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Decades ago, when the mind-body connection was first being studied, the original findings on meditation centered on heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension. A healthy heart needs to be disease-free. But “heart health” in holistic terms also includes the subtle and emotional qualities of the heart—tenderness, love, acceptance, and compassion. Your whole system, including how you breathe, think, and feel, meet at this most sensitive spot—your heart. Statistics have repeatedly shown that a sudden emotional shock or life change (such as being fired or losing your spouse) makes people significantly more prone to disease, including heart disease and heart attacks.
To show you how central your heart is, let’s take five minutes to sit, following these simple steps:
What was happening in your heart for those five minutes? When people compare their experiences, they find that almost any thought could be passing through the heart, every emotion and memory, every sensation, positive or negative. Seeing how central the heart is, in terms of experience, the ancient Vedic seers made it one of the major energy centers (or Chakras) of the body, that gets balanced through meditation.
Groundbreaking studies by Dr. Dean Ornish of Harvard Medical School first established that a holistic lifestyle program that included meditation could actually reverse the fatty plaques blocking a person’s coronary arteries, the chief cause of heart disease. Such a comprehensive program covers exercise, diet, and stress management as well. At the Chopra Center, we amplify these approaches with the ancient approaches of Ayurveda, trusting that heart health is integrated into the natural state of balance that the mind and body need in order to thrive.
My approach, as established by Ayurveda, is to address subtle imbalances long before they have a chance to turn into symptoms. Atherosclerosis, the hardening that plagues unhealthy blood vessels, is the end result of a long chain of events that are primarily the result of an unhealthy lifestyle which includes factors like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive weight gain, inadequate sleep, and stress. When you meditate, your body returns to a natural state of balance, and its internal biorhythms restore the proper signals for eating, sleeping, and moving around. Nothing is more basic or more effective.
“Balance” may sound intangible, but there are chemical markers for every benefit that meditation brings. The negative effect of stress on the heart, as well as the recovery process from stress, is driven by the production of hormones and neurotransmitters throughout the body. Meditation has been found to be a powerful means of rebalancing and regulating these biochemicals.
Cortisol is known as a major stress hormone, and meditation has been found to consistently reduce cortisol levels in the blood. Deep relaxation produced by meditation triggers the brain to release beneficial neurotransmitters, including oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin triggers reactions that support your ability to de-stress and also to behave calmly in stressful situations. Not only does it immediately relieve stress symptoms, like high blood pressure, but it’s also been found to have long-term calming effects—up to three weeks. Animal studies have revealed that the heart tissue has oxytocin receptors.
We can also point to the blood vessels specifically. When you relax, your parasympathetic nervous system engages to counter the effects of your sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system, which responds to your direction, is like the gas pedal, while your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary and unconscious processes, is your idle mode. Take your foot off the pedal, and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate slows, blood vessels dilate, breathing slows and deepens, and blood pressure falls back to normal. In most people, unfortunately this automatic return to balance has been compromised by stress and other kinds of subtle imbalance. Meditation effectively restores you to a deeper standing rest rate. Once you’re balanced, your immune system is strengthened, and in terms of the heart, your resistance to stress increases. This reduces a major risk in heart disease and strokes.
The good news is that unhealthy choices can be changed, and while meditation can’t make you exercise and eat better, it can wake you up to your body’s signals in both areas. You can’t change what you’re unaware of, but with increased awareness, any change becomes possible. Everything that the heart means, including physical health, emotional sensitivity, and overall well-being, becomes better with the simple practice of regular meditation.