Meditation has been hailed as a treatment for anxiety, depression and physical ailments. Suzanne Harrison finds out how it works, ahead of a worldwide meditation day
PEOPLE OFTEN TELL Christina Amala Hayes that they're incredibly stressed - just like she used to be.
The Hong Kong-based spiritual coach used to work as a hotel manager in London and says she had such a busy life, 'I didn't know how to cope'.
Her initial attempts at meditation were 'pathetic', but she persevered because she could see what she calls the beautiful stillness of people who'd been doing it for a long time. She now runs a weekly guided meditation class.
'There are those who come in a bit cynical, and some go out like that,' Amala Hayes says. 'But others go out having touched that place. It takes practice, but if you've even touched it, you can see the value. People feel more at peace and that's the key.'
Most people can probably relate to the need to feel calmer. And for many people, meditation is the answer.
What is meditation and how does it work? There are different types of meditation - the likes of transcendental, chakra and chanting, to name a few - but the goal is the same and the process similar: relaxation and finding peace of mind.
According to resident teacher Tong Lam at the Vajradhara Buddhist Centre in Wan Chai, the aims are two-fold. 'The first is to calm the mind using breath, and that's the aspect everyone relates to,' Lam says. 'The main function of meditation is proactive. It's not just about shutting your eyes and listening to dolphin noises. It's also not thinking about nothing. You have to concentrate on something.
'In Buddhism, we focus our minds on virtues - love, equanimity, wisdom and ultimate truth. The idea is that we generate these through contemplation. It's a sincere wish to be happy.'
Meditation is a process by which people can achieve a state in which the body is consciously relaxed and the mind is allowed to become calm and focused. Several major religions include ritual meditation -but meditation doesn't have to be a religious or spiritual activity.
Most of the more popular systems of meditation are of Eastern origin, but there also are various forms of Christian, Jewish and Muslim practice.
Meditation usually involves being seated in a quiet space and using a variety of visualisations to reach a state of mental and physical calm. This can be done alone or in a group. Some adepts can even meditate while walking along a busy street.
At a recent class at the New Age Shop there were five of us sitting on chairs in a circle. Initially, the teacher encouraged us to slow and deepen our breathing. Then she focused on chakra meditation: visualising the body's seven major chakras (energy centres) in various colours or centred state. For instance, she suggested visualising the root chakra as being at one with the earth like a tree trunk.
In the early stages of learning meditation, many people find it easier to do in a group or, at least, with a guiding CD.
'I had breast cancer about five years ago and I wanted to explore all the avenues for health and wellbeing,' says 43-year-old Stanley housewife Jane Williams. 'I guess there was a spiritual aspect to that. A friend who'd done a lot of meditation took me to the Raja yoga centre and I did a course and it was lovely.
'I took a lot away from it, but when it came to waking up at 6am and staring at a candle on my own, I gave up. I would have loved it to be a success and have it in my life, but I felt like I could never stop thinking about things like my shopping list.'
Williams completed a six-week course at the Brahma Kumaris Raja Centre in Tin Hau, and then did an advanced course.
'They play lovely music and there are these huge walls like a galaxy,' she says. 'It's gorgeous, but I was always very conscious that every other person in the class was having more success than me.
'It just didn't work for me. Maybe one day I'll go back to it. It probably did some good at the time. I found it calming, but you have to embrace some quirky ideas. They only believe the world's been around for 5,000 years and it's a huge leap of faith to get into that side of it.'
Popular meditation in modern cities these days is often less about religion and more about relaxation and embracing a healthy lifestyle.
Recent scientific studies show the health benefits of meditation can be proven. The Society for Neuroscience reported earlier this year that meditation may change the brain in a way that boosts attention. A study headed by Sara Lazar, from Harvard Medical School, examined the brain images of people who meditated for an average of about 40 minutes a day. Some had done it for only a year or so; others had done it for decades. The team used magnetic resonance imaging to examine parts of the brain involved in memory and attention, and found that people who meditated had increased thickness in those regions.
Typically, these areas shrink as people get older, but the study found that older mediators had been able to ward off some of the shrinkage.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison enrolled 41 people in a trial of so-called mindfulness meditation. It's often recommended as an antidote to the stress and pain of chronic disease, because it focuses attention on the moment, noting thoughts and feelings as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings.
Twenty-five of the subjects attended a weekly class and one seven-hour retreat during the study. They were also given exercises to do at home. The others received no meditation training and acted as a control group.
After eight weeks, the researchers measured electrical activity in the frontal part of the brain. This region was more active on the left side of those who meditated and was associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.
Participants were also given a flu jab at the start of the study. Those who meditated had higher levels of antibodies, according to the team, led by Richard Davidson.
Another research team, from the Medical College of Georgia, reported last year that meditation can lower blood pressure, anxiety, stress, depression and addictions even in healthy young people. The eight-month study involving school children found that 20 minutes of mediation a day produced a significant improvement in blood pressure. The meditation entailed the children simply closing their eyes and concentrating on their breathing.
Meditation is an ancient practice. The earliest written references to Hindu meditation such as yoga can be found in the religious scriptures the Upanishads. The texts, from as early as 800BC, were composed when meditation practices in the Indian subcontinent were popular, particularly among Hindu renouncers (samanas) and adherents of the orthodox tradition of Indian religion (brahmanas).
This weekend, heads of state from around the world will join spiritual leaders in Bangalore, India, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Art of Living Foundation humanitarian group. The three-day conference on world unity and human values will include what's said to be the largest group meditation. Art of Living has a Hong Kong chapter, with regular workshops in a meditative breathing technique called kriya