Finding Om

How meditiation changes your brain

Kelly Aguilera practices meditation at The Studio where she teaches yoga and mindfulness.

Kelly Aguilera practices meditation at The Studio where she teaches yoga and mindfulness.

Courtesy/Kelly Aguilera

Meditation to reduce stress and anxiety has become an increasingly popular mental exercise practiced in the United States in recent years. Perhaps you’ve observed someone meditating on TV or have seen a tranquil looking yogi with her eyes closed in a publication (like this one) with her hands in a prayer posture and thought, “That’s nice, but meditation just isn’t for me.”

The reality of meditation is that it isn’t just for a hippies or seekers of enlightenment, and when practiced regularly, meditation has been found to change brain activity and brain structure, according to a Harvard University study.

Associate Researcher in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Sara Lazar. has been documenting the effects of meditation in the human brain since 2014.

During a TEDx Talk, Lazar talked about her first experience with yoga and meditation. She remembers going to a yoga class for the first time simply to stretch and exercise when the instructor began to speak about how a yoga and meditation practice will increase compassion and open up your heart.

Initially, Lazar disregarded her teacher’s claims until a few weeks later when Lazar began to notice the effects of her practice in her daily life. She felt calmer and better able to handle stressful situations, yet Lazar still didn’t know if these feelings were simply a placebo based on what her teacher said.

Lazar discovered previous research that found meditation decreases stress, reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, increases the ability to pay attention and increases overall quality of life.

Lazar found these changes from meditating were linked to neuroplasticity: doing something over and over again to create changes in the brain. When something is repeated over and over again, the neurons change how they talk to each other, she said. These changes are not only evident from feedback stated from test subjects, but changes in neuroplasticity can also be observed with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (MRI), according to Lazar.

Put to the test

To conduct a study for herself, Lazar found a group of people who had never meditated before and scanned their brains with an MRI machine. She then enrolled her subjects in an eight-week stress reduction program where they were told to meditate for 30-40 minutes every day.

At the end of the eight weeks, Lazar conducted the brain scans again and found that several areas of the brain became larger, including the left hippocampus, which is responsible for emotional regulation, learning and memory.

In the temporo-parietal junction, the part of the brain responsible for perspective taking, empathy and compassion, there was also an increase.

In the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response, there was a decrease in grey matter, which Lazar believes directly correlated with a decrease in stress.

“The more stress reduction people reported, the smaller the amygdala became,” she said.

The study subjects didn’t undergo any other changes in their environments during their eight-week trial, meaning they continued to experience the same stressful situations at work and with family that they had before.

Lazar’s concluded that changes to the amygdala were instead due to changes in how people learned to react to their environments and manage stress internally, specifically through meditation.

Generating zen

Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her current research includes identifying specific brain mechanisms responsible for observed meditation effects, as well as developing “mindfulness” training programs that enhance the well-being of service professionals.

“Mindfulness” as defined by the American Psychological Association is “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait …” meaning that it can be achieved through practice and people are not born inherently “mindful” or otherwise.

In a recent article titled “Dispositional Mindfulness and Neural Correlates of Affect Regulation” Hazlett-Stevens cited studies conducted by neuroscientists that showed practicing mindfulness leads to decreased negative emotion when faced with negative self-beliefs.

“A growing body of psychological research links dispositional mindfulness to increased emotional well-being and happiness coupled with lower levels of perceived stress, depression, and anxiety,” she wrote in her conclusion.

Practice Makes Perfect

Preliminary science supports the benefits of meditation on an emotional level, yet learning how to practice meditation can be confusing or even intimidating to some.

Kelly Aguilera has been a yoga teacher in Reno for seven years. She teaches a variety of classes, including yin yoga (a style of yoga involving holding postures for long periods of time), breathwork and meditation, and vinyasa flow, focusing on the movement of the body through a sequence of postures. She’s also a yogi’s yogi, teaching classes for those training to receive their instructor certification as well.

Aguilera describes meditation as the act of quieting the mind and tuning in to the present moment, and when teaching meditation to new students, she said it can be overwhelming to some because they worry they may not be meditating correctly.

“It can be very difficult for beginners to quiet the mind, and for some it can lead to some anxiety, or even sitting alone with your thoughts can be very intimidating,” she said.

In order to not get overwhelmed, Aguilera recommends starting small.

“First, just a simple awareness of the breath,” she said. “Notice the inhale and exhale, and see if you can deepen and lengthen each, working on filling and emptying the lungs, but we aren’t forcing breath in or out.”

From the initial breathing sequence, Aguilera said different techniques resonate with different students. She said repeating a mantra like “inhale, exhale,” is nice for some, while others might prefer to count the number of seconds it takes to inhale or exhale. For beginners looking for a more structured practice, Aguilera said square breathing—which is inhaling, retaining the inhale, exhaling and retaining the exhale for the same number of seconds—is also helpful.

Focusing on the sensation of your breath gives you something to concentrate on instead of trying to think about absolutely nothing. If your mind begins to wander during your meditation, it’s important not to beat yourself up over it as it’s a natural reaction at first. Gently guide your mind back to your breathing and repeat if necessary.

Aguilera said there are many apps out there that keep time while you’re meditating, or even lead guided meditations. However, she recommends placing your phone more than an arm’s reach away from where you are sitting or lying so it’s not a distraction.

“It essentially feels like a returning to home when I meditate—a place where I don’t have to do anything. I am simply just allowed to be,” Aguilera said

When it comes to how often you should practice, Aguilera said every day is ideal but, of course, not always possible. If extended, 30-40 minute sessions aren’t feasible—or even useful to everyone—Aguilera recommends just making a daily habit of checking in, taking a moment of silence and a few intentional breaths. Even a few minutes a day can jumpstart the neuroplasticity mentioned in Lazar’s work, and whether it’s half an hour in a candle lit yoga studio, or just a few minutes at your office desk, a few moments to yourself are always in reach.