Is Meditation Always Relaxing?

This study represents a real advance in the way we think about meditation, away from our former, simplistic, stereotypic thinking about what it is and what it can do. It’s been a long time in coming.

These researchers make it clear that, contrary to the notion that meditation is always relaxing, resulting in reduced stress and physiological arousal, the reality is sometimes yes, and sometimes no -  it depends on what kind of meditation we’re talking about. 

It’s always good to see this kind of research, because it wises us up and leads to a more nuanced, accurate and complex understanding of what meditation is really about. It means we’re growing up in our understanding of mind-body practices. 

True, some meditation is strictly for the purposes of relaxation; but there are other kinds that require discipline, mental effort and physiological stress. So these clever investigators collected hard measures of the cardiovascular effects of three different kinds of meditation, chosen for their differences in cognitive and attentional requirements, to see if they produced different outcomes. And indeed they did.

More precisely, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, conducted a one-year longitudinal mental training study, where participants practiced a type of meditation exercise on a daily basis for 3 months:  

  • Breathing Meditation
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation
  • Observing Thoughts or Mindfulness Meditation

They collected data on heart rate (HR), high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) and subjective ratings of effort and likeability during each of the three types of meditation.

As expected, heart rate and effort were higher during the loving-kindness meditation and the mindfulness meditation, as compared to the breathing meditation.

With training over time HR and likeability increased, while HF-HRV and the subjective experience of effort decreased. The increase in HR and decrease in HF-HRV over training was higher for the loving-kindness meditation and the mindfulness meditation, as compared to the breathing meditation.

So, this puts the lie to the implicit belief that meditation is always relaxing and associated with low arousal.  Instead, the current results show that meditations that aim at improving compassion and meta-cognitive skills do in fact require effort, and are associated with physiological arousal, as compared to breathing meditation.

Overall these findings can be useful in making more specific suggestions about which type of meditation is most adaptive for a given context and population.  In addition, it demonstrates our increased sophistication in understanding these practices as we use them and study them more and more.

Citation: Lumma AL1, Kok BE2, Singer T2. Is meditation always relaxing? Investigating heart rate, heart rate variability, experienced effort and likeability during training of three types of meditation. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2015 Jul;97(1):38-45. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.04.017. Epub 2015 April. [email protected]

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