Chances are that at some point trying meditation has crossed your mind – possibly around the same time of year you promised yourself to use that gym membership. The beauty of meditation is that unlike trying to squeeze in trips to the gym, meditation can slide into a busy schedule with little disruption. It can be done anytime, anywhere while going about your daily routine.

Full length of woman practicing breathing exercise. Young woman with eyes closed sitting in lotus position. She is living room at home.

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“Meditation can be as simple as paying attention to your breath," says Dr. Hui Qi Tong, director of the Mindfulness Program at the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine. "Mindful breathing is one thing everybody can do because we are breathing all the time – it’s accessible all of the time. While folding laundry, cooking dinner or grocery shopping, you can focus on your breath anywhere.”

Meditation is about quieting the mind in a way that works for you so that you can be fully present.

“If we are with our breath, paying attention to the breath sensation, we are not worrying about the future or regretting the past,” Tong adds.

Once considered a spiritual practice, meditation has become increasingly popular in recent years as a practical and time efficient way to boost mental, emotional and physical well-being. There are many different ways to practice meditation, but no matter how you do it, the goal is always for an individual to quietly cut through the brain’s noise and chaos by gently training their attention and awareness to bring about focus, emotional calm, positive emotional and mental clarity.

Types of Meditation

People have been practicing various forms of meditation for thousands of years.

“It is important to note that there are many types of meditation with different goals and methods. Think of the term 'meditation like 'sports' – a big category under which many activities fall,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center in Los Angeles.

If you're new to meditation and not quite sure what will work best for you, here are some popular categories to explore:

Mindfulness meditation

This is currently one of the most popular forms of meditation and excellent for beginners.

“Mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with that experience,” Winston says.

Typically, people practice forms of mindful meditation by directing their awareness to sensory details such as their breath or other physical sensations such as how their feet feel if taking a walk or something totally different like their emotions.

“I recommend people start with things that naturally bring attention to the here and now. It can be a walk, it can be a cup of coffee in silence or it can be sitting still and giving yourself permission to do nothing,” says Dr. Roberto Benzo, director of the Mindful Breathing Lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

While people often think their mind is supposed to be blank once they start practicing meditation, that is not the case at all.

"The point of mindfulness is to become aware of thoughts that take you away from the present moment and then return your attention to the present such as returning to your breathing,” Winston says.

Guided meditation

If you feel more comfortable with step-by-step guidance, this could be the best way to begin. A coach guides you through a pre-recorded meditation session. This is not a form of meditation in and of itself, but a way many people choose to practice. You can find guided meditations that can walk you through different forms of meditation from mindfulness meditations to body scan meditations to loving kindness meditations. If you are not sure how to begin or what type of meditation is right for you, guided meditations can be a good place to start.

There are a plethora of phone apps that offer guided meditations that range anywhere from a few moments to over an hour. One study over an eight-week period found that employees who utilized a meditation app experienced improved well-being and decreased job strain compared to a group who did not use the app.

Body scan meditation

This involves focusing on and then relaxing one body part at a time. Many begin with their feet and move up toward their head, although going the other way works too. Notice how your feet feel in whatever position you choose to be in and as you exhale and relax them. Gently move up the body doing this with each body part.

“You notice body sensations as you bring your attention from one part of the body to the next in a certain sequence with acceptance and curiosity,” Tong notes. “People often feel relaxed as their minds focus on the physical sensations instead of wandering into thoughts or emotions.”

Mantra meditation

Mantra meditations generally involve the continuous repetition of a word, phrase or set of syllables that is repeated either silently or aloud. Concentrating on the mantra repetition can help keep the interruption of wandering thoughts at bay, which allows a practitioner to sink deeper into a meditative state. Transcendental meditation (TM) is a popular form of mantra meditation. A 2022 study in JAMA Network Open showed significantly reduced chronic stress and feelings of burnout in health care workers who practiced transcendental meditation for three months.

Moving meditation

This is exactly what the name suggests: movements to aid in calming the mind and focusing on the present moment. Some find it easier to get into a meditative state by using gentle movements like walking, yoga, qigong or tai chi. Like body scan meditation, moving meditation uses the physical sensations of the body to anchor awareness and help clear the mind.

Loving kindness meditation

This form of meditation is focused on cultivating compassion for yourself and others. The practitioner directs phrases of positive intention and feelings of goodwill towards anyone in their lives from themselves or loved ones to strangers or those they find challenging.

