Stress, Meditation, and the Heart

In a recent blog I wrote about stress and how yoga offers us the possibility of moving from a place of tension and constriction, when the stress response is activated, to a place of spaciousness, ease, and calm.

Most of us have heard of the litany of ailments that are stress-related – everything from asthma to high blood pressure to depression and anxiety to heart disease to irritable bowel to reduced immune function. Some of us may even experience a stress-related condition.

As heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, the medical community has been looking at whether the practice of meditation can reduce the risk of death, heart attack, and stroke. The results of a study published this month in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes indicated that, indeed, it can. The heart disease study directed participants to meditate twice a day for twenty minutes and followed them for up to nine years. Study participants practicing a form of meditation known as Transcendental Meditation decreased their risk of death, heart attack, and stroke by 48%. For those participants who followed the meditation guidelines strictly the result was even more dramatic – risk was reduced by 66%. If you have a family history of heart disease, as I do, this is important and encouraging information.

While recognizing the benefits, the medical community is not yet able to explain how meditation works. But yoga, ancient as it is, has recognized the role the mind plays in what our physical body experiences. Meditation is about moving the mind from agitation to a focused state. When the mind become focused and quiet, the body relaxes, blood pressure is lowered, muscle tension releases, breathing is slowed, heart rate slows. And, as those of you who practice yoga most likely notice, the focus required to coordinate breath and movement in yoga postures, to do a breathing practice, to chant, all of these quiet and calm the mind as well. The whole practice is a meditation leading to a sense of well-being. Our whole system responds.

The focus, calm, and sense of well-being the yoga practice supports requires our attention and dedication. It requires that we have a “correct practice” which we follow consistently over a long period of time and with a positive attitude about our success. While it requires discipline, our yoga practice offers the possibility of a wonderful journey. A journey that is more than caring for our physical bodies.. In the quiet created in the mind by our practice, we have the space to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly, and to come to ultimately find a compassionate, “settled heart.”