Meditation is part of the modern-day wellness lexicon, but the truth is, the practice has been around for millennia.
“Meditation dates back thousands of years across many different cultures, and often shares elements with spirituality,” says Jillian Cohen, MD, an integrative medicine expert at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “In modern times, meditation is used often as an effective means of managing stress, anxiety, insomnia, and pain, among other chronic conditions.”
What Is Meditation?
In its simplest terms, meditation is the practice of deepening one’s awareness or focusing one’s mind for a period of time.
Some of the earliest evidence of meditation includes wall art from the Indus Valley that dates back to between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE. The images illustrate people sitting on the ground with their legs crossed, hands on their knees and eyes resting — in positions widely recognized as meditation postures.
Types of Meditation
There’s no one single type of meditation, though techniques tend to overlap. “You can think of meditation like sports,” says Diana Winston, a mindfulness meditation teacher and director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Program. “It’s a huge category. Just like there are so many different types of sports, there are so many varieties of meditation.”
Here’s a list of common types of meditation and how they are practiced.
Mindfulness Meditation This is the process of being fully present with what you are experiencing in the current moment — including your body and your thoughts — in a way that is concentrated, curious, and open. “I define mindfulness as paying attention to our present moment experiences with an openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be without experience,” Winston says. “It’s a way of helping us live more in the present moment, not being lost in the past and future.”
Concentrative Meditation Different than mindfulness meditation, which encourages being present in a curious and open way, concentrative meditation keeps the mind fixated on one object, like the body as it sits on a chair. “It typically has you focus on one thing in order to concentrate, gather your focus, and calm your mind,” Winston says.
Guided Meditation Another method of concentrative meditation, in which you form mental pictures of situations that you find relaxing. “You might imagine that you’re in a beautiful garden with the birds chirping,” Winston says. “So you’re using your imagination to create states of being.”
Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation The practice of directing well wishes toward others and wishes to help oneself or another to suffer less. “You may wish them happiness or peace or that they’re at ease, and what that does is it may affect the other person, but it’s really about cultivating it within ourselves,” Winston explains.
Winston notes that certain activities such as running or drawing, while not considered forms of meditation, can produce a meditative state for many people.
“I think of it as you’re using art or running to help create a meditative approach or meditative mind, but it’s not in and of itself a meditation,” she says.
How Meditation Works to Change the Brain
In recent years, a growing body of research has focused on how meditation affects the brain.
Some studies suggest that practicing mindfulness meditation can actually change the structures of the brain. While scientists are still working to understand the effects of this practice, it is generally believed that it correlates to improved emotional regulation.
“Mindfulness meditation has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with our higher cognitive functions, and deactivate the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with anger, fear, anxiety, and depression,” Dr. Cohen says. “It strengthens the neurological circuits that calm the part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger.”
Potential Health Benefits of Meditation
A growing body of research has found that meditation is beneficial to mental and physical health because of the effect it has on our stress response.
“The primary health benefit from meditation appears to be related to the general shift in the autonomic nervous system that decreases sympathetic tone and increases parasympathetic tone,” Cohen says.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight response, while our parasympathetic nervous system is rest-and-digest, she says.
“As humans, we’re wired to fight-or-flight very easily, since it’s a survival mechanism,” Cohen explains. “So we want and need more parasympathetic. When the parasympathetic system is stimulated, heart rate and breathing slow, stress hormones decrease, blood vessels dilate, and digestion is improved.”
In recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence has shown how a meditation practice can help improve health, including mental and emotional health.
Meditation and Chronic Conditions
Meditation can also be a helpful tool in managing chronic illnesses. While research is limited, and larger, more long-term studies are needed, there’s some evidence that meditation may play a role in helping manage various conditions — from mental health disorders to chronic pain to skin ailments.
Chronic stress promotes an increased inflammatory load, chronic low-grade inflammation, and prolonged increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) — “all of which are associated with increased chronic illness,” Cohen says.
