Meditation beats dance for inner peace

UC BERKELEY (US) — People who regularly practice meditation are more emotionally connected with their bodies than are professional dancers.

Dancers who devote enormous time and effort to developing awareness of and precise control over their muscles—a theme raised in the Oscar-nominated ballet movie Black Swan—don’t have a stronger mind-body connection than do most other people.

By contrast, veteran practitioners of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation—a technique focused on observing breathing, heartbeat, thoughts, and feelings without judgment—showed the closest mind-body bond.

“We all talk about our emotions as if they are intimately connected to our bodies—such as the heartache of sadness and bursting a blood vessel in anger,” says Robert Levenson, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley and senior author of a new study.

“We sought to precisely measure how close that connection was, and found it was stronger for meditators.”

The study, published in the journal Emotion, offers clues in the mystery of the mind-body connection. Previous studies have linked the dissociation of mind and body to various medical and psychiatric diseases.

“Ever have the experience of getting home from work and realizing you have a blistering headache?” asks Jocelyn Sze, a doctoral student in clinical science and the study’s lead author.

“The headache probably built up throughout the day, but you might have been intentionally ignoring it and convincing yourself that you felt fine so that you could get through the demands of the day.”

Increasingly, mindfulness meditation is being used to treat physical and psychological problems.

“Some of these health benefits derive from meditation’s capacity to increase the association between mind and body in emotion,” Levenson says.

The study included 21 dancers with at least two years of training in modern dance or ballet and 21 seasoned meditators with at least two years of Vipassana practice. A third control group included 21 moderately active adults with no training in dance, meditation, Pilates, or professional sports.

Participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 40, were wired with electrodes to measure their bodily responses while they watched emotionally charged scenes from movies and used a rating dial to indicate how they were feeling.

Although all participants reported similar emotional reactions to the film clips, meditators showed stronger correlations between the emotions they reported feeling and the speed of their heartbeats. The differences between dancers and the control group were minimal.

Researchers theorize that dancers learn to shift focus between time, music, space, and muscles and achieve heightened awareness of their muscle tone, body alignment, and posture.

“These are all very helpful for becoming a better dancer, but they do not tighten the links between mind and body in emotion,” Levenson says.

By contrast, meditators practice attending to visceral body sensations, which makes them more attuned to internal organs such as the heart, says Sze.

“These types of visceral sensations are a primary focus of Vipassana meditation, which is typically done sitting still and paying attention to internal sensations.”

Researchers from Stanford University contributed to the study.

More news from UC Berkeley: