SF State study goes deep on types of people who use meditation

SF State Professor of Health Education Adam Burke stands in front of a bookshelf in an office at the College of Health and Social Sciences.

SF State Professor of Health Education Adam Burke and three researchers looked at data from the National Health Interview Survey to compare the usage of different types of meditation.

Researchers compare uses and benefits of mantra, mindfulness and spiritual meditation

Meditation is known to reduce stress, increase awareness and improve concentration. But who typically uses the three most popular forms of meditation: mindfulness, mantra and spiritual meditation?

To find out, San Francisco State University Professor of Health Education Adam Burke and three other researchers did a deep dive into the 2012 National Health Interview Survey to compare meditation use with variables like health behavior, access to health care and socio-demographic status.

They learned that meditation was most popular among respondents who were female, non-Hispanic white and college-educated and used yoga, acupuncture and vegetarian diets. They also found that meditators had more health concerns, such as chronic back pain or depression, than non-meditators and tended to be high utilizers of conventional health services.

Not a huge surprise, Burke said. When the researchers looked closer, they found other similarities and some distinctions for the type of practitioners in each meditation group. For example, people who use spiritual meditation (which combines meditation techniques with the practices of a major religious or spiritual tradition, such as Christian contemplative prayer) had the highest prevalence of the three types among those who describe themselves as former drinkers.

That suggests that future studies could look deeper into how spiritual meditation could be used to support treatment for people with drug and alcohol issues, Burke said.

“It could be part of their process for staying sober,” he said.

The National Health Interview Survey has been used widely in the federal government since 1960 to monitor trends in illness and track progress on national health objectives. The 2012 survey interviewed more than 34,000 people, asking if respondents had used mindfulness, mantra or spiritual meditation in the past 12 months or in their lifetime. It found that 3.1 percent had used spiritual meditation, 1.9 percent had practiced mindfulness and 1.6 percent has used mantra over the previous year. Mindfulness involves ongoing awareness or monitoring of the present moment, while those who practice mantra mentally repeat a word or a phrase with the goal of focusing attention on that idea.

“Mindfulness is the soup du jour in terms of meditation,” Burke said. “People don’t recognize that spiritual meditation is big and that mantra is big. If you asked someone on the street, they would probably just assume that mindfulness is more popular.”

Burke, who is also the director of the University’s Institute for Holistic Health Studies, sifted through the survey along with Associate Professor of Computer Science Hui Yang, Chun Nok Lam of the University of Southern California and Barbara Stussman, a survey statistician at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health. Their article was published last month by BioMed Central Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a journal affiliated with the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research.