For instance, meditation may help you manage or improve:
- Depressionand anxietyby reducing worry and rumination
- Blood pressure, by helping to alleviate stress
- Heart conditions like coronary artery diseaseand heart failureby reducing stress, controlling blood pressure, and improving overall quality of life
- Chronic pain, by potentially changing how the brain responds to pain
- Sleep issues, such as insomnia and sleep disturbances, by increasing the body’s relaxation response, reducing worry and rumination, and alleviating mood disorders
- Gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD), by suppressing the activities of genes that can cause inflammation
- Obesity, by encouraging mindful eating and aiding weight loss
- Diabetes, by reducing stress, improving mood, and encouraging positive healthcare behaviors and the development of positive coping skills
- Rheumatoid arthritis, by potentially improving pain intensity and depression symptoms
- Skin conditions like psoriasisand eczemaby helping to reduce stress, a trigger for symptoms
- Multiple sclerosis, by improving pain, fatigue, and overall quality of life
- Cancer, potentially by changing the cellular activity of cancer survivors in a way that scientists believe may have protective benefits against disease
Common Questions & Answers
Are There Any Drawbacks to Meditating?
While research has shown that there are certainly many health benefits of meditation, not everyone will necessarily experience those positive effects.
Indeed, some research finds that certain individuals may have negative experiences when meditating.
A meta-analysis of four decades of studies on meditation and mindfulness determined that these practices led to negative effects in about 8 percent of people. The most common adverse effects were increases in anxiety, depression, and stress.
Cohen theorizes that people with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety may be more susceptible to feelings of inadequacy if they don't feel like they’re getting meditation “right.”
“Because meditation reminds us that we all to varying degrees have psychological agency — that we can shift our own attitudes and thought processes — there can potentially be those who are suffering with psycho-emotional imbalances, such as depression or anxiety, who may experience shame or self-deprecation when results are not realized at the same pace as others, or at the pace they might expect,” she says. “This can cause many feelings of guilt or inadequacy.”
While more research is needed in this area, experts say it’s important to note that meditation, just like any other practice, is not for everyone.
“Sometimes, there’s an assumption that meditation is going to solve all my problems,” Winston says. “But medically there’s no medication that works for everybody, and there’s no meditation that works for everybody.”
If you’ve tried meditation and have found that it’s not for you, there are plenty other avenues to explore that can help alleviate stress and anxiety.
“The most important thing is that we can all find ways to reduce stress in our lives, whether that’s running or dancing or taking long walks in nature, and not to assume that you’ve got to be a meditator in order to reduce stress,” Winston says.
Beginner’s Tips for Meditating
If you’re new to meditation, you may find the practice intimidating. Luckily, once you know the basics, you can practice meditation just about anywhere at any time.
Experts recommend the following tips to get started:
Explore different types of meditation. It’s helpful for beginners to explore the different forms of meditation to find the one they like best, Winston says. Read about the various types and see where you might like to get started. “There’s a whole variety to experiment with,” Winston says. “If one doesn’t work for you or you don’t respond to it, try another one.”
Find a teacher. Find a certified meditation instructor by going to medical centers in your area and checking with the integrative medicine or psychology departments and asking for recommendations. If you find an instructor on your own, do your homework and make sure they are certified. The International Mindfulness Teachers Association has listings of teachers who have gone through accredited teacher training programs. If you’re interested in trying a meditation group, check out the Buddhist Insight Network.
Use tools to practice meditation on your own. If you prefer not to go to an instructor or there are no certified teachers in your area, you can still practice meditation on your own. Go to your local library and find a book on meditation, or download one of the many meditation apps to your mobile phone or tablet. “It’s not a regulated industry, so it’s best to use something that you see has a high adoption rate or if you can get a recommendation from a trusted friend,” Winston says.
Don’t get discouraged. Oftentimes people will try meditation and feel like they’re failing because they can’t concentrate or do it “right.” This is normal. “For most people, meditation does not come easily,” Winston says. “We live in a state of perpetual distraction, and it’s so hard to stay focused.” The key is to start out slow and keep your expectations in check. “You can try meditating for five minutes, or you can try for one minute,” Winston says. “There’s not a set time that you have to do it to feel the effects.”
