What is meditation? How the popular wellness practice can benefit you

Mindfulness meditation is one of the most popular forms of meditation.Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock
  • Meditation is a wellness practice that has been proven to reduce stress, improve focus, and contribute to a range of mental and physical health benefits.
  • If you want to meditate, it might be easiest to start with a class or guided meditation app, which will lead you through the process.
  • You can also learn how to meditate on your own — here, we outline the necessary steps and guidelines for mindfulness meditation.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Zlatin Ivanov, MD, who is certified in psychiatry and addiction psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology at Psychiatrist NYC.

Meditation is an ancient wellness practice that focuses on training awareness, attention, and compassion.

In recent years, research has found that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus and concentration, and increase feelings of calm and relaxation.

The good news is anyone can do it, and it's a simple practice to pick up — but it will take practice and consistency to feel the benefits. Here's what you need to know about meditation. Advertisement

What is meditation?

Meditation originated in Eastern wellness traditions, such as Ayurvedic practices in India, or traditional medicine therapies in China and Japan.

However, it's now practiced across the world and is growing in popularity in Western cultures. For example, in the US, the use of meditation increased by more than three times from 2012 to 2017.

Research has found that meditation can have many health benefits, such as:
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  • Better focus and concentration
  • Improve self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Reduce stress
  • Help manage anxiety or depression
  • Fight addiction
  • Control pain
  • Promote altruistic behavior

Because there are varying practices across cultural, spiritual and religious traditions, there are lots of ways to meditate. Some common types of meditation include a body scan, walking meditation, loving kindness meditation, or mindfulness meditation.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is one of the most regularly-practiced forms in the US, according to the Global Wellness Summits' 2019 Trend Report. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), describes mindfulness as awareness that comes from paying attention in a purposeful way, on the present, and without judgment. MBSR is an eight-week evidence-based mindfulness meditation program that Kabat-Zinn founded with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Advertisement

Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on 'anchors' such as breath, sounds, sensations in the body, and even visual objects. Having an anchor is an important way to begin improving concentration and awareness, which can then help you be more mindful — the goal is to ultimately pay attention to your own mind without judging your feelings.

"We also observe and hold in awareness our thoughts and emotions, cultivating the stance of an observer, without over-identifying or getting caught up in them," Ralitsa Ivanova, a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction meditation teacher at Enhale Meditation Studio.

How to meditate

Mindfulness meditation can be done anywhere that you can focus. Here are a few steps to help you meditate: Advertisement

  1. Sit in a quiet space. Make sure there is nothing to disturb you and your phone is on silent.
  2. Sit comfortably. Use a cushion, blanket, or chair. Sit straight, but don't tense up: your body should feel relaxed.
  3. Breathe gently. Focus your attention on your breathing. Use this as your anchor. Alternatively, you can begin with a body scan: focus on each part of the body, down from your toes and up to your head, pausing to notice the sensations.
  4. Let distractions come and go. Once your mind wanders, acknowledge the thought that has distracted you, and try to let it go as fluidly as it came into your head. Then, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Getting distracted when meditating is inevitable, and one of the biggest worries for beginners — but distraction is a necessary part of the process.

"The moment when we notice that the mind is distracted is a moment of awareness, and is equally important as sustaining our attention on the breath or another anchor," says Ivanova. "No matter how often the mind wanders off, we bring it back — this is how we re-learn to pay attention."

Harvard recommends meditating for two 20-minute sessions daily to experience the maximum benefits, while a 2019 study on the efficacy of the meditation app Calm found that stress, mindfulness, and self-compassion were all significantly improved in the intervention group, who were using the mindfulness meditation programs for an average of 38 minutes per week. Advertisement

But for beginners, the most important part is getting into a routine — five to 10 minutes each day is a good place to start. Ivanova says that consistency is more important than the length of time you practice, and you can always increase your time later.

"It's like creating a new, healthy habit: it requires some level of discipline and commitment," Ivanova says. "The good news is that it works, but it takes time and patience. It doesn't happen overnight."

It may also be easier to start with some guidance, either through a class or an app. Our colleagues at Insider Reviews have put together a list of the best meditations apps to help you get started. Advertisement

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