their daily lives.
The amygdala are two almond-shaped structures in the brain, one in the right and one in the left hemisphere of the brain. They are located close to the hippocampus in the frontal portion of the brain.
The amygdala are essential to our ability feel certain emotions and perceives them in other people. In fact, the amygdala seems to modulate all of our reactions to events that are very important for our survival. Events that warn us of imminent danger are therefore very important stimuli for the amygdala, but so are events that signal the presence of food, sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and so on.
Now when the amygdala perceives a threat, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system into activation, which in turn leads to a stream of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which mobilize us for action. Most of the threats that we experience these days is psychological rather than biological. This fact however does not lessen the incredible physiological load of anxiety on our body. A merely perceived threat is just a real for the body as an actual physical threat.
The amygdala connects to both the brain circuitry for intense emotional reactions as well as for focusing our attention. When we are gripped by anxiety due to an emotional threat, we also become very distracted to anything that does not represents a threat. As the brain’s radar for threat the amygdala fixes on what it finds troubling and our mind keeps wandering back to it over and over again. We further stimulate the stress response in our brain and our body, as we keep focusing our attention over and over again on the perceived threat.
The amygdala is a key in the brain’s stress circuitry and studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness training dampen its activity. In one landmark study, researchers at Emory University gave volunteers an eight-week course of mindfulness training, then showed them upsetting photos to see how they responded. The result? A significant lowering of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers the freeze- fight-or-flight response.
These changes do not only appear when the explicit instruction is to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but also in the so-called baseline state, where the subject is not in an immediate state of meditative concentration. Reductions of up to 50 percent have been measured in both the meditative states of fairly “new” meditators and in the baseline state of expert meditators.
This finding suggests that meditation training may affect emotional processing in everyday life, and not just during meditation.
For over 500 years, mystics and Eastern medical practitioners have argued that control and modification of the breath can have a profound impact on our health and well-being. Today, medical researches confirm these ancient views with studies that show the relation between our breathing patterns and our cardiovascular functioning, the blood circulation to the brain, metabolic and endocrine activities to name a few.
Proper oxygenation of your cells is another important aspect of good health. Cells need oxygen to generate energy. To get enough oxygen to your cells, you must improve the blood’s absorption of oxygen. Research has shown that deep breathing into the lower part of the lungs increases this oxygen absorption. This in turn is beneficial because even with fewer inhalations per minute, the blood receives more oxygen. The blood then is able to better supply oxygen to all tissues of your body.
In daily life we often breathe too shallowly and therefore use only a small fraction of our lung capacity. After each normal exhalation, more than four times the amount of air we move with every inhalation and exhalation stays in the lungs. That stagnant air pooling at the bottom of the lungs dilutes and pollutes each fresh, oxygen-rich inhalation. You can easily imagine how this decreases the efficiency of each ventilation.
Through deep, steady, and slow breathing during meditation practice more of the old air pooling in the lungs is pushed out, than it would during our regular rather shallow breathing. This results in a more efficient blood oxygenation.
As our breathing calms down, so does our nervous system and we enter a state of parasympathetic activation. Another effect of slow abdominal breathing is that the ratio between oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood changes. By slowing down our breathing, the relative level of carbon dioxide increases.
Higher carbon dioxide levels in the blood dilate the blood vessels in the brain, leading to more generous blood flow. This process promotes oxygenation of the heart and brain as it stimulates blood flow to these areas.
Slow breathing and the resulting change in ration between oxygen and carbon dioxide also increases the ease with which the hemoglobin can transfer oxygen from the blood to the tissues.
Important here is that the breathing is abdominal, not thoracic. As thoracic breathing, even it is slow, will actually have a reverse effect. Thoracic breathing increases the levels of O2, with physiological results just opposite the ones discussed above.
When we are in as state of concentration or meditation, naturally our breathing is slow and into the abdomen. Therefore, meditation increases the overall oxygenation in our body and our brain. The last resulting in psychological benefits, such as increased emotional stability, calmness, reduced anxiety and greater self-confidence.
Blood pressure within a certain “normal” range, is of high importance for good health. When it drops too low, the brain receives insufficient blood, and we become so dizzy and weak that we faint. In extreme cases (e.g. in an hemorrhage or severe infection) organs can fail, producing breakdowns such as heart attacks. High blood pressure has its own hazards—mostly long term rather than immediate. It stresses the heart and artery walls. In doing so, it may lead to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure. Fortunately, there are sensors in your body called “baroreceptors”. These take pressure readings of the blood vessels and make suitable adjustments in blood pressure.
