Is meditation always relaxing? Longitudinal study of 3 methods

Lumma, A. L., Kok, B. E., & Singer, T. (2015). 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. Accepted manuscript in press. From the Abstract.

Meditation is often associated with a relaxed state of the body. Meditation can however also be regarded as a kind of mental task and training, which is associated with mental effort and physiological arousal. The cardiovascular effects of meditation may vary depending on the type of meditation, degree of mental effort, and amount of training.

In the current study we assessed heart rate (HR), high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) and subjective ratings of effort and likeability during three types of meditation varying in their cognitive and attentional requirements, namely breathing meditation, loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation. In the context of [this] project, a one-year longitudinal mental training study, participants practiced each meditation exercise on a daily basis for 3 months.

Results showed that as expected HR and effort were higher during loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation compared to 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 loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation compared to breathing meditation.

In contrast to implicit beliefs about meditation being always relaxing and associated with low arousal, the results show that core meditations aiming at improving compassion and meta-cognitive skills require effort and are associated with physiological arousal 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.

Measured effect of Himalayan singing bowl

Landry, J. M. (2013). Physiological and Psychological Effects of a Himalayan Singing Bowl in Meditation Practice: A Quantitative Analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion. From the Abstract.

Purpose.  To determine the physiological and psychological effects of adding a Himalayan singing bowl (HSB) to a directed relaxation (DR) session.

Subjects.  Fifty-one participants completed two randomly assigned sessions beginning with either 12 minutes of HSB or silence, followed by a 20-minute DR session.

Measures.  Blood pressure (BP), heart rate (HR), Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) scores measured before and after both sessions.

Results.  Fifty-one participants completed both sessions. There was a greater decline in systolic BP and HR with HSB compared to silence prior to DR. Changes in diastolic BP were greater with HSB, with a nonsignificant trend. Hypertensive subjects had similar and significant BP changes with HSB and silence when compared to normotensive subjects).

Conclusions.  BP and HR responses were enhanced by HSB exposure.

Intensive Vipassana meditation increases measures for well-being

Krygier, J. R., et al. (2013). Mindfulness Meditation, Well-being, and Heart Rate Variability: A Preliminary Investigation into the Impact of Intensive Vipassana Meditation. International Journal of Psychophysiology. Epub ahead of print. Full abstract.

Extracts: Mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on brain and body, yet the impact of Vipassana, a type of mindfulness meditation, on heart rate variability (HRV) – a psychophysiological marker of mental and physical health – is unknown. We hypothesised increases in measures of well-being and HRV, and decreases in ill-being after training in Vipassana compared to before (time effects), during the meditation task compared to resting baseline (task effects), and a time by task interaction with more pronounced differences between tasks after Vipassana training. …

As expected, participants showed significantly increased well-being, and decreased ill-being. … Such … changes are classically associated with attentional load, and our results are interpreted in light of the concept of ‘flow’ – a state of positive and full immersion in an activity. These results are also consistent with changes in normalised HRV reported in other meditation studies.

Physical and emotional wellbeing

Prazak, M., et al. (2012). Mindfulness and its Role in Physical and Psychological Health. [Abstract]. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 4(1): 91-105.

This study examined the relationships of mindfulness, a form of focused self-awareness, with physical and psychological health. Mindfulness was measured in terms of four stable forms of awareness: Observe, an awareness of internal and external stimuli; Describe, an ability to verbally express thoughts clearly and easily; Act with Awareness, the tendency to focus on present tasks with undivided attention; and Accept without Judgment, the tendency to take a nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s own thoughts and emotions.

These aspects of mindfulness were explored in relation to both physical health, which consisted of heart rate variability, a measure of overall cardiovascular health, and psychological health, which consisted of flourishing, existential well-being, negative affect, and social well-being in a sample of 506 undergraduate students. Individuals high in mindfulness showed better cardiovascular health and psychological health. Read full text.