A Complete Guide to Meditation

Medically Reviewed
illustration of a person meditating
Meditation can help relieve stress and improve mental health.Everyday Health

Meditation is the practice of thinking deeply or focusing one’s mind for a period of time. Deeply rooted in ancient cultures, meditation is practiced in religions and cultures all around the world.

Some of the earliest evidence of meditation includes wall art from the Indus Valley that dates back to between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE. The images illustrate people sitting on the ground with their legs crossed, hands on their knees and eyes resting — in positions widely recognized as meditation postures.

Descriptions of meditation techniques have also been found in ancient Indian scriptures from 3,000 years ago. (1)

In the Western world today, meditation has taken on a less religious meaning and is used primarily as a means to calm the mind and evoke feelings of relaxation and peace.

Types of Meditation

Meditation is practiced in many different forms, although many of these techniques are overlapping. If you’re interested in trying meditation but do not know where to start, here’s a list of the many types of meditation and how they are practiced.

Mindfulness meditation is the process of being fully present with your thoughts and not being overly reactive to what’s going on around you.

Transcendental Meditation is a simple technique in which a personally assigned mantra, such as a word, sound, or small phrase, is repeated in a specific way.

Mantra meditation uses a repeated calming word, thought, or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts.

Guided meditation is a method of meditation in which you form mental pictures or situations that you find relaxing.

Vipassana meditation is an ancient Indian form; vipassana means to see things as they really are.

Metta meditation or loving-kindness meditation is the practice of directing well wishes toward others.

Chakra meditation is a set of relaxation techniques focused on bringing balance and well-being to the chakras, the seven centers of energy and spiritual power in the body.

Yoga meditation is an ancient Indian practice in which you perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises meant to promote flexibility and calm the mind. (2)

Learn More About the Types of Meditation

How Meditation Helps With Chronic Illness

A growing body of research has found that meditation is a helpful tool in managing chronic illnesses.

While it is not a universal cure, many people suffering from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety claim to have found some relief in practicing meditation, and there is scientific evidence to back that up. (3,4)

Other studies show meditation can have a positive effect on the heart by lowering stress levels and helping to keep blood pressure in check. (5,6,7)

Meditation has also been shown to help with chronic pain and sleep troubles, and can even ease the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). (8,9)

Finally, some research suggests that meditation can actually change the cellular activity of cancer survivors in a way that scientists believe may have protective benefits against disease. (10)

Meditation can also help cancer survivors deal with the emotional distress that often accompanies the disease. (11)

Learn More About How Meditation Can Help With Chronic Illnesses

Meditation and Mental Health

In recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence has shown how the practice can improve health, including mental and emotional health.

In today’s modern world, stress seems to be a normal part of everyday life, but it’s also associated with a number of adverse health effects. Research suggests that people who practice meditation react better to stressful situations and have lower stress-related hormone levels and inflammatory responses than people who do not.

For many patients, meditation can also be a useful tool in combating mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Additionally, some research suggests that a meditation practice can help with managing negative emotions, such as anger and fear. (12,13)

Learn More About the Effects of Meditation on Mental Health

How Meditation Changes the Brain

In recent years, a growing body of research has focused on how meditation affects the brain.

Some studies suggest practicing mindfulness meditation can actually change the structures of the brain. While scientists are still working to understand the effects this may have, it is generally believed that they correlate to improved emotional regulation. (14)

Other research has found that people who meditate regularly show changes in the areas of the brain involved in stress-related reactions. (15)

Studies also suggest that meditating can improve focus and concentration and may help protect the brain against aging. (16,17,18)

Learn More About How Meditation Changes the Brain

How to Meditate

For someone who is just starting out, meditation may seem intimidating. Luckily, once you know the basics, you can practice meditation just about anywhere at any time.

Experts recommend that beginners explore the different forms of meditation to find the one they like best.

You can also find a certified meditation instructor by going to medical centers in your area and checking with the integrative medicine or psychology departments and asking for recommendations. If you find an instructor on your own, do your homework and make sure he or she is certified.

If you prefer not to go to an instructor or there are no certified teachers in your community, you can still practice meditation on your own. Go to your local library and find a book on meditation or download one of the many meditation apps to your mobile phone or tablet.

To get started, try finding a quiet place to comfortably sit or lie down. From there, you can either continue to pay attention to your breath, repeat a mantra, or listen to a guided meditation, depending on which style you choose.

Learn More About How to Meditate

Mobile Meditation Station

After searching for a quiet place to meditate in Midtown Manhattan and coming up empty, Kristin Westbrook decided to create her own space of zen: the mobile Calm City Meditation Station. During the week, Westbrook and her colleague park the RV at various spots throughout the city and invite New Yorkers into the van for a 10-minute guided meditation session.

Learn More About Kristin Westbrook and Her Idea for a Mobile Meditation Station

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Puff R. An Overview of Meditation: Its Origins and Traditions. Psychology Today. July 7, 2013.
  2. Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress. Mayo Clinic. October 17, 2017.
  3. Goyal M, Singh S, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine. March 2014.
  4. Kuyken W, Warren FC, et al. Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Prevention of Depressive Relapse. JAMA Psychiatry. June 2016.
  5. Cramer H, Haller H, et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Yoga for Hypertension. American Journal of Hypertension. September 2014.
  6. Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood Pressure Response to Transcendental Meditation: A Meta-analysis. American Journal of Hypertension. March 2008.
  7. Meditation May Decrease the Risk of Heart Disease. American Heart Association. September 28, 2017.
  8. Kuo B, Bhasin M, Jacquart J, et al. Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated With a Relaxation Response Mind-Body Intervention in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. PLoS One. February 21, 2017.
  9. Yeh AM, Wren A, Golianu B. Mind-Body Interventions for Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Children. April 2017.
  10. Carlson L, Beattie T, et al. Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery and Supportive-Expressive Therapy Maintain Telomere Length Relative to Controls in Distressed Breast Cancer Survivors. Cancer. November 3, 2014.
  11. Bower JE, Crosswell AD, Stanton AL, et al. Mindfulness Meditation for Younger Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Cancer. April 15, 2015.
  12. Fennell AB, Benau EM, Atchley RA. A Single Session of Meditation Reduces of Physiological Indices of Anger in Both Experienced and Novel Meditators. Consciousness and Cognition. February 2016.
  13. Lin Y, Fisher ME, et al. Deconstructing the Emotion Regulatory Properties of Mindfulness: An Electrophysiological Investigation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. September 7, 2016.
  14. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M et al. Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density. Psychiatry Research. January 30, 2011.
  15. Singleton O, Hölzel BK, Vangel M et al. Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention Is Correlated With Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. February 18, 2014.
  16. Mrazek MD, Franklin MS, et al. Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science. March 28, 2013.
  17. Brewer JA, Worhunsky PD, et al. Meditation Experience Is Associated With Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. December 13, 2011.
  18. Wheeler M. Forever Young: Meditation Might Slow the Age-Related Loss of Gray Matter in the Brain, Say UCLA Researchers. UCLA Newsroom. February 5, 2015.
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