As you may know, February is American Heart Month, a time when we focus on our cardiovascular health. You probably know that high blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but did you know that meditation can help lower your blood pressure?
In fact, meditation practice can offer significant benefits to your heart. It helps to reduce stress and anxiety, something I talk a lot about on this blog. By lowering both, you also lower your heart rate and blood pressure while reducing hormones that can do harm in our bodies. In fact, there have been studies done that confirm people who practice meditation are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
Using meditation practice for heart health and mental health works because it not only helps to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, but it also helps to lower your breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels and cortisol levels.
By lowering the over activation of our sympathetic nervous system, we help reduce psychological distress, which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. When our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, it can lead to a surge in stress hormones and inflammatory chemicals in the body, as well as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption. When we meditate, it helps to refocus the sympathetic nervous system and lower the over activation.
A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology examined data from adult participants who practiced meditation and showed that compared with people who didn’t meditate, they experienced benefits including 35% lower risk of high cholesterol, 14% lower risk of high blood pressure, 30% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, 24% lower risk of stroke and 49% lower risk of coronary artery disease.
Types of Meditation Practices
So now that you know the benefits of practicing meditation, you may be wondering where to begin. For those of you that have never tried meditation before, here are a few different kinds.
This type of meditation helps to calm your mind through focusing on your breath, an object or an image.
Insight Meditation or Vipassana
This is a meditation practice that focuses on the awareness of breath and tuning in to the air as it passes in and out of your nose.
This includes techniques that create awareness through focused attention, observation and acceptance of things without judgement.
This practice focuses on awareness of breath and seated posture, with observation of thoughts and experiences in the mind and environment.
This practice combines breathing techniques, mantras and meditation focused on your chakras.
This meditation practice involves awareness through tracking your breath or through repetition of words, phrases or prayer.
How to Start
Meditation practice is simple, despite there being many different kinds. All you need to do is carve out time in your day, find a quiet space where you feel comfortable, and focus on your breathing. It’s also important to be consistent with your practice to obtain the overall benefits.
Take a seat in a position that feels comfortable in a space that feels calm and is quiet.
Shoot for 5 minutes when first starting out and build up to a full 10 minutes.
Pay attention to your body. You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, or loosely cross-legged, or you can kneel if that’s more comfortable to you. The important thing to remember is you want to be comfortable in this position for awhile.
You can close your eyes or keep them open. Focus your attention on your breath as you breathe in and out. At some point, your attention will inevitably wander. When this happens, simply take note of it and then focus your mind back on your breathing.
At the end of your 5 or 10 minutes, gently open your eyes if you’ve closed them, and take notice of what’s going on around you, including sights, sounds and smells. Notice how your body feels and how your mind feels before you return to the rest of your day.
Since most meditation practice doesn’t involve physical activity, it makes it possible for people of all fitness levels and ability levels to try. In fact, adding meditation as a daily routine can additionally help with symptoms of depression, help you get better sleep and improve your overall well-being.
You can do a simple search on YouTube and there are thousands of videos to walk you through the process. There are also a ton of free apps available to help with guided meditations and how to start. Headspace is a paid app, but I really enjoyed using it to help get me started and remain consistent.
At the most basic level, meditation is about learning to pay attention to your breath as it goes in and out and remain aware when your mind wanders from your breath. This practice of gently returning our minds to our breath builds muscles of attention and mindfulness. It helps us to remain present in the here and now with intention.