The Science of Meditation

In a post earlier this month, I highlighted the trend of mindfulness programs being adopted in more and more modern workplaces. A growing number of companies are banking on these programs, speculating that investing in the physical and psychological health of their employees through mindfulness may offer a solid return in increased productivity and reduced employee health costs.

Now that mindfulness practice has entered the mainstream, there’s been an explosion of research on the effects of mindfulness on the mind, body and brain.  Here’s a media round-up highlighting some of the most interesting findings:

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Image of neurons by Zeiss Microsocpy CC BY 2.0

I’ve already flagged some of the positive neurological effects of meditiation, and there’s plenty more chatter on the web on that subject.

Forbes contributor Alice Walton provides a good beginners overview of these benefits, including decreased activity in the default mode network (associated with mind wandering and rumination), and volume changes in cell matter in key parts of the brain associated with capacity to manage stress and anxiety.  Walton also highlights studies that have identified psychological benefits, such as managing depression (as effective as antidepressants), improving concentration and attention, reducing anxiety, and treating addiction.

Huffington Post’s Meredith Melnick offers up a handy infographic – ‘The Body on Meditation’, which illustrates the neurological benefits as well as positive effects on the heart, blood pressure and immune system.

But there’s even more interesting research on how meditation might combat decline of our actual DNA.

CNN recently showcased Jo Marchant’s Mosaic.com article on research that shows mindfulness practice could actually help slow down the aging process. At the vanguard of this work is collaborative research between Nobel Prize winning biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn and University of California psychiatrist Elisa Epel that measured the impact of perceived psychological stress on the length of human telomeres.

Isolated by Blackburn in the 1970s, telomeres are the protective caps of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. These naturally shorten over time, and when they become too short, our cells lose the ability to divide and the aging process takes hold.

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Telomere Photo by AJC ajcann CC BY 2.0

In the early 2000s, Blackburn studied a group of mothers managing the stress of caring for chronically ill children.  Blood samples showed that the mothers had significantly shorter telomeres and lower levels of the protective telomerase hormone than a less stressed control group. In the most severe cases the effects could be correlated to about an extra decade of aging.  This and a variety of similar studies have continued to show the link between psychological stress and aging.

Building on this work, Blackburn and Epel are collaborating with teams around the globe on studies looking to measure the effectiveness of certain interventions – such as diet, exercise and social support – in protecting telomeres and maintaining levels of telomerase.

And now mindfulness has been added to the mix.  While there are skeptics, results are promising, with one study showing a 30 per cent increase in telomerase in subjects that participated in a three-month mindfulness course.

All this is exciting, but there are alternative views out there tempering the meditation craze. In his wry New York Times op-ed, business contributor Adam Grant reminds us that studies suggest meditation is no more effective in lowering stress than drugs, exercise or other behavioural therapies. He also discusses the non-meditative mindfulness work of Ellen Langer, which focuses on encouraging conditional over absolute thinking.  A cushion may not always be required.

Signing off for now – off for a 15-minute telomere stretch…

For a good overview on the science of meditation, including telomeres, check out this video from those asapSCIENCE guys.   

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Sunrise Satsang: Toronto Sivananda Centre

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Photo credit: Happy Deepvali by rx_kamakshi CC by 2.0

I’d first heard of Toronto’s Sivavnada Yoga Vedanta Centre from two friends of mine, a husband and wife TV writing team that completed yoga teacher training through Sivananda before tying the knot a few years ago. (Yoga seems to have left them with the flexibility needed for a happy, successful marriage.)

Sivananda offers a morning meditation and Satsang every weekday at 6 am. I decided to take advantage of my insomniac tendencies and ride a few blocks through the pre-dawn Annex fog and give it a try.

The Experience

Not surprisingly, the early morning session at the Harbord and Spadina location wasn’t overly crowded. A blonde Yogini named Lakshmi greeted me at the door,  wiping sleep from her eye.

Lakshmi must have assumed I was a regular, because she offered neither direction nor instructions. But noticed a candlelit shrine in front of the bay window of the main room, and assumed this was where we would sit.

I laid out a mat and prepared for the sitting, and was soon joined by two other participants, as well as the two staff that would lead the session. We began with thirty minutes of silent meditation. Meditating in the dark was an evocative way to start the day. As the sun rose, its natural light overpowered the candles just as we shifted from silence to chanting. It was as if were waking in sync with the natural world.

