Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, MD, author of the Heart of Wellness.
As a long-term meditator, I constantly recommend the practice to anyone who’ll listen. Meditation has undisputedly changed my life, by clearing the lens of my perception and creating a sense of deep, unshakeable peace, even during times of unrest. As any meditator knows, an effective practice necessarily leads to periods of tumultuousness, including pain, confusion, and darkness. I call this the “washing-machine” effect, otherwise known as purification.
Meditation works on our bodies and minds in innumerable ways; its objective effects occur via the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for body functions that don’t require our effort, such as changes in heart rate and blood pressure that occur throughout the day in response to activity, eating, or thinking. The sympathetic limb of the ANS is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” (or stress) response with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and release of specific hormones to help us cope with the situation. The parasympathetic limb facilitates the rest-and-digest response, with the opposite effects.
A regular meditation practice increases the parasympathetic tone, with a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, and a greater threshold for releasing stress hormones, all of which can be measured. Studies have shown that long-term meditators also have a greater brain coherence, where the two halves of the brain work together. Coherence is associated with a greater perspective, compassion for others, and sense of deep peace and bliss.
The subjective effects of meditation arise from its impact on what is known as the subtle body. The subtle body is the field of the mind, memory, and emotions, where we register the senses and make decisions. The subtle body is also where the life force, or prana, resides, flowing through countless channels known as nadis. Our life experiences condition us by affecting the flow of prana in the nadis; some become contracted while others become hyperactive. Certain situations predictably result in specific emotional responses because the flow of prana occurs repeatedly in the same nadis while that in others is curtailed.
With a long-term meditation practice, we cultivate inner stillness and the ability to stand back from our experience and watch it non-judgmentally even as it is happening (a process known as witnessing). The inner stillness has a distinct effect on our subtle bodies—the nadis that were previously contracted begin to open.
Most of these changes occur as a gradual realization that we are no longer limited to responding to life in old, conditioned ways. Periodically, they can present as discomfort as painful memories or patterns that were previously subconscious begin to surface into our conscious awareness, forcing us to deal with them from the place of non-judgmental witnessing. Rarely, this energetic churning can unleash hidden psychological issues such as anxiety or panic disorder, or even psychosis, particularly when the meditation isn’t adhered to as prescribed or combined with other unsupervised practices.
For most of us, however, this churning presents as short-lived periods of inner conflict or bodily discomfort, both of which are excellent opportunities to become familiar with our hang-ups. This is where we can work on our deep-seated patterns and open to greater freedom in thought and action. This is the hallmark of a transformative practice, where we can learn to choose peace over chaos even while living active, fulfilling lives. Peace in this transformative realm is not the goal, but is the very fabric of our existence.
Our thanks to Kavitha for her guest post! For more from Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, MD, read her article “Lower Your Blood Pressure and Reset Your Life in Three Simple Steps .”