Yes. The ancient Eastern practice of quieting the mind through a variety of techniques from simply focusing on one's breathing to silently repeating a word or ''mantra" has been shown to have measurable, beneficial effects on the body.
In Western terms, the ''relaxation response," a term coined years ago by Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration; to reduce anxiety, anger, hostility, and mild to moderate depression; to help alleviate insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, hot flashes, and infertility; and to relieve some types of pain, most notably tension headaches.
Beyond that, it gets tricky. A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology claims that meditation may actually prolong life, though the flaws in the study make any firm conclusion uncertain.
The study, conducted by Dr. Robert H. Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, pooled data on 202 mildly hypertensive people from two previous, randomized, controlled studies published in 1989 and 1995. Those studies, said Schneider, showed that Transcendental Meditation, a form of meditation in which a person is given a ''mantra" by a teacher and trained to use the technique to quiet the mind, lowered blood pressure after three to four months if done for 20 minutes twice a day.
In 2001, Schneider's team looked at death records from the National Center for Health Statistics for the participants in these studies, who were interviewed an average of 7.6 years earlier. The researchers found the participants were more likely to be alive if they had practiced TM in the original studies. But -- and it is a huge ''but" -- the samples were quite small and researchers had no way of knowing whether the meditators kept meditating after the initial studies.
The study ''had its limitations," said Benson, ''but it's in the direction that should be explored further."