Just imagine. There’s a practice whereby you sit for 20 minutes twice a day and it can reduce your stress levels, improve your health and even make you happier. All you have to do is think a certain sound, or noise, over and over. That’s it. Sounds too good to be true?
We’re talking about Vedic Meditation, a form of meditation that has been around for at least 5,000 years. Back then, the people who lived in the Indus Valley, now known as India and Pakistan, practised meditation as a fundamental part of daily life. This knowledge that has given us yoga and Ayurveda, was known as Veda, hence the name Vedic. And though there are some written records, the practice has been passed down verbally from generation to generation.
Now, as we search for an antidote to our tech-laden, busy lives, Vedic Meditation is becoming more popular, not only for its effectiveness, but also for its simplicity and ease. You don’t need candles, essential oils, peace and quiet, or even a cross-legged position – just the ability to think.
And those who meditate regularly credit the practice with a less cluttered mind and even success. US filmmaker David Lynch is believed to have never missed a meditation session in decades, while ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has famously said: ‘In moments of madness, meditation has helped me find moments of serenity.’
Actress Sienna Miller is an ardent Vedic Meditation fan while Oprah, Katy Perry, Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow all meditate regularly. But what is Vedic Meditation and how do we practise it?
While some forms of meditation work with your breathing or with you focusing on objects such as candles or flowers, Vedic Meditation works with a mantra. This is a simple, meaningless sound given to you by an accredited teacher. It’s a vibration that resonates with you and the stage of life you’re at. You sit still with your back supported, close your eyes and think the mantra.
Other thoughts come and go. You’ll wonder what’s for supper, if the children are enjoying their tennis sessions or remembered their homework, and what time your partner will be back from their meeting. You’ll hear the traffic in the distance, the sound of people chatting outside your apartment, the hum of the fridge and the whirr of the aircon. But your mind finds the mantra attractive and charming, so it chooses to return to thinking it as soon as it can.
Soon you’ll find the mantra has settled the mind and led it away from the outer world on an inward dive. Thanks to the mantra, your mind will drop to its more subtle layers where it experiences an inner state of blissfulness. All thoughts and activity stop and you reach your quietest point.
Jillian Lavender, who co-founded London Meditation Centre and New York Meditation Center with her partner Michael Miller, learned to meditate in 1993. An executive for a global publishing company, she spent her life on a plane, describing herself as ‘tired, stressed, overwhelmed, not very happy or healthy.’
‘I heard about meditation through a friend’s father,’ says Jillian, who is based in London. ‘After years of battling insomnia, he learned to meditate and within a few days, he was sleeping. It was transforming his life. And everyone around him, including me, noticed the changes.’
As soon as she learned to meditate, Jillian, a self-confessed worrier, felt her anxiety levels dropping. She was getting through her to-do list faster. As she transferred to Paris and then London, she had more energy. After nearly a decade meditating, Jillian moved to a small cabin in Arizona, US, and spent 14 months training closely with her teacher, Thom Knoles. In 2008 London Meditation Centre and New York Meditation Center were opened, and to date, thousands have passed through their doors to learn this ancient practice from Jillian and Michael. The couple also lead meditation retreats in the UK, the US, Portugal and India.
But many people shun meditation because they think it’s for spiritual people who practise yoga for hours or for those who can stop their thoughts in their tracks. Others suspect it’s a cult. By contrast, Jillian and Michael believe meditation is accessible for everyone.
‘It’s for people who are enjoying success in certain areas and yet they have a sense there’s something more,’ explains Jillian, author of Why Meditate? Because It Works. ‘Or they see parts of their lives, such as their health, eating habits or sleep, that are unstable.
‘Some might be achievers but they don’t feel peaceful or happy, while others might have anxiety, resentment or deep sadness. Some people feel a lack of purpose. Meditation can help all of them.’
So what are the benefits and why should we meditate? Jillian talks us through the eight wins of Vedic Meditation.
8 reasons to meditate:
Stress comes about due to a combination of pressure, overload and excitation, and an inability to recover. When the body is exposed to repeated demands and isn’t able to fully recover, the overloading experience leaves an impression on the physiology – the body has accumulated stress.
If given the chance, the body will automatically dissolve accumulated tensions and return to a state of homeostasis. Deep rest is the state that allows for this recovery.
As any good gardener will tell you, the most powerful way to tend to a plant and keep it healthy is to provide nourishment at the most basic level – watering and feeding the roots. When your mind and body are showing signs of being unwell, you’ll get the most impact by going to the source of the issue and bringing nourishment to the deepest level.
Research shows that some of the physical health conditions improved by automatic self-transcending meditation are heart disease, asthma, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and digestive problems.
Our happiness is often dependent on others, or conditional upon circumstances being a certain way. It might rely on others’ opinions or we might think it will come through acquisition – ‘When I get that well-paid job, I’ll be happy.’ But operating from this model is a never-ending jostle to acquire more.
Happiness is within us. Meditation boosts serotonin, the happy chemical, resulting in more upbeat emotions, satisfaction and blissfulness. Studies have shown lactic acid levels – excess levels have been found in patients with panic disorder – are lower in meditators.
Our brains are constantly changing and constantly creating and losing connections. When we’re stressed, the brain moves us into fight-or-flight mode, and as the amygdala – a pair of small, almond-shaped regions deep in the brain that help regulate emotion and encode takes over, we respond to the stimuli right in front of us. In people who are under stress for a long period of time, the front part of the brain shrinks in size.
Because your brain isn’t hardwired like your laptop, you can forge new pathways and inter-neuronal connections. Sit down to meditate each day and you rewire your brain in a co-ordinated and powerful way. Every meditation session is like pushing the reset button.
Your best ideas don’t come to you when you’re worked up and straining. When you settle down, you’re more able to slip into a state where you can catch those nuggets of inspiration.
When you meditate, the mind de-excites to quieter layers of thinking and experiences the source of creative energy and intelligence. When you return to activity, you’re infused with more energy, intelligence and clarity.
Often we can be ‘tired but wired’ – operating on a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol that allows us to push through the fog of fatigue. However, a lack of sleep can compromise the immune system, make us more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and suffer anxiety and heart disease.
Meditation doesn’t replace sleep, but the very deep rest of meditation each day takes the pressure off, so sleep can be restorative and revitalising.
If you’re calmer and more adaptable, you’re going to be less stressed. The knock-on effect is that with less wear and tear on the body and less disturbance of the mind, you will not age as quickly.
The twice-daily experience of meditation allows the nervous system to recharge, renew and repair and the ageing process slows down.
How you feel and behave affects every relationship and social interaction you have. When you’re healthier, happier, energised and conscious, you’re a nicer person to be around. When you’re unwell, feeling down, stressed or exhausted, you’re not available for others in a way that’s uplifting.
More consciousness leads to clearer perception and better understanding which create increased appreciation, greater empathy and a deeper connection.