1 step ahead of the game
Science proves what yogis have known for centuries
By Zebunnisa Mirza
(Article published in Yoga Scene magazine in July 2015)
It was 20 minutes before class.
After offering me a quick snack, my host excused herself in order to spend a few minutes preparing for the meditation course she teaches every week at her yoga and meditation retreat in Hamilton.
I spent several minutes devouring a plate of spicy lentils before checking over my shoulder to see what Kavita was up to.
I found her seated cross legged on the carpet in her home office, spine upright, surrounded by books, pages of notes, and a large whiteboard covered in speaking notes for her class. Despite the somewhat frenzied state of her working space, Kavita appeared to be perfectly calm, eyes closed with a gentle smile adorning her face.
Kavita Parshotam, who has been practicing mediation for over twenty years, says these pre-class meditations are an essential tool that aid not only her spiritual development, but also her overall health and productivity.
“I try and find some quiet time before a class or a big appointment, even if it’s for a few moments,” Parshotam says. “It makes me feel more centered, and connected to my guru.”
The age-old practice of meditation has strong roots in a wide array of ancient spiritual traditions such as Yoga Philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity and Sufism who have claimed its benefits for centuries. In recent years, science has begun to confirm these benefits. A quick Google search will reveal over a dozen scientific studies pointing to the benefits of meditation.
Just a few months ago, researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, U.S.A. released results from pilot studies that looked at the effectiveness of meditation as a therapy for mild cognitive impairment, migraine headaches, pain and anxiety.
“We’re coming to recognize that meditation changes people’s brains,” said Rebecca Erwin Wells M.D., an assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “And we’re just beginning to gain understanding of what those changes mean and how they might benefit the meditator.”
Wells and her colleague Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, conducted several studies probing the effects of meditation on regular practitioners.
Their research revealed that meditation can significantly improve the brain’s ability to learn and remember, lower the intensity and frequency of migraines, reduce the feeling of pain, and decrease the occurrence of everyday anxiety.
“In these studies we’ve been able to get a better sense of the brain regions associated with reducing pain and anxiety during meditation,” Zeidan said.
This isn’t the only scientific study that’s unveiled the benefits of meditation. Over the past few years dozens of studies have emerged showing how a regular mediation practice can slow age-related brain loss, improve sleep quality, and even help with addiction.
“Basically, by having people meditate while their brains are being scanned we’ve been able to objectively verify what people like Buddhist monks have been reporting about meditation for thousands of years,” Zeidan said.
None of this comes as a surprise to Kavita Parshotam who has been teaching yoga and meditation in New Zealand for 16 years.
“I see these sort of results all the time,” said Parshotam. “It’s nice to see science begin to recognise what people have been practising for thousands of years.”
“People who come here and learn to meditate are less reactive so their pain threshold is a lot higher. The improved memory is a direct result of their mind not being so restless,” she said.
Through private sessions and group classes at her centre, the Narrows Retreat, Parshotam says she has seen countless people – from at home mothers to corporate executives – experience reduced levels of stress and increased happiness after adopting a regular meditation practice.
With the new wealth of scientific research that has backed up ancient knowledge, it’s not hard to see why meditation has trickled into mainstream practice and even into the corporate world.
Earlier this year, the release of Mindful Work, a book by New York Times reporter David Gelles chronicled the story of how many of America’s large companies, such as General Mills, Target, Google, Ford and Aetna, have introduced meditation programs for their employees and have found the practice to have tangible benefits. Not only do their employees report lower stress levels, but the at-work meditation programs are helping the bottom line too. Aetna estimated that since implementing its meditation program, the company has saved $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs and gained $3,000 per employee in productivity.
“It’s beginning to happen here in New Zealand too, just not quite to the same level,” Parshotam said.
“Companies in New Zealand are slowly beginning to incorporate meditation in their corporate wellness programs especially where the leaders themselves have taken up meditation and experienced the benefits and they now want to pass it onto the employees.”
“Meditation allows you to concentrate and focus, and to succeed in anything being able to concentrate is a very useful skill.”
“Meditation makes you less reactive. If somebody is having a bad day at work, instead of getting angry with them you may be able to respond with a lot more kindness and compassion. If you get a client who may be very irritable and angry, just by you being able to maintain your composure would be helpful in a situation like that. Generally people who meditate can keep better mental health and mental health is a huge issue in the work place.”
But it isn’t just about saving companies money and improving the experience at work, meditation can make a real difference in everyone’s day-to-day life.
According to Parshotam one of the main reasons meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the mainstream is because there’s a greater need for it than ever before.
“I think there is a lot more stress in today’s society,” she says. “People are always plugged in if at work or away from work. The consequences of always being plugged in are becoming more apparent. So we are trying to find ways to deal with that.”
And the fact that modern institutions are teaching meditation as a completely secular practice makes it much more palatable to mainstream tastes.
“Meditation doesn’t have to be religious,” Parshotam says.
“You don’t actually have to believe in anything in order to meditate. You have to practice and experience the results yourself. It’s like a scientific experiment. You’re told about the methods, you’re given the tools, and you just apply the methods and the tools and then see the results yourselves. So it’s not based on any belief system but on personal experience.”
Over her 16 years of teaching experience, Parshotam has seen many of her students transform their lives as a result of their meditation practice.
”People who have been depressed manage to completely come off their anti-depressants and are now very happy and joyful. They look forward to getting up in the morning and going to work and doing their meditation practices,” she says.
“I have had people tell me that their blood pressure comes down soon after meditating so from that they know they need to meditate more regularly.”
But it’s no magic pill.
“The benefits of meditation come from having a regular practice,” Parshotam says. “It’s no quick cure. The more effort you put into it the more comes from it.”
Having the right teacher helps too.
“One cannot over emphasize the importance of teachers,” Parshotam says.
“It’s important that whoever is teaching has been meditating for a good length of time so that they can impart their own experience and wisdom of meditation. It’s important that whatever techniques they teach have got a good foundation behind it and that the teacher just hasn’t learned a whole bunch of techniques on the Internet.”
“Meditation is not book learning where you are studying the mind from a book. You are actually studying your own mind and your own heart. And if you haven’t experienced what your own mind is like and what your own heart is like, how will you teach that to anyone else? There will be a lack of integrity.”
A serious meditator for more than twenty years, Kavita left her promising business career to devote herself full time to sharing the teachings of Self-realisation. She is the founder of the Narrows Retreat, New Zealand’s first Ananda centre, where she teaches yoga, meditation, and other classes on the philosophy and practice of the journey towards Self-realisation.