Baroreflex receptors are located in the aortic arch, carotid sinuses, and elsewhere to monitor changes in blood pressure and relay them to the Medulla. Baroreceptors are stretch receptors and respond to the pressure induced stretching of the blood vessel in which they are found.
If blood pressure within the aorta or the carotid sinus increases, the walls of these arteries stretch and stimulate increased activity within the baroreceptor. This information is then sent via nerves to the cardio regulatory center within the medulla, which responds by initiating mechanisms that decrease the blood pressure to a normal level.
The body accomplishes the reduction of blood pressure with two measures: slowing down the heart rate, and vasodilation, which basically means that the blood vessels expand and let the blood flow with less resistance.
Baroreflex sensitivity is defined as the level at which the body gets the signal that the blood pressure it too high or too low and therefore the process as described above is triggered. What is important to remember is that the baroreceptor reflex is a short-term response to sudden blood pressure changes resulting from everyday activity and emotional states. If high (or low) blood pressure persists for a prolonged time, the baroreceptors will reset to the new normal level.
Your baroreceptors’ sensitivity and responsiveness are an indicator of your state of health. When the baroreceptors are more sensitive, they sense and respond earlier. Slow and controlled breathing has been shown to increase the sensitivity of these sensors.  This results in a more fine-tuned control of heart rate and blood pressure.
Therefore, the practice of concentration and meditation, as they trigger slow breathing, can have a positive effect on baroreflex sensitivity and therefore might work preventive and even therapeutic for people with high blood pressure, commonly known as hypertension.
According to the ancient Tantric scriptures of Shiva Swarodaya and Gyan Swarodaya, the lifespan of man is not measured by years, but by number of breaths. At the rate of fifteen breaths per minute, a human life is made up of 946,080,000 breaths—a full 120 years. By slowing down our breathing and maintaining a normal breathing rate of no more than fifteen breaths per minute, we can conserve energy, increase our vitality, and live longer.
When our body and mind are at ease, we breathe (one inhalation and exhalation) 13 to 15 times per minute. This means your body breathes around 22 thousand times per 24 hours. Whenever your respiration increases due to physical or mental stimulation, the flow of blood and other vital fluids increase as well. This in turn increases neuromotor activity. And neuromotor activity causes your body to utilize more energy. Subsequently, you need to absorb more glucose through food.
These demands on the body do not affect our body as we grow up. After reaching maturity, however, they manifest as wear and tear. As this wear and tear continues, repair mechanisms and energy levels slow down. This results in stress and strain on your body.
In a study published in 2016, researchers analyzed respiration patterns across multiple time points, separated by two months or more, in a group of long-term mindfulness meditation practitioners and a matched group of non-meditators. On average, long-term meditators showed slower baseline respiration rate than the control group of non-mediators.
Long-term meditators have been observed to breathe 1.6 times slower than non-meditators. Over the course of a day, this translates to more than 2000 extra breaths, and on a yearly basis more than 800’000 extra breaths for the non-meditators.
Among long-term meditators, greater practice experience was associated with slower respiration rate, no matter which age and gender. Furthermore, full days of meditation practice did not produce detectable changes in baseline respiration rate, suggesting that the effect of meditation on our respiration rate materializes over time, rather than immediately.
The physiological toll any extra, unnecessary, breaths have on our physical and mental body cannot be underestimated. As we continue our meditation practice, our body adjusts its physiological set point for its respiratory rate lower.
That’s a good thing, as while chronic rapid breathing activates the freeze-fight-or-flight response, a slower breath rate increases the parasympathetic tone and leads to better mood, increased over-all health and maybe even a longer life expectancy?
 Breath, Mind, and Consciousness by Harish Johari
 Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Golemand and Richard J. Davidson
Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is the Creative Director at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams since 2013. She is a senior teacher at the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training, as well as a variety of 50 hour courses like Yin Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga, for more than eight years now.
Starting off with physical challenges, Kalyani transformed her body, mastering many advanced asanas with her regular practice and discipline. By following a diligent self-practice, working with many different teachers, styles, and techniques, she gained a profound understanding of physiology and movement techniques. This, in combination with her extensive teaching experience, gave her an understanding of the importance of structure and sequencing for a holistic yoga asana practice. She has also co-authored the internationally acclaimed book Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioners: A Comprehensive Guide to Holistic Sequencing.