Read more from our #MEDITATION primer here.
Sometimes meditation may seem like a practice for someone else. While the benefits are clear—research has shown that monks who meditate for thousands of hours alter the structure of their brains, significantly decreasing emotionally reactive behavior—it’s easy to think, How nice for them, but who has that kind of time?
Well, arguably, all of us: Last year Harvard research found that even those who’d never mediated a day in their life saw benefits in five different regions of the brain from just 30 minutes of practice per day over the course of eight weeks. And the payoffs are huge: Meditation has been shown to relieve pain; lower levels of stress and anxiety; and boost brainpower.
Bringing some calm to your day doesn’t need to feel foreign, or far-fetched, or involve awakening your chakras. “Meditation is really just getting to know your own mind,” said Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a leading Buddhist teacher and author of the new book Emotional Rescue. The Tibetan word for meditation literally means “familiarization,” he added.
Practicing mindfulness can take place anywhere, as well: during a subway commute, while eating dinner, or in a more structured setting. Just like exercising a muscle, the more you practice the better you get at it: the easier you can shift into a present state of mind, and the bigger the results, said Randi Ragan, a holistic wellbeing expert and author of the recently published book A Year of Living Mindfully.
There are many different types of meditation—thousands by some counts—taught and practiced around the world, and most every one is valid. (There are probably as many teachers, each tending to favor their way of practicing.) But no matter how you go about it the goal—and the results—are the same: peace of mind and wellbeing, greater focus and creativity, and better relationships. You just have to figure out which type resonates with your personality, Ragan explained.
Maybe you think you’d like dropping in to a studio or class environment to find your zen. Or you know you’d rather carve out some time alone, seated and still. Or prefer sound to silence. There are many approaches and styles of meditation. Try them out, and then pick the one that helps you breathe a little more calm into your life… your way.
The most overused word in wellness circles, mindfulness is also the most well studied, widely practiced Western style of meditation. In this type of practice you learn to train your mind by focusing your attention on your breath or on sensations in your body. It’s a form of meditation designed to develop the skill of paying attention to our inner and outer experiences with acceptance, patience, and compassion.
The University of California Center for Mindfulness, part of the medical school’s psychiatry department, describes mindfulness as a quality that most people don’t know can be cultivated. “Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, deeply and without judgment, to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us.” By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, we can live more fully and less on automatic pilot, thus, being more present for our own lives. And more comfortable in our skin.
How to Do It: In most practices, you’ll sit comfortably, close your eyes and begin to focus your attention on the inhale and exhale of your breath. When thoughts pop up (to-do list! deadlines!) you acknowledge them, and then let them go, returning your attention to your breath. The goal is a quieting of the mind, “sitting down with our mind and allowing it to relax from all of the busyness and all of our worries and anxieties, and just be in the present moment,” said Rinpoche. This type of meditation is great for increasing focus and relieving stress.
In our world of Instagram filters and body shaming, who couldn’t use a little more love. Also called metta meditation, loving-kindness meditation is about surrounding yourself with thoughts of—well—love, explained Ragan. According to Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation teacher, speaker, and panelist with the Dalai Lama at the 2005 Mind and Life Conference in Washington, DC, “throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and find a greater sense of connection with others. Our fear of intimacy—both with others and ourselves—creates feelings of pain and longing.” Loving-kindness meditation is a practice of care, concern, tenderness, and warmth for oneself and others.
How to Do It: One of the aims in this meditation is to feel good, so you’ll want to start sitting comfortably and relaxed in a quiet place, and allow 15 to 20 minutes for practice. Begin to focus your attention on your chest area, or “heart center.” With your inhales and exhales, start to become aware of the sensations in that part of your body. You might think positive thoughts or phrases like, ‘May I be happy.’
According to international meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, this type of meditation may at times “feel mechanical or awkward” and actually bring up feelings that are the opposite of what you’re trying to cultivate. He advises being patient and kind toward yourself. Once you’ve established a stronger sense of self-compassion, you can expand your practice to include others—people you know and love, strangers, and even the rest of the world, said Ragan. Research suggests that people who meditate this way report a decrease in self-criticism and release serious emotional tension—a potential trigger for health issues like migraines.
Mantra (aka Vedic)
According to Charlie Knoles, co-founder of The Path, which hosts weekly sits, courses, workshops and social events, this ancient meditation technique usually involves a Sanskrit mantra, which you silently repeat to yourself for 20 minutes, twice a day. (Or any sound or phrase that a teacher might suggest.) The intention with this method is to allow the mind to become completely quiet and expansive. Mantra-based meditation includes Transcendental Meditation (TM), Siddha yoga, and other methods from the Vedantic tradition. TM first entered Western culture via the Beatles, and was initially associated with Nehru jackets, tofu, and world peace. After a spate of lawsuits and bad publicity in the 80s, TM was dismissed “as a hippie affectation” and a fad, rather than “a medical process that has profound health benefits.”
How to Do It: This type of meditation is great for helping to increase creativity and release stress. Many people who practice mantra meditation say it helps them transcend their present state and lose track of time. To meditate with mantras, you silently repeat words or a series of words (“love” or “I am at peace” are two examples) that are meaningful to you. Work to focus your mind on this message by repeating your mantra in your head (or chanting it softly) over and over again, said Ragan. “The vibration of sounds is believed to alter the mind and relax the body as well as infuse it with specific energy.”
If the thought of sitting crossed-legged and silent while you meditate sounds excruciating, don’t do it. Physical practices such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong, an ancient Chinese practice, all involve mindfulness, breath work, and movement. Moving meditation is an easy, accessible meditation method, since most people have already incorporated some type of movement (i.e., exercise) in their life. It also frees you from a more constricting practice if that’s not your thing.
You can practice mindfulness through a simple downward dog or sun salutation in yoga class, or even while walking (check out our guide to walking meditation). In any of these physical practices, you’ll be linking breath to movement, which encourages a mind body connection and focuses your attention on the present moment—the ultimate aim of all meditation.