Health Risks of Meditation?

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One hears a lot about the benefits of meditation; everything from calming yourself and lowering your blood pressure to working towards purifying your mind and finding freedom from suffering. Even as a newer meditator, I feel a better sense of physical and emotional well being.

But I'm interested to know if experienced meditators and teachers know of a down side to meditation either physically or mentally. Does so much time spent in one position lead to physical problems such as circulation problems or back issues or even mental breakdown during intense periods of meditation? And if so, are there things one can do to avoid such issues that might interfere with continued meditation?

Robin111

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

Reputation: 6 824

4I heard a monk once say that there are no health risks with (implied their kind of) meditation, but you risk losing your hair from prolonged use. :-)

NOTE: ^ meaning you'd become a monastic in case that was unclear. – FullPeace.org 2014-06-25T14:30:59.367

Answers

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Here is a physical problem: Knee injury from sitting postures without requisite hip flexibility. This applies to almost any floor-sitting posture, depending on the meditator's hip flexibility. This is based on my own experience injuring my knees in sitting meditation.

The knee injury occurs when insufficient hip flexibility causes the knee joint to rotate laterally. Lateral, in anatomical terms, means away from the body in a left/right direction. Medial and lateral rotation

The knee is a very simple joint mechanically, and is only designed to flex and extend. It is damaged by rotating medially/laterally. The lateral rotation required for sitting postures should come from the hip. enter image description here

Full lotus position (each foot on top of opposite thigh) and half lotus position (one foot on top of opposite thigh) are the most dangerous positions for this case since they cause a lot of lateral rotation in the knees, if there is not sufficient hip flexibility. Burmese position (one foot in front of opposite shin) is much less dangerous, but might still injure a person with tight hip ligaments.

So the key is that we need flexible hips if we want to sit on the floor easily.

Although full lotus and half lotus position are discussed more in Yoga, and not in the context of Buddhist meditation, I feel this advice still applies since I injured my knees by sitting in half lotus. Now I protect my knees by avoiding lateral rotation, keeping my hips flexible, and only using Burmese position for sitting.

This video by KinoYoga shows how to prepare for lotus position safely, and can help to clarify by providing visual instruction. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdVHk5C0L8U

And this page has many stretches I have found useful to loosen the hip for safer sitting: http://zenmontpellier.voila.net/eng/lotus/lotuseng.html

Be well and take care of your knees.

Anthony

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

Reputation: 2 107

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There are two types of meditations - calm abiding (Tib.: Shine, Skr.: Shamata) and insight meditation (Tib.: Lhaktong, Skr.: Vipassana).

The meditation of calm abiding directs mind towards one location to calm it and techniques involve focusing on an object (a stone or a Buddha form) or a formless breath. Practitioners learn not to follow one's thoughts and after some training the mind can become undisturbed like a surface of a lake.

Once the mind is calm, one can practice insight meditation which is directed at recognizing the nature of one's mind. In Vajrayana tradition insight meditations involve visualising vivid energy forms of Buddhas, receiving lights from them and melting with them.

Calm abiding meditation is suited for everyone. The insight one, however, should not be practised by people who suffer from mental diseases and take psychoactive drugs. As said earlier, to practice insight meditation one should already have a bit of stable mind. One can compare it to the physical workout. If you got injured, first focus on bringing your body back to its stable state before embarking on a strenuous preparations for a marathon. If you disregard your injury, the marathon preparations will damage your body further and even seemingly simple actions like walking will become difficult.

Although there is no hard rule, by psychoactive drugs I mean prescribed medications used in psychiatric treatments. I've heard of a person with some anxiety disorder who tried to visualise a vivid Buddha form and receive lights from it. It was too intense and fearful experience for him as there was too much sudden stimulation. Clearly it was harmful for him and probably now he has rather negative connotations about Buddha. Recreational use of some psychoactive substances is also usually frowned upon. Insight meditation is a profound practise and best if learned from a teacher or some experienced practitioner. One should always have a chance to discuss the details and openly ask the teacher whether a given meditation is suited to his/her condition. On the internet or books one can find general guidelines, but the most important one - individual advice, is always received in person.

As for the physical health, the practice of prostrations can cause some damage if done improperly or in too many numbers per day. Again, if one already has knee of back problems, it is probably better not to them at all.

Rabbit

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

Reputation: 2 467

@user70 I'm no expert! Please do not read what I say as being from someone with lots of experience or expertise, but that said I could see how even a mild stimulant like caffeine could get in the way of the mindset you need to be in -- especially if you are sensitive to its effects. It's not just that it could "hinder" your progress, as much as it could take you down the wrong path altogether and lead somewhere potentially damaging. Meditation is a very powerful thing and should not be treated lightly. – None – 2014-07-08T18:37:33.297

1Caffeine is a psychoactive and I do not understand how that would hinder insight to such a degree that insight practice should be avoided. Can you elaborate on what you mean by psychoactive drug?user70 2014-06-21T03:12:58.290

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I believe that even Shamata meditation can be counterproductive in certain phases of mental illness (i am not any kind of health professional though)

For instance meditation is now regarded as beneficial for depression. However in the acute phases of depression it might not be as effective or even counterproductive. To quote from the Wildmind website

As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!"

