The Power Of Om

Om Mantra

Om Mantra

The Power Of Om
Sarah Womack
Last Updated: July 20. 2008 1:55PM UAE

People who meditate often rave about its benefits. People who don’t often dismiss it as quackery. But does the truth lie somewhere between “hugely effective ancient discipline” and “harmless fad”?

Personally, I’ve never found sitting cross-legged and chanting “om” – picture Richard Dreyfuss in the Oscar-winning film The Goodbye Girl – easy, or indeed relaxing. And according to the Which? Guide to Complementary Medicine, I am not alone. Some 400 people a week learn to meditate and then give up within the first year, finding the switch from worry mode to a ­blissful state too hard.

But underestimating the technique means I’m missing out on a range of benefits to my health, my mood and my attention span, ­according to research.

One study has found that people who meditate have a better ­immune response to the flu vaccine than people who do not meditate. Another looked at 90 cancer patients who did meditation for seven weeks. They found that people who meditated had 31 per cent lower stress symptoms and 67 per cent less mood disturbance than people who did not meditate.

Studies this year suggest that meditation is so powerful it can even “re-circuit” the brain. Just as aerobics can improve muscle shape so, claims a study in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, meditation tones the grey cells.

Brain scans conducted by ­researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveal that those ­experienced at meditating boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished ­musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex.

Other claims made for meditation range from improving asthma and increasing fertility through to reducing the effects of ageing.

So how does it work?

To understand the impact of meditation, experts say we need to understand what meditation actually is. Broadly speaking, it’s a mental practice in which a person focuses attention on a particular subject or object. It is associated with religion, but can be secular, and what you focus on is largely a matter of personal choice – a mantra, breathing patterns, or simply an awareness of being alive.

In Madison, Wisconsin, Dr Richard Davidson carried out studies on Buddhist monks for several years. In one study, he observed the brains of a group of office workers before and after they undertook a course of meditation combined with stress reduction techniques. At the end of the course the participants’ brains seemed to have altered in the way they functioned.

They showed greater activity in the left-hand side – a characteristic which Davidson has previously linked to happiness and enthusiasm. He told the BBC: “By meditating, you can become happier, you can concentrate more effectively and you can change your brain in ways that support that.” The idea that meditation can improve the well-being of everyone, as well as those suffering from depression and forms of mental illness, is exciting researchers.

One of those is Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and society at Bristol University in the UK, who visited Kathmandu for instruction with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has been meditating for more than 30 years. She wanted to learn more about meditation and separate myth from reality. She says meditating helped her cope with the death of her father and she now uses it in all sorts of situations, some very humdrum. “When I try to meditate now it does have a more powerful effect,” she says.

Her father died from cancer about two months before she went to Kathmandu and she had not been able to grieve his loss, she says. Matthieu suggested she focus on unconditional love, and when she thought about that, she said, she inevitably thought about her ­father. She wept for ages and was finally able to let go.

“Meditating and mindfulness now help me get in touch with what ­really matters, and stop worrying about ‘surface’ stuff,” she says. “It helped me profoundly in handling all my grief around dad’s illness and death. It helps me with almost everything.”

After her visit to Kathmandu – and as part of a TV programme on meditation – she went to Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, where Dr Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School professor, put her through a series of tests.

Doctors measured her resting pulse, muscle tension, respiration and sweat. They then subjected her to some mental arithmetic, during which her stress levels and all her readings soared.

But after a short period of meditation, her pulse and breathing dropped below the resting rate. Dr Benson called this the “relaxation response” and said it could help with a wide range of conditions, including heart disease, asthma, diabetes and infertility. He said that to the extent that any disorder was caused or made worse by stress, achieving a “relaxation response” would counteract that condition.

Sykes said she was recently on a crowded train travelling from London to the south-west of England where there was “standing-room only”. She sat cross-legged on the floor to meditate and felt like she was transported to a “delightful” place. “I’d had a frenzied day, having to think and concentrate hard, speak and plan all day. The train was a nightmare. Packed, noisy, no seats left and truly horrid. I just found a place to sit in the floor, closed my eyes, and allowed all the mad busyness of my brain that day to stop, concentrated on my breathing – and it was a massive relief and escape.”

She regards new research showing how meditation may alter the physical structure of the brain as fascinating. “Of course, it may be that particular kinds of people are drawn to meditate… so more work is needed. But a slightly thicker cortex has also been found in the brains of taxi drivers and jugglers who have to concentrate while ­staying calm.”

Such is the vogue now for meditation as part of medicine that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which is about 80 per cent meditation, has been approved by the UK clinical watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, for use with people in the UK who have experienced three or more episodes of depression.

It is also offered by hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications ­associated with increased stress, including a depressed immune system.

But some medical experts strike a cautious note. Cancer Research UK, the health charity, says that generally speaking meditation practices are very safe. “But there is no evidence to suggest that meditation can help to prevent, treat or cure your cancer or any other disease,” says a spokesman. He also points out that some types of meditation can actually worsen symptoms such as depression, anxiety and delusions. “When you practice meditation you may see more clearly any anxiety, depressed feelings, or negative thoughts that you have. This can make you feel frightened, low or disorientated.”

Research into using meditation to help people with a disease like cancer to cope with stress, anxiety and the side-effects of treatment continues. But only a few clinical trials involving small numbers of patients have been done so far. “We need a lot more research in this ­area before we will know for sure how meditation can help people with cancer,” said the spokesman.

So the jury is out, and research continues, but Sykes says she is sticking with meditation and thinks others should try it. If evidence is found that meditation could help people to think better, be happier and even be more compassionate, that would be astonishing in itself, she said.


HeartBeat Om

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