The benefits of physical exercise and eating healthy have been well documented. However, people often fail to recognize the importance of spirituality on overall health and well-being.
Spirituality vs. Religion
Though religion isn't an absolute necessity to become a healthy person, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests spiritual people are healthier than non-spiritual people.
Cultural historian William Irvin Thompson comments, "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization." (7)
Jacob Hirsh of U of T's Rotman School of Management writes "While religiousness is characterized by devotion to a specific tradition, set of principles, or code of conduct; spirituality is associated with the direct experience of self-transcendence and the feeling that we're all connected." (5)
Interestingly, political opinions differ between religious and spiritual people. Religious individuals tend to be more conservative and spiritual people tend to be more liberal (5). It was found that inducing a spiritual experience through a guided meditation exercise led both liberals and conservatives to endorse more liberal political attitudes. (5)
Is there any scientific evidence that spirituality can improve general health?
Spiritual people are less likely to smoke cigarettes or binge drink (1). Results from questioning 196 undergraduate students about their lifestyle habits and spirituality showed a negative correlation between smoking and consuming alcohol and being a spiritual person.
In 2009, 28 cancer patients participated in a study examining the effects of mindfulness-based meditation therapy, including breathing, yoga movement and meditation. There was a significant decrease in anxiety and depression in these patients (2).
People who go to church are 25% less likely to suffer from mortality and morbidity (3). If you're not a religious person, surround yourself with positive people who express gratitude. Churchgoers often "give thanks" and numerous experts in the fitness community, such as Dr. Mercola and David Asprey, have written about how gratitude affects happiness.
Spiritual people are also more likely to feel connected to others. Researchers at the University of Missouri found that with increased spirituality, people reduce their sense of self and feel a greater sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe (6). This is an important point, especially for those who live in large cities where people hardly know their neighbors. With increased spirituality, it becomes easier to develop a sense of community, which is often lacking in our society.
Most yogis consider themselves to be very spiritual. They practice deep breathing and place themselves in a low stress environment with positive like-minded people on a daily basis. In fact, a recent study showed that yoga can enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life (4). I challenge you to find any pharmaceutical drug which can do all of the above.
How can you become more spiritual?
There isn't a "How to become more spiritual" manual to provide a step-by-step guide and a 100% success rate to enlightenment. Spirituality is a personal experience and each experience is vastly different. However, I have some suggestions that may help speed up the process.
1) Practice deep breathing. Personally, I use my heart rate variability monitor to help with this. I learned the breathing process from a naturopath. To find out more about heart rate variability training, read my blog here: http://www.drmikehart.com/blog/
2) Begin yoga for the reasons listed above.
3) Develop a sense of community. Those who attend church for more than just religious reasons may also participate in social gatherings with like-minded individuals. Those who choose not to attend church may find the same result through team participation or any activity that involves working toward a common goal.
4) Expressing gratitude for good health reminds you of good fortune that others may not experience.
5) Live in the moment without worrying about what could happen. Risks are taken with many activities throughout each day. Worrying has a negative effect on well-being. Living in the moment allows you to accomplish personal goals.
6) Get your sleep. The Dalai Lama once said "sleep is the best meditation".
7) Spend some time in a sensory deprivation tank. If you're having difficulty getting started with meditation, this is a cheater's way to place you in a perfect environment for deep thinking.
8) Travel. When you travel, especially overseas, you're free of distractions and often times discover things about yourself that you never would have in your "home environment". You need to get out of your comfort zone.
9) Increase your body's self-awareness. Anxiety can cause a fight or flight response. Focusing on breathing can help calm the anxiety. When stress is a factor, focusing on the cause and how and where the attention is affecting the body. Good posture is a also an important activity for relief.
10) Reflect. Reflecting on each day is critical for achieving personal growth.
I truly believe spirituality is the missing component in many people's lives. I hope this post provided some insight as to why becoming more spiritual will increase your overall health and well-being. Feel free to leave any comments or questions.