There is widespread agreement in the literature that meditation reduces sympathetic activation and increases parasympathetic activation of the ANS, that is, it reduces physiological arousal thereby triggering a characteristic spectrum of simultaneous physiological changes: reduced respiratory rate (RR), reduced heart rate (HR), reduced blood pressure (BP), reduced electrodermal activity (EDA) and increased skin temperature (ST). Many studies of non-meditative practices such as relaxation, listening to music and sitting quietly have demonstrated the same pattern, leading to the assumption that meditation can be defined merely as a method of rest or relaxation — no different to other methods.

The significance of my research is that it has challenged current thinking by demonstrating that Sahaja Yoga meditators manifest changes that in some part are opposite to that which one would expect to see in participants who simply undergo rest/relaxation. Specifically, while the “relaxation” explanatory paradigm for meditation predicts that meditators’ ST should increase, this study found that it decreases and that this decrease correlates with the degree of mental silence reported by the meditator. A review of the literature indicates that this pattern of changes is difficult to mimic consciously. The observations in this study correspond closely with other studies on Sahaja Yoga meditation reported in the “grey literature”. Taken together these findings suggest that the mental silence experience may be associated with a relatively unique pattern of physiological activity.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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Findings suggest that the mental silence experience may be associated with a specific pattern of activity in both the central nervous system and autonomic nervous system which is more complex than simple reduction of arousal and yet different from the cognitive changes seen in association with mindfulness meditaton.

Thus, although Eastern and Western ideas of meditation may seem externally similar (as might meditation and relaxation) and may initially share a number of physiological similarities, the point of both physiological and philosophical divergence between the two paradigms may be with the onset of the mental silence experience.

Ramesh Manocha

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In this excerpt from his thesis, Dr Ramesh Manocha discusses the problem of differentiating meditation from relaxation.

“Early uncontrolled or own-control studies of meditation suggested that psycho-physiological parameters such as heart rate could change quite dramatically in a single meditation session and this led to initial enthusiasm for meditation as a potentially unique self control strategy.

“Later however properly controlled studies reported considerably less positive outcomes. For instance, a controlled study comparing TM, general relaxation training and muscle relaxation using electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, demonstrated that while TM significantly reduced parameters associated with arousal (i.e. a significant within-group difference), it was not any more effective than the comparator interventions. In other words, there were no significant between-group differences. Similarly a study comparing TM to listening to music, found that oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production dropped in the meditating group (consistent with reports in uncontrolled studies) but that the same change occurred in a non-meditating control group (who simply listened to music) and that there were no significant differences between the two practices. In other words, when meditation was compared to rest, and relaxation or other appropriate controls, it demonstrated minimal differences in both the magnitude and direction of any major parameters. Thus emerged the notion that meditation, contemplation, prayer and rest and relaxation, were psycho-physiologically equivalent.”

More information about Dr Manocha’s thesis can be found at his website.

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