Eyes closed, legs crossed, deep breaths in, then out…now what? As meditation continues its surge in popularity in Western society, more and more people are coming to understand that the practice goes far beyond stealing a moment of silence in an otherwise hectic day. And while the mention of meditation might bring to mind an image of a woman sitting peacefully in a meadow, that misconception is quite deceiving.|
"There's an expectation that you have to be in a position of enlightenment before you try meditation," says Laura Irwin, a guided meditation expert, wellness coach and founder of Inspired Meditations. "When I started meditating, that wasn't the case for me. I'm in a constant state of busyness—meditation simply takes the edge off."
Irwin describes it as a "one-size-fits-all self-improvement tool." Studies show that meditation reduces stress, increases immune function, improves focus and boosts the mental wellness of those experiencing anxiety or depression. It's important to note that while experts emphasize that meditation should not replace professional help for depression or anxiety, it can be used in tandem with treatment.
"It's easy to get caught up in the idea that everyone around you is happier or more successful," Irwin explains. "That voice becomes the constant background noise in your head. Meditation helps quiet that."
Furthermore, because meditation has been shown to improve the regulation of emotions, it could help with overeating. When you increase self-awareness, you also become more conscious of how and why you are fueling your body. "Before eating, you'll pause and say, 'Am I eating this for emotional reasons or because I'm hungry?"' Jill Jerome, a meditation guide and founder of Yoga Loft Studios, explains.
Which Meditation Style is Right for You?
There are many different types and variations of meditation, and it's important to test a few methods to figure out which is the most effective for your life, schedule and goals.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Originally stemming from Buddhism, mindfulness meditation is perhaps the most popular form of meditation in the West. It focuses on staying in the moment without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Both Irwin and Jerome recommend mindfulness meditation as a starting point for beginners. Practice on your own, in a class or through a guided meditation app.
Why it works: One of the major components of mindfulness meditation is the principle of no judgment. In this practice, it's essential that you don't judge any thought that enters your mind or any sensation you feel. As you develop a non-judgmental mentality, you reduce tension in the body allowing stress and anxieties to fade away.
How to practice: Sit cross-legged on the floor with a straight back your eyes closed. Focus attention on your breathing. When your mind starts to wander, without judgment, bring it back to your breathing. If you'd like to incorporate body scans to ease physical tension, lie on your back with your arms at your side. Slowly bring awareness to each part of your body, starting with your toes and moving up. Spend a moment on each section, releasing any tension you're feeling in that area before moving on to the next.
2. Kundalini or Movement Meditation
Though many types of meditation are practiced seated, kundalini yoga and meditation is derived from movement. In the practice, you'll focus on the kundalini or the spiritual energy that can be found at the base of the spine. Moving this energy becomes the object of your meditation, guiding your thoughts.
Why it works: "We have a lot have a lot of chatter in our minds," says Jerome. "Some people need physical movement to help focus. From there it's easier to find the stillness."
In addition to improved mindfulness, Kundalini has been shown to reduce pain in some and energize the body. "[Kundalini] helps to clear a hazy mind and improve focus. When women are going through menopause, they experience cloudy thinking. Kundalini is extremely helpful in remedying that," Jerome shares.
How to practice: Kundalini is best practiced in a Tai Chi or yoga class. It will be important to enter the class prepared to clear your mind and focus on your breathing throughout. If you want to practice at home, consult a yoga instructor for information on the poses and mantras you will need to know.
3. Mantra Meditation
Mantra meditation uses a repetitive sound, whether that's the traditional "om" or a personal mantra you received from an instructor. While many opt to express their mantra out loud, this meditation can be just as effective when repeated in the mind or whispered.
Why it works: Mantra meditation is a great way to focus for those who are uncomfortable or distracted by silence. It's an excellent form of meditation for beginners, especially if you're working with a guide or an app. By repeating a mantra and feeling its vibrations, you are able to enter a deeper state of awareness and relaxation.
How to practice: Sit or stand comfortably and repeat your mantra for either a designated amount of time or by using mala beads. Mala beads are meditation necklaces with 108 beads—a sacred number in Hinduism. When using mala beads, hold a bead with two fingers and repeat your mantra once per bead, moving around the necklace until you've completed your practice.
4. Loving-Kindness Meditation
Loving-kindness meditation is the practice of actively wishing benevolence and goodwill upon others. It focuses on self-love and acceptance. This type of meditation has proven to be especially helpful for people suffering from PTSD in early studies.
Why it works: By working on compassion and self-acceptance, you'll improve your ability to empathize with others and are more likely to respond positively to social interactions. Loving-kindness meditation flexes that muscle and gets you in the habit of showing love to yourself. Plus, by focusing good vibes toward others, people who practice loving-kindness meditation often find that they focus less on themselves, thereby lowering their own awareness of anxieties.
How to practice: Sit cross-legged or seated with your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Concentrate on feelings of kindness and love until you feel surrounded by positivity. Once you've focused on loving thoughts toward yourself, begin to send thoughts of love, kindness and peace to others, including individuals you know, people who have hurt you and every being in the world.
How to Get Started
Irwin recommends trying several types of meditation to find a style that works for you. Once you've determined which style is suited to your needs, identify the time of day that works best and commit to making the time for it in your schedule. Finally, determine how often you want to meditate.
"I tell my clients not to meditate every day," says Irwin. "If you set that expectation then miss a day, you'll beat yourself up. Meditation should be something you enjoy, like exercise. If you do it too much, you put pressure on yourself and won't see results. Never treat it like an obligation."
If you're ready to embrace mindfulness and improve your overall health, find a studio, practice one of these techniques at home or download an app like Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier or Buddhify. Then, breathe and embrace the new you.