Meditation vs Medication – One Letter Apart

There is a rich body of research showing that meditative exercises like Tai Chi can change the structure and function of the brain, and that focused concentration and non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness in and of itself (without overt exercise) may modulate multiple aspects of health, including pain, immune function, and mood.

A new look at ongoing studies at Harvard in today’s Huffington Post suggests meditation may help to physically train the brain. Just as pumping iron trains muscles, meditation trains the brain by pumping neurons, writes Aditi Nerurkar, MD, Integrative Medicine Fellow at Harvard Medical School. She notes that studies show meditation can benefit patients with hypertension, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Tai Chi is commonly referred to as “meditation in motion.” One of the key features that distinguishes Tai Chi from simple movements using only your body weight for resistance is its rich, integrated set of meditative movements.

One of Tai Chi’s active ingredients relates to becoming more aware of, and at greater ease with, what is going on within your body and mind at any given moment. “Inner focus on moment-to-moment sensations allows you to train and hold your attention or mental focus, providing you with a tool to manage distracting thoughts and incessant mental chatter,” says Peter Wayne, PhD, Director, Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Programs at Harvard Medical School. “As a result, you are more fully engaged and therefore more efficient with the physical tasks at hand and more in the moment.”

Unlike other Eastern practices, Tai Chi training does not teach meditation within the context of sitting on a pillow but through practical body-centered exercise. This may make what you learn more translatable to practical, everyday activities of daily living. One of the grand masters of Tai Chi, Wolfe Lowenthal, quoted Cheng Man Ch’ing in his book There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing and His T’ai Chi Chuan: “The difference between yoga and Tai Chi is that even if you get it (meditative relaxation) studying yoga, there is nothing you can do if someone tries to knock you off your cushion.”

Other meditative traditions encourage the complete clearing or emptying of one’s mind of all thoughts. In contrast, Tai Chi is more of an active focused meditation. “During practice, when the mind wanders, you gently refocus it back to noticing practical and functional bodily sensations in the present moment,” says Wayne.

“One metaphor I commonly use during resting meditations is to think of the fabric of the body as a paper towel. Just as a paper towel naturally absorbs and holds water in its highly absorbent pores without effort, let the mind rest into and be held in or cradled by the body,” he says. “The spirit of this active ingredient is nicely captured in a clever phrase I saw on a bumper sticker and that I commonly cite in Tai Chi class: ‘Meditation—it’s not what you think.’”

Leave a Reply