In cities like New York and Los Angeles, meditation is now described as “trending,” thanks to fancy group meditation studios and a growing embrace of holistic wellness practices in chic circles.
In other places, it’s still seen as a hippie past time, a habit for crunchy granola types that requires choosing monk garb and the silence of nature over modern life.
But it’s when you can look past all of these things and focus on the real, research-tested benefits that things start to get interesting.
Over the past few decades, increasing evidence has associated practicing meditation with reduced stress, better sleep, and brain power — all things that are increasingly important as you age.
“The practice is the practice, and it’s going to work because it’s the practice,” says Cristie Newhart, a meditation and yoga instructor at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. “However, as an older person that does meditation, I do find a lot of benefit. As things change in the aging process — my body, my relationship to the world — having that grounded steadiness of my meditation practice and knowing that I can get back to that still, quiet place within me has been hugely beneficial.”
Finding Stillness Despite Stress
A still, quiet place within you? Yes, it just might exist.
Newhart explains that no matter the type of meditation you practice, you’re ultimately just learning to “be present with what is” instead of constantly responding to the feeling of being pulled in a million different directions by life’s many stressors.
In fact, in The Relaxation Response, a groundbreaking book on meditation first published in 1975 by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, MD, Benson argues that at its core, learning to meditate is about learning to respond to the body’s overactive alarm system (aka the fight-or-flight response). “Each of us possesses a natural and innate protective mechanism against ‘overstress,’ which allows us to turn off harmful bodily effects, to counter the effects of the fight-or-flight response,” he writes.
This is especially important because though the connection between chronic stress and high blood pressure and heart disease has been established for some time, more recent research has shown that stress impacts the body in many other detrimental ways. We now know stress can initiate chronic inflammation, which is associated with cancer, autoimmune diseases, and more.
Studies on whether meditation is effective at reducing stress have demonstrated mixed results, but many point toward real benefit. One meta-analysis found the evidence on Transcendental Meditation’s ability to reduce stress is particularly strong. Other studies have shown meditation may improve sleep among older adults, and well-rested people are better equipped to handle daily stressors.
Brain Benefits of Meditation
Potentially even more impressive are the ways in which meditation actually changes the structure of the brain.
Studies have shown long-term meditators have more gray matter in the sensory regions of the brain but also in the frontal cortex, related to working memory and decision making. In another, just eight weeks of meditation increased gray matter in regions associated with self-relevance, learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation.
This is crazy important because gray matter is where your brain’s information processing power is housed, and the more of it you have, the better. As you age, parts of the brain like the frontal cortex shrink. This research showed in one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
How to Get Started
Of course, even if you’re ready to give it a shot, meditation can be a little intimidating. Newhart says that though it can be scary, it’s also incredibly simple and you don’t need anything but your own body to get started. “First off, you can’t do it wrong,” she says. “There’s no way you can be with yourself in a wrong way. I think we get really hung up on not doing it right.”
She also says once you start sitting in silence, you may need to work on letting go of the common notion that meditation is about stopping or clearing your mind.” It’s not an act of will. You can’t will your mind quiet, it doesn’t work that way,” she explains. “The more you try to make it quiet, the deeper into the mental noise you walk. It’s about just learning to be with what is at any given moment.”
That may mean simply focusing on your breath, learning a mantra, or practicing moving meditation during a walk or run or yoga. You may also want to seek out some outside help at first, Newhart says, to find a technique that works for you and practice a bit until you’re comfortable.
Those fancy group meditation studios are definitely an option, but so are popular apps like Headspace and Insight Timer, and the many guided meditations available online. Whatever you do, don’t let learning to meditate stress you out — that’s just counterproductive.