Apr 17, 2012

A new study shows even small amounts of meditation relieve stress and boost health.

No wonder many business bigwigs turn to it.

Science and religion are often at odds, but at least occasionally there is convergence. Buddhist monks and devoted yogis have long contended that meditation reduces stress. A recent study agrees, even if the practice is stripped of any particular spiritual belief.

The randomized, controlled study was carried about by a team including a Duke university psychologist and an Aetna executive among others and was recently published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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The research assigned 239 employees to either weekly yoga practice, mindfulness meditation, or a control group.

“After 12 weeks, participants in both programs had significantly lower stress, as well as reduced difficulties in sleeping, whereas the control participants did not,” reports The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog.

The meditation and yoga also had measurable biological effects. “Those participants who had been through the intervention had better outcomes, in terms of heart rhythm coherence, a measure of autonomic balance linked to better functioning,” according to BPS. To achieve these results, the participants spent just one hour a week with their new stress reduction practice.

The fact that mediation, stripped of any particular religious belief, is a solid stress management technique for busy entrepreneurs comes as no surprise to psychologist Karuna Cayton, the author of a new book entitled The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them. According to Cayton the scientific evidence for the stress-busting effects of mindfulness meditation are “abundant and convincing. A 2003 study by Dr. Richard Davidson at UCLA found that mindfulness practice reduces stress up to 30 percent just by practicing 20 minutes. Other studies have shown similar, if not greater, results in reducing stress,” he told Inc.com.

Perhaps that’s why business leaders from Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, to Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, and Larry Brilliant, head of Google’s philanthropic efforts, are all publicly known as dedicated meditators. And the practice isn’t just good for stress relief, according to Cayton. It also benefits leadership.

“Empathy is greatly increased through mindfulness practice. As we know from the studies in emotional intelligence, empathy is one of the key leadership competencies in positive leadership. Research has demonstrated that the mood of the leader has an overwhelming effect on the mood of her organization. The recent studies in neuroscience only help to validate this correlation,” said Cayton.

If you’re intrigued, Cayton says there are plenty of resources available for business leaders looking to dip a first toe into meditative practice, though he recommends guidance from a trained instructor over CDs or online training. And don’t worry if you’re the type who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a robe or burning incense. “No Buddhist training is needed,” says Cayton. “These techniques are secular, non-religious, and scientifically based.”