Updated: Feb 9
Are you feeling burnt out or stressed? Have you had trouble with focus or decision making? Or maybe you’ve been feeling disconnected from your body? Meditation can be an impactful way to recharge your brain and restore mind-body connection. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are becoming more and more accessible. There are apps to guide you, classes offered at yoga studios and community centers, and boatloads of articles sharing a variety of ways to practice meditation and mindfulness. If you've ever thought about starting a practice of your own, now is a great time to start!
With mile-long to-do lists, the constant influx of negative news, or the pressure to “be your best self” at work and at home, it can sometimes feel like taking time to recharge your mental battery is an impossible feat. Meditation is a practice that can be effective with as little as five minutes of practice a day. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment; it doesn't require you to join a gym; and, in fact, it doesn't even require you to leave the comfort of your home! Meditation can conveniently be done at any time and in any location that works best for you.
A common misconception is that meditation has to have spiritual implications. Some meditation practices are more spiritual while others are not spiritual at all. The reason why you meditate and how you meditate is completely individualized and up to you. Identifying your reasons for wanting to start a meditation practice is a good first step to finding a type that fits your needs. Do you feel the need for a mental health break in between your busy to-do list tasks? Do you want to carve out some self-care time in the morning before you start your day? Are you feeling stuck in any area of your life where you'd like some clarity? Or perhaps, the sound of peace and quiet that can serve as a mini-spa vacation in your mind for five minutes sounds appealing. Whatever your reason for wanting to start a meditation practice is a good reason and discovering your "why" is the very first step! (Tip: Take a moment to write down your "why" if it just came to you. That way you can revisit it anytime you need a little meditation motivation.)
5 Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has been around for centuries and is practiced by thousands of people all around the world for its ability to positively impact physical and mental health. Meditation is often associated with relaxation, but there is so much more that can transpire from practicing meditation. Below are a few benefits that may surprise you!
1. Slow Down Aging
Research suggests that meditation may reduce your biological age. Biological age is determined by the length of a protein called “telomeres.” Telomeres are at the end of your DNA, kind of like the little plastic piece on the end of a shoelace. People with longer telomeres are considered to be “ biologically younger” than people with shorter telomeres, regardless of what their actual age is in numbers.
Stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle habits can shorten telomere length and make your body age faster. Meditation may potentially lessen the impact of stressors and slow the process of biological aging.
2. Improve Focus and Attention
An essential skill learned through meditation is the ability to notice when your mind is wandering and to redirect yourself back to your intended object of focus (for example, this may be focusing on you breath or a lit candle in front of you). Studies show that the more you meditate and redirect your focus, the stronger the connections in your brain, that are associated with focus, become. It's like exercise — the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Carving out a short period of time daily is a great way to improve your focus and attention.
3. Sleep Better
Poor sleep quality is associated with lower cognitive functioning, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and chronic diseases like obesity and cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that meditation may improve sleep quality by reducing mind wandering, helping to manage emotions, and making unbiased assessments of life experiences. In summary, meditation helps you manage daily life stressors, preparing your mind for a better night’s rest.
While more research is needed to define the correlation between meditation and sleep, meditation is a safe and beneficial option to sleeping better without negative side effects that you may experience with over-the-counter or prescribed sleep aids.
4. Manage Pain
Meditation may also be effective for managing chronic and acute pain. Several studies found that meditation improved the perception of pain in people who had fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and low back pain. Studies show that, even if you’re brand new to meditating, pain may be reduced within just a few weeks of mindfulness meditation.
One theory behind why meditation helps alleviate pain is because of its ability to change the way your brain processes pain. Meditation activates the area of your brain that is responsible for pain control, the area that analyzes and interprets sensory input, and the area that controls the perception of your body’s internal state. Meditation mitigates pain by changing the brain’s perception of pain from being a threat or a problem to a harmless sensory experience. It literally helps take your mind off of the pain!
5. Love Yourself
Research shows that meditation may also be a useful tool for self-compassion and body acceptance. For example, body acceptance during and after pregnancy can be challenging because of the rapid weight gain and other bodily changes in conjunction with an unrealistic societal standard and expectation to “bounce back” quickly after giving birth. One study conducted on pregnant and postpartum women found that participants who practiced self compassion meditation experienced a decrease in self-critical thoughts about their body and an increase in body appreciation. During the study, participants used techniques like body scanning and affirmations and practiced giving themselves permission to feel any emotions that were coming up for them. They also did weekly reflections on changes that they were experiencing after extending gratitude toward their body.
If you are struggling with body acceptance, meditation may be a useful tool to extend loving kindness to yourself, changing the way you think about your body.
Types of Meditation
Meditation is a form of self-care where you take time for yourself to be with yourself. No two people have the same meditative practice or experience, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. What's most important is discovering what type of meditation feels right for you. There are many different types of meditation. Below are five types that you may want to explore.