Getting Started With Meditation

There are countless meditation forms, which can be overwhelming for a beginner, but it really can be just as simple as sitting quietly and stilling your mind for a few minutes. Meditation is highly individualized, so once you find what works best and you become comfortable with your practice, incorporating elements from different styles of meditation is worth considering. There is no wrong way to meditate.

During all types of meditation when the mind wanders – and it will – gently bring your attention back to your focus. Observe the feelings and sensations that flow through you, note them without judgment or reaction and aim to let them pass by without your mind engaging with them.

“People can get excited about the different benefits that various kinds of meditation can offer, but if they don’t immediately benefit from it, they can be disappointed," Tong says. "To achieve long-term success, you need to be reasonable with your expectations."

While some meditation techniques can be practiced anywhere, it may be helpful to dedicate a certain time or place for your practice with minimal distractions as you start. Comfortable and quiet surroundings can be key to helping this become a long-term habit.

Besides moving meditations, different types of meditations may recommend sitting a certain way or lying down as being the most effective, but ultimately, what is the most effective is whatever works best for you.

“My recommendation is to first do small, simple and achievable changes that are easily incorporated into your day,” Benzo notes.

It’s normal to have bumps in the road, but it is important to both affirm your commitment to your practice and be kind to yourself if challenges come up. It can feel rather impossible at first to keep your thoughts from racing all over the place, but with time and practice it becomes easier.

“Like anything you have to stick with it. Brain, behavior and body changes take time and persistence,” Winston says.

Always keep in mind that there is no such thing as perfection in meditation, which is why it’s called meditation practice.

“If a meditation style is not working for you then move on to one that fits better,” Tong says. “The wide range of benefits that meditation practice offers far outweighs some of the initial frustrations in the beginning.”

Health Benefits of Meditation

There are many physical, emotional and mental health benefits to meditation practice making it an easy way to positively impact your overall health. Some key health benefits of meditation include:

  • Helps calm anxiety.
  • Manages stress.
  • Boosts emotional well-being.
  • Positively impacts sleep.
  • Boosts brain health.
  • Decreases blood pressure.

Helps calm anxiety

Meditation has been clinically shown to ease stress and anxiety. A study in JAMA Psychiatry compared mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) for the treatment of anxiety and found over an eight-week period that it was comparably effective.

One review article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that examined 16 studies found that Transcendental Meditation is more effective than traditional anxiety treatment in those with high anxiety – such as patients with chronic anxiety. Studies that examined Transcendental Meditation repeatedly showed a reduction in anxiety in the first two weeks of practice and sustained effects over three years.

Manages stress

Meditation decreases the negative impacts of stress, which can impair the immune system. Stress has many harmful effects including chronic inflammation, which contributes to a wide range of health issues from abnormal fatigue to back pain.

In one study, people with chronic pain were treated with mindfulness meditation for an hour three times a week over two months. Researchers noticed an improvement in pain, stress, depression and anxiety amongst the 47 participants. In a separate study, 51 participants were able to reduce their stress after intensive meditation therapy.

Boosts emotional well-being

Meditation positively influences the nervous system, which regulates the neurochemicals that impact mental disorders such as depression. In some studies, meditation-based interventions have been associated with an improvement in depressive symptoms and the prevention of relapse. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease states that the meditation kirtan kriya may stabilize brain synapses by increasing neurotransmitters such as glutamate, norepinephrine, acetylcholine and possibly GABA, which would help boost feelings of emotional well-being.

Positively impacts sleep

A study in the Journal of Sleep showed that mindfulness meditation is a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia that may also help anyone sleep better and stay asleep longer.

Boosts brain health

Meditation has been studied for its positive effects on brain health. Research published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging showed that meditation can strengthen the parts of the brain responsible for memory and may increase one’s attention span.

“Meditation can impact the brain positively in areas connected to decision making, emotional flexibility and empathy,” Winston says.

Decreases blood pressure

Through mindful breathing, especially when exhaling is longer than inhaling, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active, which helps to decrease blood pressure.

A study published in Complementary Therapies In Medicine showed a reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure in those that practiced mantra meditations.

"Meditation is a practice that requires regularity and patience to fully experience its benefits," Winston notes. "Even just a few minutes of meditation on a regular basis can make a significant difference in physical and mental well-being over time."

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