Brain researcher, Sara Lazar, visits MU to share research on meditation, yoga

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 | 9:45 p.m. CDT; updated 10:04 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 10, 2013

COLUMBIA — In an overcrowded Acuff Auditorium at MU on Monday night, there was a moment of complete silence. The speaker, Sara Lazar, didn't say a word as she stood in front of a group of people with eyes closed, sitting in chairs and on the floor.

"Scan through your body," she said to the group. "What do your legs feel like? Your back?" 

Lazar, a Harvard-affiliated researcher and an instructor in the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital, was demonstrating a large component of her work: mindfulness meditation. 

Mindfulness meditation focuses on bodily sensations, sensory stimuli and a conscious awareness of the present moment, she said. 

"Here's your body you've lived with your whole life, and there are things you've never noticed before," Lazar said. 

Lazar's research focuses on how meditation and yoga affect parts of the brain associated with emotions and awareness. She asked the question, can meditation change brain activity or brain structure? 

According to her findings, the answer is yes.

"There is a biological reason why people feel less stressed after meditation or yoga," she said. 

Her research revealed three areas of the brain that changed activity during meditation, including one region associated with depression and anxiety disorders.

Her research also showed that gray matter in the brain changes shape as a result of yoga and meditation. These areas are connected with increased memory, decreased stress and the brain's ability to deal with difficult situations, she said.

Yoga and meditation have completely changed Lazar's life, she said, but added that it is not a 100 percent fix for symptoms of stress or depression.

"Often when people talk about meditation research they make it seem like it can cure absolutely anything," she said. "The data suggests otherwise. It's effective for reducing symptoms but usually not for eliminating." 

There is not a specific amount of meditation that a person should practice, she said. Researchers have found, however, the more times a person meditates will cause greater changes in the person's stress and memory.

Dan Marston, a senior engineering student who attended the lecture, practices yoga and meditation to reduce stress.

"It's very interesting to have the science to show all of the benefits from yoga and meditation," he said. "It's reaffirming."

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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