Seeking inner peace

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The meditation styles associated with Theravada Buddhism are excellent ways to stave off stress, release tension and promote deep relaxation, according to a recent National University of Singapore study that compared the meditation styles in two Buddhist schools.

 

Little wonder then that some medical institutions use some form of meditation for stress relief. For instance, the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) runs mindfulness programmes, which have an element of meditation in them, to help patients cope with their stress, as well as psychological distress, such as anxiety and sleep disturbances.

There has been promising evidence that mindfulness-based intervention can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, said Ms Yang Suyi, IMH's senior occupational therapist.

At the polyclinics, meditation is one of the methods for stress regulation, which psychologists impart to patients, step-by-step, during consultations, said Dr Wong Mei Yin, principal psychologist of collaborative care, clinical services at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

"Meditation and other stress regulation methods are integrated with conventional models of therapy applied in primary care," she said. This includes cognitive behaviour therapy, solution-focused therapy and problem-solving therapy."

The focus is to enhance the mental and physical health of patients, so that their symptoms improve and they are able to enjoy a better quality of life, said Dr Wong.

She pointed out that the research conducted at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States, has shown that meditation can create a "relaxation response" in us.

It is defined as a state of deep rest that changes our short- and long-term physical and emotional responses to stress - for instance, there will be decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing and muscle tension.

It is the opposite of the stress response that happens when one is in the "fight or flight" stress state, also known as the acute stress response.

According to the institute, the necessary two basic steps to elicit the relaxation response are the repetition of a sound, word, phrase prayer or movement; and the setting aside of intruding thoughts and returning to the repetition.

"Research shows that meditating regularly significantly improves overall physical health, mental well-being and vitality," said Dr Wong.

She said regular meditation practitioners have reported a significant reduction in headaches, backaches and an improved quality of sleep. Some have even managed to reduce their intake of alcohol and frequency of smoking.

MANY FORMS, SAME BENEFITS

Different meditation traditions abound, but one form - mindfulness - has been accepted as an effective clinical application and has been found to improve the immune response and reaction to stress, among other benefits, said Dr Wong.

Even so, she added that "regardless of approach, regular and consistent practice of meditation benefits one's mental and physical state of health and improves one's level of calmness, sense of control as well as clarity of mind".

Indeed, meditation has evolved over the last 5,000 years to include many techniques, said Mr Vikas Malkani, a teacher of meditation and founder of SoulCentre Academy here.

"A full range of meditation techniques is taught, such as breath, open mind practice, focused thought, being non-judging, mantra, contemplation, awareness and witnessing, and the scientific basis behind them explained," he said, referring to his school.

"Different techniques create different results and are therefore applied to specific issues, just as a certain medicine is prescribed once the disease is correctly diagnosed."

Here is a look at three non-religious types of meditation and mindfulness exercises.

  • Transcendental Meditation (TM)

This technique involves silently repeating a mantra while sitting comfortably with eyes closed and is practised for 20 minutes twice a day.

It was founded by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India in the 1950s.

The technique allows the mind's activity to settle down in a natural way until it is left quiet, yet wide awake, according to the TM Singapore website.

"It allows stress and tiredness to be dissolved naturally, resulting in greater energy, clarity and enjoyment of life," it said.

Certified TM teacher Lee Su Min, from TM Singapore, said they have more than 2,400 meditators.

Those who learn TM come from all walks of life. They include chief executives, managers, executives, teachers, lawyers, students, home-makers and retirees, she said.

Their main reason for picking up the technique is to improve their health and to cope with mental or emotional health-related problems caused by stress, anxiety and depression, she added.

  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

This is an eight-week programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Massachusetts Medical Centre for people suffering from chronic and acute stress, chronic pain and illness, as well as anxiety and depression.

MBSR incorporates techniques such as meditation, gentle yoga and mind-body exercises.

The goal is to teach participants to cultivate an observant, accepting and compassionate attitude towards their own internal experiences, including cognitions (thinking), emotional states, body sensations and impulses, said Ms Yang from IMH, where MBSR is used.

Research shows that training in mindfulness can positively and profoundly affect the participants' ability to reduce medical symptoms and psychological stress, while learning to live life more fully.

  • Mindful-Gym

This is a mindfulness-based stress management programme for stress reduction and wellness that is also being used at IMH.

Initiated and developed by Dr Phang Cheng Kar, a psychiatrist from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), it is a five-week, group-based programme with weekly three-hour sessions and daily simple self-help exercises.

The sessions are conducted using an experiential approach to ensure maximum learning and benefits.

Both meditation and application of mindfulness are taught in this programme, said Ms Yang.

 
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