Meditation has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. A new report based on data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that U.S. adults’ use of meditation in the past 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017 (from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent). The use of meditation by U.S. children (aged 4 to 17 years) also increased significantly (from 0.6 percent in 2012 to 5.4 percent in 2017).
There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions); a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Meditation
Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions, and there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia.
Read more about meditation for these conditions:
- High Blood Pressure
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Anxiety, Depression, Insomnia
- Smoking Cessation
- Other Conditions
Results from a 2011 NCCIH-funded study of 279 adults who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found that changes in spirituality were associated with better mental health and quality of life. Guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians published in 2013 suggest that MBSR and meditation may help to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression while enhancing mood and self-esteem in people with lung cancer. Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2014 by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIC) recommend meditation as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients treated for breast cancer. The SIC also recommends its use to improve quality of life in these people. Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. However, differences in study designs mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Because only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its use for this condition. A 2014 research review suggested that meditation reduces chemical identifiers of inflammation and shows promise in helping to regulate the immune system. Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy.
What the Science Says About Safety and Side Effects of Meditation
- Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people.
- People with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement. People with physical health conditions should speak with their health care providers before starting a meditative practice, and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition.
- There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people with certain psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression. People with existing mental health conditions should speak with their health care providers before starting a meditative practice, and make their meditation instructor aware of their condition.
Meditation is a skill
Learning to meditate is like learning any other skill. Think of it like exercising a muscle that you’ve never really worked out before. It takes consistent practice to get comfortable. And it’s usually easier if you have a teacher. We’ve got you covered there.
It’s meditation practice, not meditation perfect: There’s no such thing as perfect meditation. Sometimes your focus will wander or you’ll forget to follow your breath. That’s OK. It’s part of the experience. What’s most important is to meditate consistently. It’s one of those things where the journey is more important than the destination.
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Guided vs. unguided meditation
Choosing between guided and unguided meditation is often the first step in starting a meditation practice. In guided meditation, a teacher guides you through the basic steps of the practice, either in person or via a meditation app like Headspace. This type of meditation is particularly useful for beginners because the teacher is experienced and trusted, and their guidance can be key to helping those who are new to the practice get the most out of the experience. Most guided meditations follow a similar format: the teacher explains how the mind behaves during meditation, leads you through a particular meditation technique, and then suggests how to integrate this technique into your everyday life.
In unguided meditation — also called silent meditation — you meditate alone, without someone else explaining the process. For some people, unguided meditation involves simply sitting in quiet and paying attention to the body and thoughts for a set period of time. For others, it involves using some of the techniques they’ve learned from previous guided practices.
Some other types of meditation
Here are some other forms of this ancient practice that you may want to explore. (Note: Many of the following techniques should be learned with an experienced — and in some cases certified — teacher to be most effective.)
Zen meditation. This ancient Buddhist tradition involves sitting upright and following the breath, particularly the way it moves in and out of the belly, and letting the mind “just be.” Its aim is to foster a sense of presence and alertness.
Mantra meditation. This technique is similar to focused attention meditation, although instead of focusing on the breath to quiet the mind, you focus on a mantra (which could be a syllable, word, or phrase). The idea here is that the subtle vibrations associated with the repeated mantra can encourage positive change — maybe a boost in self-confidence or increased compassion for others — and help you enter an even deeper state of meditation.
Transcendental meditation. The meditation techniques and exercises in the Headspace app are not the Transcendental Meditation® (TM®) program, nor is the Headspace app endorsed by Maharishi Foundation USA, Inc., which teaches the Transcendental Meditation program. If you are interested in the Transcendental Meditation® (TM®) program you can visit the Maharishi Foundation’s website. The Transcendental Meditation® program is taught one-on-one by instructors trained and licensed by Maharishi Foundation in a personalized and individual manner. The practice involves sitting comfortably with one’s eyes closed for 20 minutes twice per day and engaging in the effortless practice as instructed. Students are encouraged to practice twice a day, which often includes morning meditation, and the a second session is in the mid-afternoon or early evening.
Yoga meditation. Just as there are many different types of meditation, so too exist many styles of yoga — particularly Kundalini yoga — that are aimed at strengthening the nervous system, so we are better able to cope with everyday stress and problems. However, in order to integrate the neuromuscular changes that happen during yoga and gain the greatest benefit from the practice, we must take time for savasana or Shavasana, known as corpse or relaxation pose, to relax the body and relieve tension.
Vipassana meditation. Another ancient tradition, this one invites you to use your concentration to intensely examine certain aspects of your existence with the intention of eventual transformation. Vipassana pushes us to find “insight into the true nature of reality,” via contemplation of several key areas of human existence: “suffering, unsatisfactoriness,” “impermanence,” “non-self,” and “emptiness.”
Chakra meditation. This meditation technique is aimed at keeping the body’s core chakras — centers of energy — open, aligned, and fluid. Blocked or imbalanced chakras can result in uncomfortable physical and mental symptoms, but chakra meditation can help to bring all of them back into balance.
Qigong meditation. This is an ancient and powerful Chinese practice that involves harnessing energy in the body by allowing energy pathways — called “meridians” — to be open and fluid. Sending this energy inward during meditation is thought to help the body heal and function; sending the energy outward can help to heal another person.
Sound bath meditation. This form uses bowls, gongs, and other instruments to create sound vibrations that help focus the mind and bring it into a more relaxed state.
Did one or more of these meditation techniques speak to you? Remember, ultimately it doesn’t matter which technique you choose. What does matter, however, is that you choose a style that allows you to integrate the qualities you experience during meditation practice — calm, empathy, mindfulness — into the rest of your day.
If you’re looking for an introduction to different types of meditation, check out the 10-day beginner’s course on the essentials of meditation — available for free in the Headspace app. From there, once you gain more experience and confidence, you can explore the whole library of content, covering everything from sleep, compassion, and sports to anger, stress, focus, and more. Get started today!