The chanting and kirtan were a bit less sublime. I really couldn’t follow the Sanskrit text or the melodies – and my colleagues gave no more of a stellar musical offering. In contrast to Meditation Toronto’s western folk music, this kirtan was the real India. I can only hope Bramha was forgiving and that he was able to use his many heads to decipher of our multi-modal devotion.

While the yoga doesn’t speak to me in the same way that mindfulness seems to, it was a an energizing experience.  There’s something about starting the with intentionally, drawing on the energy of group meditation, that leaves you centred and ready to face the day ahead.

The centre also gives the impression of a well run, valuable institution. A quick scan of its bulletin boards gave much evidence of the positive impact Sivananda’s programs have on both the health and well-being of its members and students, and on life of the broader community. It seems a positive, modern expression of an ancient tradition. 

Where

77 Harbord Street (West of Spadina)

When

Monday to Friday, 6:00 – 7:00 am
Fridays, 8:15 – 9:30 pm and Sundays, 6:15 – 7:45 pm

Offerings

Satsang – Free Group Meditation

  • 30 minutes silent group meditation
  • 30 minutes of chanting mantras and kirtan
  • lecture on yoga philosophy and psychology

Other programs:

  • Yoga instruction (all levels, with children’s and prenatal programs)
  • Meditation courses
  • Yoga retreats and vacations

The Tradition

Toronto’s centre is part of Sivananda International Yoga Vedanta Centres, a non-profit organization mandated to share the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta ‘as a means of achieving physical, mental and spiritual well-being.’

Headquartered in Montreal, but with nine ashrams and 30 centres spanning four continents, Sivananda offers a wide variety of retreats, classes and programs to people from around the world.

Sivananda was founded in in 1959 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of the organization’s namesake, Sivananda Saraswati.   A sort of Deepak Chopra of the late British Raj, Sivananda practiced as a physician before becoming taking the spiritual path, going on to found the Divine Life Society and publish over 200 books on yoga that would have significant influence in the west.

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Photo of young Vishnudevanada. Credit: Sprattmackrel CC by 2.0

His disciple was a colourful figure in his own right. Known as the ‘flying swami’, Vishnudevananda would conduct peace missions by piloting a glider and dropping flowers over global conflict zones. Most famously, he landed in East Berlin during the height of late Cold War tensions in 1983. (See the BBC coverage of the event below).

 

Sivananda is one of the major yoga teacher training centres in the west, having produced more than 28,000 graduates since 1969. Teaching focuses on five basic principles of yoga – proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking.

Its motto is ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate and Realize’.

 

 

 

 

 

Mantras and a Meal: Meditation Toronto

I first came across Meditation Toronto when I saw it listed in a blogTO posting of the top 10 meditation centres in Toronto. The group isn’t affiliated with a specific spiritual organization, but appears rooted in a Bhakti yoga tradition. Their site highlighted their weekly Sunday night EnChanted evening program, which offered instruction in breathing and chanting meditation, and a vegetarian meal, at Trinity St. Paul’s church in the Annex.

The Experience

Full disclosure, I am a WASP from a white-bread suburb, public-schooled and secularly raised.  My interest in meditation and related philosophies is to cultivate well-being and conscious living.  The metaphysical is a bit beyond me at this stage.

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Harmonium used to accompany Kirtan

An evening of singing in Sanskrit (accompanied by a harmonium and folk guitar) took me a bit out of my element. But I jumped in with enthusiasm (and full-on stilted WASP-y awkwardness).

Madhavendra led the session, beginning by outlining the format for the evening , introducing the types of meditation that would be practiced, and providing basic information about mantra (without giving a translation of the texts we’d be singing).

The musical setting for the Kirtan was a folksy campfire tune. Very easy to follow, and Madhavendra had a pleasant voice. A young girl played the harmonium with the assistance of her mother, which was cute.

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Ohm symbol

I found it hard to engage.

 

I’m a very analytical and I like to know what I’m singing about when I sing.  (That wasn’t the purpose of the program, there are other classes offered for that).

