Meditation- Is it just glorified relaxation?

I recently read an op-ed article by a mental health professional asserting that meditation offered no benefits over exercise and relaxation. My first thought was “If this were true, no one would be meditating, and this huge trend wouldn’t exist!” Indeed, the National Institutes of Health report that 18 million people in the U.S. practice some form of meditation (although this is only 8% of the adult population). source After my sense of righteous indignation wore off, I made a few observations.

1. Exercise and relaxation definitely have their place as far as things that affect our mental health and well being. In the future I’ll share some of the current research showing that exercise can be more effective than anti-anxiety medication in reducing anxiety. Pretty impressive stuff. Incorporating meditation with physical activity and relaxation time would definitely decrease anxiety and stress and promote wellbeing. Here’s the thing though: the “relaxation response”- a term coined by Harvard medical professor Herbert Benson in the 1970s- is just the name for what happens physiologically in your body when you meditate. This includes changes like lowering blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, muscle tension, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the blood. So meditation evokes a relaxation response which is really an anti- stress response, or an anti- fight-or-flight response. (Read more about Herbert Benson’s research in his book, The Relaxation Response, or if you want the summarized version, here’s a great article from Psychology Today explaining his main points)

2. Your “relaxation” might not be all that relaxing…. think of the last time you had relaxation time. Were you actually consciously relaxing? If so, good for you! Or were you treating your chronic stress by “zoning out”, or engaging in numbing behaviors (including media consumption, emotional eating, or any form of substance abuse)? This kind of mindless relaxation does little, if anything, to combat the very real and harmful effects of chronic stress (which can lead to heart disease, digestive disorders, chronic stress and chronic pain, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and hypertension, just to name a few). Conscious- that is, aware, or mindful- relaxation will combat those effects through the above mentioned relaxation response.

3. We use meditation and breathing exercises (pranayam) at times to move prana (life force energy) through the body in order to achieve greater levels of peace, body energy, and to process emotions. Exercise also moves prana through the body, and it would not be a huge stretch to say that certain exercise is, in fact, a form of meditation.

4. It is worth asking ourselves what the purpose of meditation actually is. Is meditation just a means of helping our bodies chill out, or vanquishing stress? I would say… no. I think those could be reasons to start a meditation practice, and they are certainly pleasant “side effects” of meditation, but I would assert that the purpose of meditation is actually to commune with your creator, or God, or The Source, or whatever language is most descriptive of what you believe. I listened to an interview once where Deepak Chopra said that the purpose of meditation is to enter the God- space. That wording is very thought provoking. To me, the God- space is an energetic place where we can perceive the seeds of divinity within us. Being in the God- space allows us to have a truer sense of self, cultivate peace in our hearts and in the world, and see positive change in our lives by becoming truer to the version of our self that is whole, or put another way, it allows us to change our habits in ways that contribute to our happiness and well-being.

I don’t think this needs to be a question of whether to meditate or to exercise/ relax/ etc. It’s not one vs. the other. Each has pretty solid reasons behind practicing them. So is it worth it? Does meditation have any benefit over exercise and/or relaxation? That depends on you. I wouldn’t give up exercising because I meditate, and I wouldn’t give up meditating because I exercise (although the two do overlap). I will say that meditation elevates my exercise and makes my relaxation time more restorative. It is essential to my physical and emotional health. It’s way more than just relaxation. So to me, yeah, it’s totally worth it.