Yoga and Meditation Can Change Your Genes, Study Says

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Yoga and meditation may do more than just help you feel relaxed in the moment. A new scientific review suggests that these and other mindfulness exercises can actually reverse stress-related changes in genes linked to poor health and depression.

In the new paper, published in Frontiers in Immunology, British researchers analyzed the findings from 18 previously published studies—involving a total of 846 people—on the biological effects of meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, Qi gong and Tai Chi. Together, the authors say, the studies show that these mind-body exercises appear to suppress the expression of genes and genetic pathways that promote inflammation.

Inflammation can temporarily boost the immune system, and can be protective against infection and injury, the authors write in their paper. But in today’s society, in which stress is primarily psychological, the body’s inflammatory response can become chronic and can impair both physical and mental health.

Researchers found that people who practiced these activities regularly had fewer signs of inflammation, including a decrease in their production of inflammatory proteins. This signals “the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress,” they wrote, which may translate to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.

Mantra meditation* has been practiced in India for thousands of years because people knew that it reduces stress, calms the mind and increases inner peace. In the 1970s medical researchers at Harvard University began studying mantra meditation. They found that during the practice of mantra meditation the body has what they call the relaxation response, which gives the body deep rest that is deeper than the rest from sleep. They also found that through regular meditation that that deep rest builds up in the body over time, and it is that deepening reservoir of rest that reduces stress and results in the many benefits of mantra meditation.

Stress accounts for over 60% of doctor visits. So building on their studies those Harvard researchers thendeveloped a form of mantra meditation that easily elicits the relaxation response and started teaching that meditation to doctors through Harvard Medical School. Inner Peace Meditation is based in part on that meditation developed at Harvard and in part on decades of mantra meditation practice by the staff.

Harvard researchers and others continued to study meditation and found that it can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and stroke, can help relieve stress, depression, insomnia, sleeplessness, anxiety and worry, and can increase productivity, learning, happiness, well being and inner peace. And people report having more mindfulness and deeper transcendence from Inner Peace Meditation and that it’s easy to learn. Someone practicing Inner Peace Meditation wrote:  

Environment and lifestyle can both affect which genes are turned on and off, and that can have real effects on disease risk, longevity and even which traits get passed on to future generations. Stressful events, for example, can activate the fight-or-flight response and trigger a chain reaction of stress-related changes in the body—including activating specific genes involved in making proteins that produce inflammation.

Lead author Ivana Buric, a PhD student in Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in England, says her team was surprised to see that different types of mind-body techniques had such similar effects at the genetic level. “Sitting meditation is quite different than yoga or Tai Chi,” she said in an email, “yet all of these activities—when practiced regularly—seem to decrease the activity of genes involved in inflammation.”

This is a relatively new field of research, she adds, and it’s likely that similar benefits could be obtained from other lifestyle changes like healthy eating and exercise. There aren’t yet enough studies to know how activities like yoga compare to other types of physical activity in terms of altering gene expression.

Buric says the existing studies suggest that mind-body interventions “cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our well being.” She also emphasizes that inherited genes are not static and that DNA activity can depend on things people can control. “By choosing healthy habits every day, we can create a gene activity pattern that is more beneficial for our health,” she says. “Even just 15 minutes of practicing mindfulness seems to do the trick.”

There are many different types of meditation being taught today under many different names by many different groups. As you investigate learning to meditate we suggest that you consider two points:

First, meditation has been freely handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. In recent years however teaching meditation has become a billion dollar industry that is often more interested in your money than in your well being. So when you must pay to learn meditation be cautious. Even when learning from a non profit group your teacher and their managers may be getting paid modestly while the very top people may be getting rich through salaries, fees, gifts, etc. (as opposed to distributions, which are not permitted). Also, many meditation groups and teachers claim that their meditation is the best, or that it contains some sort of magic, but such claims are unproven.

Second, the primary goal of many who teach meditation today is to convert you to their religious or spiritual beliefs rather than to advance your well being. Some initiate you into their religion or spiritual group when they teach you meditation, often without you even being aware of it. Others try to convert you by interpreting your experiences of meditation for you in the language of their beliefs. It is our experience that the benefits of meditation come soley from meditating, not from any such initiations or beliefs.

The staff of Inner Peace Meditation has been practicing mantra meditation for over 40 years on average. We continue to meditate regularly because it still helps us better manage and balance our lives. However meditation is not THE answer to having a happy, balanced life, it is only a part of that answer. If you invite too much stress into your life you will be stressed out even if you meditate. When you behave badly towards others that also creates stress in your life. So meditate regularly, but remember that to have a happy, balanced life you must also be honest, do a good job at whatever you do, and treat others the way you want them to treat you.

Inner Peace Meditation is nondirective mantra meditation. Other meditation techniques classified as nondirective are the Relaxation Response and Transcendental Meditation® according to the research report “Nondirective Meditation Activates Default Mode Network and Areas Associated with Memory Retrieval and Emotional Processing” in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 2014: 8:86.

Nondirective meditations are based on effortlessness and acceptance of mind wandering whereas directive meditations are based on exerting effort to resist thoughts and mind wandering. The above research report found that nondirective meditation activates the default mode network of the brain more than directive meditation, which means nondirective meditation provides deeper rest than directive meditations such as mindfulness.

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