Mantra meditation is when a sound, word, or phrase is repeated in your head or out loud. “Mantra” is a Sanskrit word meaning sacred sound. Mantras are believed by some religious cultures to have spiritual power. Some commonly known religious mantras are the Catholic Hail Mary, Buddhist chants like Om Mani Padme Hum, or the Sanskrit chant of Om. People who practice secular meditation tend to use positive affirmations or single words like love or peace. One common type of mantra meditation is transcendental meditation (TM). It includes the repetition of a non-religious mantra in effort to settle the mind and calm the thoughts until reaching a silent state.
Mantra meditation is meant to bring relaxation and peace of mind. It's been shown to reduce anxiety, reduce fatigue, improve mood and well-being, and improve visuospacial and verbal memory.
Visualization is a technique where you use your mind to imagine an experience. Visualizing helps you focus on something specific, like an event or a goal you want to achieve, holding it in your mind and imagining the outcome becoming a reality. Visualization meditation has been shown to help with relaxation, uplift mood, mitigate anxiety, ease pain, boost self confidence, and improve ability to cope with stress. Our brains can not tell the difference between real life experiences and visualizations, therefore this type of meditation can be an effective way to transform how you're feeling. For example, visualizing that you are walking on a beach can help reduce feelings of stress or visualizing that you successfully gave a presentation that you were feeling nervous about can help ease feelings of anxiety. Athletes often use visualization to give them a competitive edge. Michael Phelps, the olympic swimmer, uses visualizations to prepare for races. According to his swimming coach, Phelps visualizes himself winning, what it would feel like, and what his surroundings would look, feel, and smell like in the months leading up to a big race. Seems like it worked for him!
Mindfulness meditation is another meditation that is gaining recognition in common culture and is even being used in hospital settings! With mindfulness meditation, practitioners find something to focus on such as their breath, sensations they are feeling, or something else that helps bring their awareness to the present moment. Naturally, mental and physical distractions may happen during meditation. The core practice in mindfulness meditation is to note the distraction, accept it, and bring your attention back to whatever you chose to focus on.
Mindfulness meditation has been associated with a reduction in stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and physical pain. It has also been associated with improvements in attention and emotional regulation.
Guided meditation is when an instructor guides you through a meditation, giving instruction or creating a visual. This form of meditation can take techniques from one or all of the types of meditation listed above.
Guided meditations are great if you want a little instruction to get started. Guided meditation will walk you through the meditation. Some instructors offer inspirational cues during the meditation, which can be a bonus if you enjoy that extra support.
Yoga is derived from a Sanskrit word that means “union,” It is a mind-body practice where you synchronize your breath with your movements as you move through different postures and positions. Yoga has similar benefits to other forms of meditation with the added bonus of increasing physical strength, mobility, and flexibility. Note that , since yoga has become very popularized, not all classes come with a meditative intention (looking at you, Yoga Booty Class). If you'd like to experience traditional yoga that focuses on the breath along with gentle movement, look for Yin, Hatha, or Yoga Nidra classes in your local community or online.
How to get started
As meditation and wellness are making their way into the mainstream, there are plenty of resources to help you begin a meditation practice. One of my personal favorite ways to meditate is through a meditation app, like HeadSpace, Insight Timer, or Calm, which have a variety of meditation options, like the ones mentioned above. You can even choose topic-specific meditations, like meditation for sleep, meditation for anxiety, or meditation to start your day. What’s nice about topic-specific guided meditation is that you can choose a topic that suits you at that moment.
Some people enjoy in-person or virtual meditation classes for the community aspect. If this sounds like your cup of (meditative) tea, search for a local community space like yoga studios, meditation centers, or hospitals that may offer in-person classes. Classes are a fun and inspiring way to find other like-minded people who share an interest in meditation.
You may even be able to find an in-person or online meditation course, which is often offered over several weeks with the intention of teaching you the skills needed to practice on your own. This is a great option for people who want to have the option to get personal guidance from a meditation teacher then practice it conveniently on their own.
It is part of my own personal philosophy to be a student and not a follower. As an experienced meditator, I encourage you to try out many different types of meditation to see what you enjoy most. As with any new skill or practice, it may feel uncomfortable, confusing or daunting at first. Or, you may question whether or not you’re doing it right. Just know that there is no right or wrong and the first step is simply to get started. Everyone’s meditation journey looks different and your own practice will turn out to be right for you! Part of the reason why people who meditate call it a “practice” is because it is not meant to be perfected. Meditation is a continual learning lifelong journey that supports your well-being and personal growth.
Please share below, is there a practice that resonates most with you? Or, do you already have a meditation practice? I'd love to hear more about your experience!
Blog written by Shani McLean
Hi! my name is Shani McLean, and I am a student at Georgia State University in the Coordinated Program in Dietetics. As an RD-to-be, I aspire to help folks use food to reach their wellness goals. When I’m not in the classroom, you can find me on my yoga mat or in my kitchen trying out new recipes!