For centuries, Yogis have been holding that yoga and meditation can ward off stress and diseases. Nowadays, scientists from Harvard Medical School are getting closer to finding scientific evidence of this ancient wisdom. A systematic review of medical literature, recently published on the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences has shown that meditation has not only positive effects on cognition in younger and middle-aged adults, but also that this practice has the potential to offset the physiological cognitive decline and even to enhance cognitive function in older people. Furthermore, meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer have the ability to offset adverse clinical effects in a huge number of pathologies including hypertension, insomnia, anxiety and aging, by evoking a relaxation response, a physiological and psychological state opposite to stress. The relaxation response is elicited by focusing on a word, sound, phrase, repetitive prayer or movement, disregarding the absent-mindedness of random thoughts that often have little substance.
Millennia-old mind-body approaches include various forms of meditation (mindfulness meditation and transcendental meditation), different practices of yoga (e.g. Vipassana and Kundalini), Tai Chi, Qi Gong, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and breathing exercises. The relaxation response is in turn associated with biochemical and physiological changes, among which the most important are a decrease in heart and respiratory rate with lower oxygen consumption and norepinephrine responsivity, as well as alterations in cortical and subcortical brain regions.
Vipassana and Kundalini: The ABCs
Vipassana is an ancient meditation practice, which comes from Buddhism Theravada. It is also known as insight meditation. Vipassana aims to develop the mindfulness to get insight into the real nature of sensory input and mental stimulation, opening the way to the path of enlightment. Practicing Vipassana meditation leaves plenty of room to find the most appropriate answers inside all of us. Vipassana gives everybody peace of mind against obsessive thoughts, reduces stress and anxiety and increases people’s openness to come out and accept what anyone really is, even in the elderly.
According to researchers at Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, people who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don’t, with an increased thickness of the grey matter in parts of the brain dealing with attention and processing sensory input.
Monks and Yogis do claim to enjoy an increased capacity for attention and memory even at older age, suggesting the hypothesis that meditation might slow down cognitive aging, by interfering in the natural thinning of the thinking surface of the brain. Although this issue still remains controversial, Vipassana meditation keeps attracting more and more people of every age, as it is particularly useful in reducing stress, clarifying thoughts and increasing body and mind tolerance even in difficult situations.
Other meditation practices originated from Kundalini yoga, a Tantric teaching which stems directly from India’s tantric tradition. According to tantric philosophy, Kundalini is an immense reserve of spiritual energy at the base of the spine: when elicited, Kundalini goes up the spine through six chakras (energy centres) reaching the seventh chakra on the top of the head. The seven chakras have but a few matches with Western basic anatomy, as they are localized in non-physical centres.
When Kundalini focuses on a chakra, activates the energy wrapped up in that centre. Every chakra is the figurehead of aptitudes and mental states able to dominate mind whenever stimulated by Kundalini energy. The first chakra, located between the anus and the genitals, represents the ancient fight for survival. The second chakra, located in the genitals, embodies sexuality and sensuality: when active, lust and greed take over. The third chakra, located near the umbilicus, symbolizes power and people manipulation for personal purposes. Most people are generally motivated by mental states where these first three chakras are active.
Kundalini yoga aims to redirect this enormous source of energy to the highest levels, towards a state of complete mental and physical wellbeing. The fourth chakra, at the centre of the ribcage near the heart, symbolizes selfless love, like a mother’s love for her son, soon becoming a real impetus to compassion. When Kundalini activates the three highest chakras (the fifth at the throat, the sixth at the centre of the forehead and the seventh at the top of the head), the yogi experiences transcendent moments of joyfulness. Therefore, the experienced meditator tries and free Kundalini from the trap of the lowest chakras to the highest levels. When Kundalini reaches the seventh chakra and settles there, body consciousness disappears. The meditator now experiences true freedom and bliss, feeling a sense of deep tranquillity and complete wellbeing: he is now enjoying “the fruit of the yoga”.
The healing meditation power and the biological effects of meditation
We have just seen that relaxation response following yoga and meditation is associated with important biochemical and physiological changes. The most recent study on this subject, published in May 2015 on the Journal of Public Library of Science, goes far beyond previous researches, as it is the first one to employ genomic technology in order to measure biological effects correlated with gene-expression changes.
The study was conducted on subjects, both novices and experienced in meditation, using blood samples collected at successive time points during a single practice session of yoga and meditation, which included listening to a 20-minute relaxation response eliciting CD. Common feature of all participants in the study was a high level of stress. The study demonstrated that a single practice session was enough to enhance the expression of genes correlated with insulin secretion and energy metabolism, while minimizing the expression of genes that regulate inflammatory response and oxidative stress. There was an effect both among novices, who had never practiced before and in short- and long-term practitioners; however, long-term practitioners showed more pronounced and consistent gene-expression changes. The upregulated long-term changes induced by relaxation response were linked to telomerase stability and maintenance, suggesting an improvement in stress induced aging. The telomerase is also known as the “immortality enzyme”. Telomerase plays a key role in slowing the cellular aging process, as it inhibits the shortening of chromosomes.