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Staying Healthy in a Stressful World:
Beyond the Mysticism of Meditation

Meditation in one form or another has been around for thousands of years and occupies a prominent position in most of the world's great religions. But it wasn't until the 1960s that it became popular in the West after an Indian monk, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, developed a form of meditation that could be easily practiced.

Based on technique rather than the religious orthodoxy and philosophies around which meditation had evolved, the Maharishi first began teaching his brand of meditation in India in 1958. He made his first tour of the West a year later when Jack Kennedy was still just a member of Congress, the Beatles were unknown, there was no war in Vietnam, and the 1960s were awaiting definition by these and other cultural phenomena of the times, including the Maharishi's transcendental meditation.

Western medicine, at about the same time, was beginning to make connections based on research begun in the 1950s, between the sleep-like physiology of Japanese Zen monks highly practiced in meditation, and its application to countering the effect of high blood pressure, one of the primary causes of heart disease. In 1968 at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson took up the offer of a group of ardent meditation students to study their claim that they could control their blood pressure through meditation.

Benson's test results showed that meditation produced the exact opposite effect of the body's physiologic reaction to stress that is triggered by the overactivity of our body's sympathetic nervous system; a mechanism that increases blood pressure, the rate of respiration, and bumps up blood lactate levels, all good and sensible things for an age when the rules of Darwinian engagement were limited to these simple options--get ready to fight for your life or run like hell. To Dr. Benson's astonishment, his group of 18 meditators uniformly showed lowered blood pressure, decreased rates in respiration that mimicked oxygen levels of people asleep for four to five hours, and lowered blood lactate levels; a condition consistent with decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Benson referred to his findings as "the relaxation response" and as a cardiologist, realized immediately its applicability to fighting off hypertension and heart disease.

The four basic components of the relaxation response are these: a quiet environment, a mental device to prevent the mind from wandering, a passive attitude, and a comfortable position. In his book The Relaxation Response, Benson further describes the techniques taught at the Mind/Body Medical Institute.

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Relax your all your muscles, beginning at your feet, progressing up to your face.
  4. Breathe through your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out say the word "one" silently to yourself. Breathe easily and naturally.
  5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.You may use your eyes to check the time. Do not use an alarm. When you finish sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed, then open them. Do not stand up right away.
  6. Don't worry about achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating "one."
  7. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal as the digestive process seems to interfere with the elicitation of the relaxation response.

 

Program Description
Herbert Benson, M.D.
Meditation
Cycle of Stress
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