The Faithful Heart

By Thomas Barclay

Can a strong spiritual sense cultivate cardio health?

February 2005

Since the dawn of time, many societies have viewed the heart as the body’s anchor of spiritual connection, resulting in a sense of the divine essential to physical health. The ancient Hebrew psalmist expressed it well: “My heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.”

Today, many researchers agree that a link exists between spiritual belief and physical well-being, although that assertion has stirred scientific controversy. But discord among doctors hasn’t stopped millions of average people from seeking healing solace in such practices as prayer and meditation.

The power of prayer has many believers; according to one survey, 90% of those queried thought that prayer may influence recovery from illness. Support for this belief come from such studies as one published in the British Medical Journal, which found that repeating rhythmic prayers—in this case, either yoga mantras or Catholicism’s Ave Maria—can calm the cardiovascular system. Other researchers found that people who practice yoga at least three times a week may reduce their risk of heart disease, and Transcendental Meditation, based in Eastern spiritual practices, has helped reduce arterial hardening among African-Americans with high blood pressure.

The roots of spirituality’s health benefits may lie in stress relief; Utah State investigators who exposed volunteers to stress discovered that people with strong religious beliefs experienced smaller increases in blood pressure than others. (Conversely, other studies have found that the hearts of habitual worriers seem to stay in a perpetually agitated state.) Today, more than two-thirds of American medical schools offer courses on spirituality and health.

Even skeptics agree that prayer can help the faithful cope with the depression, anxiety and questions regarding life’s meaning that often accompany serious illness. According to researchers from the University of Michigan, strongly religious people who underwent heart surgery drew hope, optimism and a sense of control from their beliefs. As diet author Dean Ornish, MD, puts it, “Anything that helps you feel connected to something larger than yourself is healing.”

In addition to the regular reading of sacred texts (itself seen by many people as a form of prayer), most faiths embrace traditional contemplative practices, many of which have experienced a revival of interest in recent years: yoga mantras from Hinduism, zazen from Zen Buddhism, Kabbalah-based meditations from Judaism, Sufi practice from Islam. One of the simplest, called centering prayer, has its origins in Christianity: Pick a sacred word that symbolizes the divine presence within—”yes,” “Abba,” “shalom.” Sit comfortably with eyes closed, and contemplate this word; when thoughts, sensations or feelings intrude, return to the word. After the prayer period, sit quietly for a few minutes (guidelines courtesy of www.beliefnet.com).

Obviously, religious belief is no substitute for exercise and proper diet (and for some luck in the genetics department). And it’s not effective if undertaken glibly as just another trendy health tip. But faith, as expressed in prayer and meditation, can help calm stormy emotional seas in times of illness and give the heart a song to sing.

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