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Shirley Telles and T. Desiraju
Department of Neurophysiology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, (India)

(Accepted 4 May 1993)

Abstract: This report presents the changes in various autonomic and respiratory variables during the practice of Brahmakumaris Raja yoga meditation. This practice requires considerable commitment and involves concentrated thinking. 18 males in the age range of 20 to 52 years (mean 34.1 ± 8.1), with 5-25 years experience in meditation (mean 10.1± 6.2), participated in the study. Each subject was assessed in three test sessions which included a period of meditation, and also in three control (non-meditation) sessions, which included a period of random thinking. Group analysis showed that the heart rate during the meditation period was increased compared to the preceding baseline period, as well as compared to the value during the non-meditation period of control sessions. In contrast to the change in the heart rate, there was no significant change during meditation, for the group as a whole, in palmar GSR, finger plethysmogram amplitude, and respiratory rate. On an individual basis, changes which met the following criteria were noted: (1) changes which were greater during meditation (compared to its preceding baseline) than changes during post meditation or non- meditation periods (also compared to their preceding baseline); (2) Changes which occurred consistently during the three repeat sessions of a subject and (3) changes which exceeded arbitrarilychosen cut- off points (described at length below). This individual level analysis revealed that changes in autonomic variables suggestive of both activation and relaxation occurred simultaneously in different subdivisions of the autonomic nervous system in a subject. Apart from this, there were differences in patterns of change among the subjects who practised the same meditation. Hence, a single model of sympathetic activation or overall relaxation may be inadequate to describe the physiological effects of a meditation technique.

Key words: Autonomic change; Meditation; Heart rate; Skin resistance; Finger plethysmogram, Respiratory rate.

Most of the reports on physiological effects of meditation have dealt with Transcendental Meditation (TM), Zen and Tantric Yoga. TM was adapted from the Indian Yogic tradition by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Practising TM, subjects sit in a comfortable posture and silently repeat a given mantram, returning their attention to it whenever attention wanders. Zen meditation forms an integral part of Zen Buddhism. Subjects sit in the lotus position, keep their eyes open and their attention focussed (initially on their breathing, and later on, on a "Koan" or riddle). Tantric Yoga involves intense concentration of attention, with the ultimate aim of channelling all of ones energies into the spiritual energy of union with the object of devotion.

The practice of TM was reported to cause reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption, and to increase the level or stability of the electrodermal response (Wallace, 1970; Wallace et al., 1971). A later report (Heide, 1986), noted a difference in the heart-rate response but not in the electrodermal response evoked by 80 dB tones, when TM practitioners and non-meditators were compared.

Contradictory results were observed in Zen and Tantric meditations. One set of studies reported changes suggestive of autonomic activation (Hirai, 1974; Corby et al., 1978), whereas another set of studies reported changes suggestive of autonomic relaxation (Kasamatsu and Hirai, 1966; Sugi and Akutsu, 1968; Elson et al., 1977)

With the background of contradictory reports on the effects of meditation techniques, the present study was carried out to determine whether a given meditation technique would bring about the same effects in all the subjects practising it. Practitioners with 5 or more years of experience in Brahmakumaris Raja yoga meditation were chosen. This technique requires considerable commitment and involves concentrated thinking.

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