For thousands of years, meditation in various forms has been used as a path to spiritual enlightenment, but today it is also practiced by millions of people worldwide for a more pragmatic reason, their health.

Regular meditation promotes feelings of well being, mental clarity, lightness and peace. Medical research has confirmed that meditation can improve mental and physical health. It induces a state of deep relaxation, which many experts believe is superiors to sleep in its ability to refresh and heal mind and body.

During meditation the heart rate and rate of breathing can both decrease, and brain activity may alter to patterns only seen during very deep relaxation. Regular meditation may reduce high blood pressure and ease stress related disorders. It can also have a beneficial effect on many other conditions, including chronic pain, muscular aches and pain, asthma, insomnia, heart disease and other circulatory problems. Those who practice meditation stability improve and their powers of concentration greatly increase. Addiction and patterns of negative behavior are more easily overcome.

Meditation and back pain

If you are one of the many sufferers whose back pain is the result of muscular spasm, or strain or tension from mental stress, meditation could be the therapy for you. Even if your pain has a structural cause, regular meditation once the immediate physical problem is dealt with could still be of great benefit. Meditation may help to relax the patterns of muscular tension that may have contributed to the problem in the first place, helping to prevent a recurrence.

Practicing meditation

You can meditate in any sitting posture that is comfortable and allows your back to be held straight. The most important consideration is that the room should be warm but well ventilated, comfortable and free from noise, bright lights and other distractions. If the room has a telephone, unplug it.

Breathe through the nose rather than the mouth whenever possible. Breathe deeply, but gently, using the abdomen rather than the chest. Your abdomen should swell as you breathe in and flatten when you breathe out. When you breathe like this your chest should hardly move.

Most people find it helpful to concentrate on an object, such as the flame of a steadily burning candle, or to close their eyes and repeat a mantra of short words or a phrase in the heads. Some visualize a pleasant scene, perhaps a flowing river or lake. Others focus on their regular, deep breathing. The key is to find the thing that works for you.

The aim of meditation is to free the mind from conscious control, to allow it to become empty, to just be rather than to be thinking about something. You have to learn to let go of conscious thoughts and anxieties and allow the deeper, calmer part of you to emerge. Inevitably your mind will wander. Accept this and do not become irritated by it. As soon as you are aware that this is happening, gently return your concentration to the meditation object you have chosen. With practice, you will gradually learn to correct these meanderings almost without thought and your stream of mediation will be uninterrupted by them.

Take your time and try not to become frustrated if you feel you are not making progress. If you force yourself, you are no longer meditating.

Transcendental Meditation

The growth in popularity of meditation in the West owes much to the Indian guru, Maharishi. At the end of the 1950s he began teaching a new form of meditation which he called transcendental meditation, or TM, tailored to fit the needs of a busy, modern society. The Maharishi quickly built up a dedicated following and transcendental meditation soon became associated with the popular culture of the 1960s. Today, TM is still the most popular form of meditation in the West.

TM is rooted in Vedanta philosophy, which underpins the majority of the modern schools of Hinduism. Practitioners of TM repeat short words or phrases, known as mantras, in their heads to help them overcome conscious thought and reach a state of deep consciousness, sometimes referred to as thought free awareness or restful alertness. This state is believed to transcend thought, hence transcendental meditation, allowing individuals direct access to their energy and creative center.

Practitioners choose their mantras carefully to fit their personality and occupation and most meditate twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Most of the research into the effects of meditation on mental and physical health has involved practitioners of TM.