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A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 5/23/2022 Paul Wynn
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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 seamlessly. It can be done anytime, anywhere while going about your daily routine. It's also a great part of overall self-care.

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

Once considered a spiritual practice, meditation in recent years has become increasingly popular 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 emotion and mental clarity.

Types of Meditation

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

Mindfulness meditation

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

“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.

Mindfulness meditation is about quieting your 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 says.

Typically, people practice 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. There’s moderate evidence that mindfulness meditation may improve anxiety, depression and pain.

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 practice.

There is a plethora of 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. People often feel relaxed as their minds focus on the physical sensations instead of wandering into thoughts or emotions,” Tong notes.

Mantra meditation

During mantra meditation, individuals concentrate on a key word or phrase that is repeated either in the mind or out loud. Transcendental Meditation is a common form of mantra meditation that helps improve calmness. For people who have trouble focusing, mantra meditation can help people get in the right frame of mind.

Studies have shown some small-to-moderate reductions in anxiety, stress and small, but important improvements in depression and mental health-related quality of life.


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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

One analysis that examined 16 studies found that Transcendental Meditation is more effective than 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 pain, stress, depression and anxiety among 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.

Positively impacts sleep

Studies suggest that mindfulness-based meditation helped people sleep better, stay asleep longer and improved insomnia.

Affects cognitive decline

Studies have shown meditation can reduce age-related memory loss or even improve memory in those with subjective cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment.

Decreases blood pressure

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

The American Heart Association examined the scientific literature and concluded that meditation had modest to mixed effect on reducing blood pressure.

Getting Started With Meditation

Sounds great, now what?

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 become comfortable with the practice, incorporating elements from different styles of meditation is worth considering. Also, depending on your personality, beginning a practice with an accountability partner may be the way to go. 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 judgement 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. To achieve long-term success, you need to be reasonable with your expectations,” Tong says.

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

“My recommendation is at first to 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 also to 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.

Many times it will be tempting to give up, but the health benefits are worth trying again and again. 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 than 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.”

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