By: Sophia Erickson
Let’s be real: With everything going on in the world right now, we could all probably use a little stress relief.
Lucky for us, meditation is a powerful practice that can be utilized anywhere, by anyone, and can help you control stress, decrease anxiety and lead to an overall sense of relaxation. In the last couple of years, meditation has become a buzz word in the health and wellness space, leading many people to ask questions such as: Why meditate? How do you mediate? What are the benefits? Where should I meditate? What do I think about while I meditate? All of these are valid questions and we are here to help answer these questions with this beginners guide to meditation.
What is Meditation
As stated by the NIH, meditation is a “mind and body practice that 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” (NCCIH, 2016). In particular, meditation is a technique that emphasizes paying attention to your breath, or a mantra, to remain grounded in the present moment and disregard countless other thoughts.
There is a popular expression that says, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”. Simply, you may not be able to control difficult, stressful or overwhelming situations but you can control your thoughts and the way you respond to what’s happening. In today’s society, we are busier than ever, constantly overloaded and reacting to information, technology, etc., but meditation provides us with an escape that can reset the mind and make us more aware of how and why we think and feel the way we do.
This being said, meditation has the ability to change the structure of our brain. In a study done by Harvard Medical School, participants who meditated for an average of 27 mins a day had, “increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection” (McGreevey, 2019) as well as “decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress” (McGreevey, 2019). Besides enhanced cognitive function and reduced stress, meditation practices can also result in increased levels of happiness and positive thinking (Fredrickson et al., 2017).
Another wonderful benefit of meditation is better sleep. Meditation allows your brain and body to settle down, creating a restful environment that makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. In particular, meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which encourages a lower heart rate, lower cortisol levels and slower breathing (Tang, 2009); all actions that foster better sleep.
How to Meditate
I know meditation can seem like a daunting task, but I encourage you to try it at least once. To begin a meditation for the first time, find a comfortable environment with minimal interruptions, set a timer and give it a go:
1. Take a seat on the floor, in a chair, on a cushion, really anywhere that feels restful for you.
2. Set a time limit. In the beginning I recommend aiming for a short time, 3-5 mins, and gradually work your way up to longer durations. You can even break up your meditation into multiple short sessions throughout the day.
3. Become aware of your body and breath. Feel the sensation of your breath as it goes in and out of your body and remind yourself why you decided to mediate. If you find it hard to ward off unwanted thoughts, try slowly counting your breaths.
4. Acknowledge when your mind begins to wander and be kind to yourself. Meditation is not about perfection. In fact, an important part of mediation is making sure that when your mind does wander, you can let the thoughts pass effortlessly and shift your attention back to your practice.
5. Finish the practice by slowly bringing movement back into your body and opening the eyes. Take note of how your body feels, as well as what your thoughts and emotions are.
6. Establish a routine. Creating a habit is easier when you make your practice a part of your regular schedule, so pick a time and place that you plan to meditate every day.
If you are unsure where to begin, there are plenty of resources offering guided meditations. These apps and podcasts were created to help you establish a strong meditation foundation and give you the tools to ultimately do it on your own. Here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
Also, remember that meditation is called a practice for a reason. If you don’t enjoy your first experience with meditation, try a different method, position, environment or time of day, before completely giving up. It takes patience, perseverance, and consistency, so keep an open mind and I promise you will see the same benefits that millions of people do.
Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J., Firestine, A. M., Van Cappellen, P., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Kim, S. L., Brantley, J., & Salzberg, S. (2017). Positive Emotion Correlates of Meditation Practice: A Comparison of Mindfulness Meditation and Loving-kindness Meditation. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1623–1633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0735-9
McGreevey, S. (2019, September 12). Eight weeks to a better brain. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/.
Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B. M. (2012). Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep. Frontiers in neurology, 3, 54. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2012.00054
NCCIH. (2016, April). Meditation: In Depth. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth.
Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Fan, Y., Feng, H., Wang, J., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Hu, B., Lin, Y., Li, J., Zhang, Y., Wang, Y., Zhou, L., & Fan, M. (2009). Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(22), 8865–8870. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0904031106