Should I try beeja meditation?
Our love of Asian meditation is well established, and beeja (or bija) is the newest-oldest tradition to re-enter our psyche. The Sanskrit beeja translates as ‘seed’ and refers to mantras used during meditation to maintain focus. Beeja participants are given a personal mantra by their teacher (usually a word or group of words) and practitioners claim the sounds made by the mantras interact with your nervous system – or, if you want to get proper, vibrate different chakras – to create equilibrium, improving creativity, focus and sleep.
Beeja’s modern USP is the personalised mantra, that it can be done anywhere – even in noisy, outdoor places – and doesn’t involve concentration, so there are fewer barriers to practice. Essentially, anyone can do beeja, anywhere. The only proviso is that it needs to be performed on an empty stomach, ideally for about 20 minutes every morning and again before your evening meal, so your body isn’t distracted by digestion.
During the meditation, the point is not to repeat your mantra rhythmically, either literally or in your mind. Instead, you allow it to freely distort, to get louder, softer, or have its pronunciation change. While ‘holding’ your mantra in your mind, thoughts are accepted and can come and go, but you must bring yourself back to your mantra if you start to lose your sense of it.
At the end of the meditation, you stop thinking about your mantra for about 30 seconds and instead focus on a person or thing you love.
What are the benefits?
Beeja aims to get to the root of your stress response and calm your body and mind. Proponents claim it has multiple self-healing properties, can improve your relationships, and can help children with learning and behaviour issues. Indeed, mindfulness in particular is used to treat a range of stress-related and mental health issues, without the stigma. However, a new study found that a quarter of people who regularly practise meditation have experienced fear and distorted emotions, though these tended to be people who had been on a meditation retreat, or who practise meditation styles that call for more deeper reflection or have higher levels of repetitive thinking.
Any science behind it?
Currently, there are no studies looking specifically at beeja meditation, and the neural mechanisms behind meditation remain relatively unknown. However, a lot of work has looked at Transcendental Meditation – which beeja meditation is a form of – and garnered encouraging results for a range of conditions.
A 2017 study examined stress levels of 89 participants with generalised anxiety disorder. It found that those who underwent mindfulness meditation training had fewer stress markers in a blood sample, while a ‘blind’ group that underwent stress management training had worsened responses. The participants in this study took an eight-week mindfulness course, but another study published in April this year found that a two-hour course may be just as effective in reducing stress and depression. These findings support an earlier small study in which participants who engaged in 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation for three consecutive days became more resilient to stress.
A meta-analysis of 107 studies on stress, relaxation and blood pressure concluded that those who practised TM had a reduced risk of cardiovascular problems as well as lower stress.
Researchers looking at links between meditation and behaviour suggested that those who engaged in it were more adaptable and better at changing their behaviour to suit the moment. Another small experiment found that students who took a brief session of Zen meditation did better in a test, with researchers theorising that focused meditation may improve mental clarity and self discipline. The cognitive benefits of meditation could last into old age, according to another study conducted last year. While researchers admit that more work needs to be done, results seemed to connect regular meditation with sustained attention, better focus and improved brain function in older people. An earlier study had suggested that practising Kirtan Kriya – a form of meditation that uses mantras – could reverse early memory loss.
A number of studies have shown that people who practise Zen meditation have higher pain tolerance. One study suggested that the practice resulted in a thickening of the anterior cingulate cortex region of the brain, which regulates pain. Another study concluded that people who have practised various styles of meditation find pain less unpleasant, and were less likely to anticipate pain. The benefits appear to also apply to mindfulness, with researchers finding it may improve pain tolerance, pain threshold and decrease anxiety towards pain.