A Simple 5-Minute Meditation to Try
If you’re interested in trying meditation, Winston recommends the following five-minute exercise to get started:
- Find a quiet place to comfortably sit or lie down.
- Close your eyes if you wish and rest your hands in a comfortable position.
- Pay attention to your breath. Notice your inhales and your exhales.
- Observe how your abdomen is rising and falling or your chest is expanding and contracting as you breathe.
- Choose one of these aspects of your breathing to focus on: your chest, belly, or the air flowing in and out of your nose. If you are having trouble doing this, simply listen to the sounds around you and focus on one of them.
- Try to sustain your attention on the spot or sound you’ve chosen.
- If you notice your mind wandering, redirect your attention back to whatever you were focusing on.
- Repeat until the five minutes are up.
Resources We Love
Favorite Websites for Meditation
This site is an online resource for all things related to mindfulness meditation. Readers can find a primer on how to meditate, as well as articles focusing on mindfulness and sleep, anxiety, and children. It also features a bimonthly magazine, online mindfulness courses, and a directory of mindfulness teachers and events to help you connect to others in real life.
This site offers a plethora of meditation resources, including free guided meditations, a weekly podcast, and information about local drop-in meditations. You can also download the free UCLA Mindful App, which offers basic meditations for beginners in both English and Spanish, wellness meditations for people living with challenging health conditions, and videos explaining the science of mindfulness, meditation postures, and how to get started.
This is an online community of yoga and healthy living enthusiasts. Though it focuses mostly on yoga, readers can also find tons of helpful articles on practicing mindfulness, as well as healthy eating and travel advice. The site also offers hundreds of premium on-demand and live yoga classes. Users can sign up for a 14-day free trial, and plans start at $10 per month after that.
Favorite Meditation Apps
This is one of the most popular and well-known meditation apps. It offers a number of guided meditations for common needs: work, kids, sleep, focus, stress, and anxiety. Relaxing music, nature soundscapes, and storytelling sleepcasts are available too. Users can sign up for a 14-day free trial. After that, an annual subscription costs $69.99.
Another well-known meditation app, Calm offers an array of meditations, calming exercises, and breathing techniques to help users relax. The app also features sleep stories, as well as relaxing music and nature sounds to listen to while studying, working, or going to sleep. A seven-day free trial is available, then a subscription costs $69.99 per year or a one-time fee of $399.99 to get access for life.
Insight Timer is a free app that offers thousands of guided meditations. What’s more, there is a “Member Plus” option available that gives users access to hundreds of meditation courses and premium features. A 30-day free trial is available for Member Plus, followed by an annual charge of $60.
Favorite Meditation Blogs
Tasting Mindfulness owner Lynn Rossy, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in mindful eating and mindful movement through yoga. In addition to these topics, Dr. Rossy’s blog touches other facets of mindful living, including setting intentions, practicing gratitude, and taking a mindful pause.
More than a million readers follow the Zen Habits blog, which focuses on finding simplicity and mindfulness in the chaos of everyday life. Blog creator Leo Babauta is clear that he is not an expert, doctor, or coach, but he says has achieved success in reaching his goals through mindful living. Readers can follow his journey through his writing, which encourages others to develop healthy habits and declutter their lives.
The woman behind Mrs. Mindful, Melli O’Brien, is a meditation teacher and the cofounder and host of the Mindfulness Summit, the world’s largest mindfulness conference. Her blog covers an array of mindfulness topics, including using mindfulness meditation to cope in a crisis, overcome your fears, and shed the past. O’Brien also offers a free seven-day mindfulness course, which includes two downloadable meditation audio recordings you can keep forever.
Favorite Meditation Newsletter
Ten Percent Weekly is the free newsletter from the Ten Percent Happier app (available for free to download on the App Store and Google Play). Retired news anchor Dan Harris wrote the book Ten Percent Happier and cofounded the app of the same name after beginning his journey toward self-awareness with meditation following a nationally televised panic attack. The book turned into a New York Times bestseller. The newsletter features original essays from meditation teachers on happiness and mindful living, as well as links to new episodes of the Ten Percent Happier podcast, hosted by Harris, and information about upcoming events.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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