I would always be tempted to learn under a teacher rather than be tempted to go it alone. Any kind of specific health issues (mental or otherwise) can be discussed with them. Just to be on the cautious side.

Crab Bucket

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

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Dr Willoughby Britton, a research and clinical psychologist, is doing a lot of work at Brown University on the so-called "dark side" of meditation. More information is here: http://cheetahhouse.org

There are also some videos (same site) of her interviewing Daniel Ingram talking about the same thing, and specifically that subset of the stages of insight that Ingram named "The Dark Night" (alluding to experiences very similar in appearance reported by some Christian mystics -- e.g. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila).

Britton's emphasis is not so much on anything inherently health-risky in meditation; overall she is positive, and I think is a practitioner. Rather she works on what appears to be not uncommonly encountered difficulties associated with making progress in insight. Ingram -- also a medic, albeit not a specialist like Britton -- is the same, although Daniel draws too much attention to it for my liking. The aim of both is to help people deal with the tougher side of things.

There's also a video by Shinzen Young on Youtube where he mentions this same idea. I can't find it, but I mention it as worthwhile because Shinzen gives a good balance to Daniel. Daniel scares the bejeezus out of you (on purpose, although, as I say not ideally) but Shinzen downplays it (to, I think/hope, the right level), saying that although difficulties can be encountered, they're not common, are rarely that severe, and are typically easily worked through provided you have a good teacher who knows what they're seeing -- i.e. usually the dukkha-nanas -- when they see them.

tkp

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

Reputation: 2 453

Another interesting video on this stuff is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VjU_505i6E. It's an Anglican vicar spending some time in solitude in the Egyptian desert, a la "The Desert Fathers". The connection to this thread is in the comment that Father Lazarus makes to the guy just before he starts his alone period. He mentions that if he can get through the first week or two, then he'll be fine. The implication is that with contemplative Christianity, just as with some Buddhism, a "dark night" is just part of the deal.

tkp 2014-07-09T02:15:35.103

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Just watched, on Britton's Vimeo site, a very interesting video conversation between her and the Dalai Lama where she outlines her findings on the negative aspects of meditation. What's striking, for me, is the Dalai Lama's reaction. I thought he'd have been all "Oh sure, I've seen that happen a lot". But in fact he's partly puzzled, partly troubled, and in general is clearly not of the view that such negative stuff is to be expected. His "diagnosis" is that such things happen if you try to meditate without a broader supporting context (especially ethical).

tkp 2014-06-24T18:36:37.973

Here is the Shinzen video I walked about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zIKQCwDXsA . I thought twice before including it because I really don't want to add yet more hype to this area, since I think it, like terrorism and pretty much every other threat at least in the TV-soaked modern USA, is over-hyped. However, it's useful material and even though Shinzen talking about tough stuff, listen carefully to his own caveat starting at 4:41.

tkp 2014-06-26T14:55:26.353

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I have heard that sitting in full lotus can harm areas of the legs. Also that sitting too long can cause blood clots. This is avoidable; walking meditation and even meditating during menial tasks (e.g., washing dishes, showering, painting, etc.) are practical approaches. Eventually a practitioner can meditate during any and all activities.

In a certain sense, mental breakdown, is a beneficial result. I have never heard of a negative mental breakdown from meditation.

user70

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

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One doesn't have to be in the full lotus position during seated meditation, so if that position causes harm, other positions (e.g. Burmese) can be used. In my experience, a minority of people meditate in the lotus position when sitting. This webpage illustrates several sitting positions.

GreenMatt 2014-06-20T13:51:16.980

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This excerpt from Q&A about Goenka-style Vipassana meditation should provide some answers to your question:

Is there anyone who should not participate in a course?

Obviously someone who is physically too weak to follow the schedule will not be able to benefit from a course. The same is true of someone suffering from psychiatric problems, or someone undergoing emotional upheaval. Through a process of questions and answers, we will be able to help you decide clearly beforehand whether you are in a position to benefit fully from a course. In some cases applicants are asked to get approval from their doctor before they can be accepted.

Can Vipassana cure physical or mental diseases?

Many diseases are caused by our inner agitation. If the agitation is removed, the disease may be alleviated or disappear. But learning Vipassana with the aim of curing a disease is a mistake that never works. People who try to do this waste their time because they are focusing on the wrong goal. They may even harm themselves. They will neither understand the meditation properly nor succeed in getting rid of the disease.

How about depression? Does Vipassana cure that?

Again, the purpose of Vipassana is not to cure diseases. Someone who really practices Vipassana learns to be happy and balanced in all circumstances. But a person with a history of severe depression may not be able to apply the technique properly and may not get the desired results. The best thing for such a person is to work with a health professional. Vipassana teachers are meditation experts, not psychotherapists.

michau

Posted 2014-06-20T00:52:51.487

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