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Health & Balance

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The Mysterious 'Medication' of Meditation

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There are several forms of meditation, including transcendental meditation, and several types of relaxation therapies. Many clinicians believe that relaxation -- however it is achieved -- is the crucial factor.

"There are three basic kinds of meditation: concentrative, awareness, and expressive. Transcendental meditation and Kundalini are concentrative, focusing on a mantra; Vipassani is a mindfulness or awareness meditation, becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise; and expressive meditation is dance, twirling, shaking," says James S. Gordon, MD, director of Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.

"Each may have slightly different physiologic effects, but that doesn't mean that one technique is better than the other. ? Different kinds of meditation are appropriate for different people at different times," Gordon tells WebMD.

Benson agrees. Meditation is but one form of relaxation that leads to a common set of physiologic changes, he tells WebMD. "There's nothing unique about meditation. Physiologically, it is called the relaxation response, and its opposite is the stress response. With the relaxation response there is decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, slower brain waves. That's been proven repeatedly in studies."

Benson says yoga, tai chi, Lamaze breathing, and repetitive prayer such as the rosary can do the same. "They all share this common physiology," he says. "Repetition is key to creating the response. ? So it could be a mantra; it could be a prayer; it could be a repetitive muscular activity. The other feature is, when other thoughts come to mind when you do a repetition, simply let them go and come back to the repetition."

The bottom line is that any condition that's caused or exacerbated by stress can be alleviated, says Benson. "So with 60% to 90% of visits to physicians being in the mind-body, stress realm, you can see why this has such legion effects. Anxiety, mild and moderate depression, anger and hostility, hypertension, cardiac irregularities -- all forms of pain are made worse by stress. And that's why the relaxation response is useful."

Meditation-type exercises are "virtually curative of tension-related pain like tension headache. It's vitally important in PMS, infertility, hot flashes, insomnia," Benson says.

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