I also think I responded with my own cultural biases. Singing mantras in a retro folk idiom, only blocks from the former site of Rochedale College, made it hard to shake associations between  Bhakti yoga movements and the excesses of sixties counterculture (which I understand are not entirely accurate).

The whole experience made me think.  And here are just a few thoughts I chewed on, along with my vegetarian lasagna.

  1. In a postmodern world and a multicultural country, when does western interest in non-western spiritual traditions cross a line?
  2. Are there issues that come with adapting spiritual practices for use in a secular context?

For example, this week the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class for students with disabilities because of cultural sensitivity issues.

When I  read about it, a memory of Madhavendra’s Australian speaking and Sanskrit singing voice kept ringing in my ears.

I think these are very different cases, buy globalization really does mix things up.

Any thoughts?

 

Where

Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church

427 Bloor St. West (west of Spadina)

When

Sunday nights: 6:00pm to 8:00 pm 

Offerings

EnChanted Evening:

  • Free weekly session (donations appreciated)
  • Instruction in two methods of meditation: breathing and chanting (kirtan)
  • Vegetarian dinner provided

Other offerings:

  • Meditation classes and groups, with gatherings in various locations across the GTA, including Downtown, the Annex, and the Danforth in Toronto; Scarborough, Etobicoke, Mississauga, North York, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, as well as Kitchener/Waterloo/Brantford and Ottawa.
  • Annual Free Yoga Meditation Day
  • Yoga and Philosophy Classes

The Tradition

Meditation Toronto describes itself as a group of volunteers that have been teaching and practicing meditation for over 15 years in the Greater Toronto Area. According to its website, all the organization’s teachers “were taught how to meditate free of charge and have received so much from this meditation that it gives them great happiness to be able to pass this matchless gift onto others.’

A review of the website shows it clearly promotes physical, mental and spiritual practices associated with Bhakti yoga.  Also from the site: “The ancient science of yoga offers us a real truth and the easiest way to realize that truth is through transcendental or spiritual sound. Simply by hearing and repeating spiritual sound vibrations we can experience the peace and happiness of transcendental knowledge. This pairing of the chanting of the mantras with music soothes the soul and calms the mind.”

 

Local Centres: Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto

It is a little known fact that Halifax, Nova Scotia is a center of transplanted Tibetian Buddhism in the west. Canada’s Atlantic port is the headquarters of Shambhala International, a worldwide network of meditation centres with locations around the world, including one near Bloor and Christie in Toronto.

Where

670 Bloor Street West, Toronto

When

Wednesday nights

Offerings

  • Group sittings
  • Meditation instruction
  • Lectures and courses

The Experience

Newcomers are offered the opportunity for introductory meditation instruction in a separate smaller room, while experienced practitioners participated in an unguided group sitting.

Wednesday night sittings are often followed by lectures. The night I attended, I enjoyed a lecture by contemplative psychologist and meditation teacher Susan Chapman.

The Tradition

Shambhala was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetian spiritual leader who fled the country after the failed uprising against the Chinese communists.

Similar to the Dalai Lama, Trungpa fled on foot across the Himalayas into India, where he remained for four years before finding his way to the United Kingdom to pursue studies at Oxford University.

There, he helped establish the first Buddhist meditation centre in the west, Samye Ling in Scotland. But after breaking with his fellow spiritual leader, Akyong Rinpoche, and renouncing his monastic vows, he made his way to America (via Canada, incidentally) where he became a lay teacher known for making Buddhism intelligible to western students.

Trungpa was a controversial figure – known for some less than enlightened pursuits such as alcohol consumption – but I won’t delve deep into that in this post. I’ll just say that during that period, Buddhism in the west was embraced by the sixties counter-culture scene. In fact, Trungpa’s students included rock star David Bowie and beat poet Allan Ginsberg. The renowned Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödron, also studied with him.

In the 1970s, Trungpa began giving a series of secular teachings about the legendary mythical kingdom of Shambhala which began the movement, and established the hereditary lineage of Sakyongs (or ‘earth protectors’) that head the tradition. The current Sakyong, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche is less of wild mystic than his father was. He’s a nine-time marathon runner whose books look quite at home on the Indigo self-help shelf.

Shambhala describes itself as ‘a global community of people inspired by the principle that every human being has a fundamental nature of basic goodness.’

Check out this YouTube video from the Sakyong on running: