When we think of meditation, most of us see that person on TV sitting on the floor with their legs crossed and hands on their knees saying “OM”…
In reality however, there are many different types of meditation, and the goal of each type varies.
The one thing they do have in common is that they all offer numerous proven health benefits.
In this article we look at why you should meditate.
And how to get started even if you’ve never tried it.
These benefits range from those that affect our minds and our brains, to improving our physical health.
What is Meditation?
In its most general sense, meditation is a practice that involves the mind. Here one focuses on reaching a higher level of awareness and consciousness.
When meditating, you turn your attention to a single point of reference and block out other things around you that may be distracting.
What makes it difficult to give it a more specific definition is that there are so many types of meditation.
It involves a wide variety of methods that include different techniques to reduce stress, get rid of anxieties, promote relaxation, develop compassion and more.
Depending on what you want to achieve, the technique you use can vary.
Types of Meditation
Some common types of meditation, or ways to meditate are:
- Calming meditation: this type of meditation focuses on achieving a more relaxed state that helps calm you from stress and anxieties. Here, you focus on a single object like an item, your breathing or heartbeat to improve focus and achieve a more peaceful state of mind.
- Guided meditation: with guided meditation, you use your different senses, including your sense of sight, hearing and smell. The goal is to visualize and focus on images, places and situations that help you get to a more relaxed state. There may be someone guiding you through the process.
- Mindful meditation: focuses on being conscious of the here and now, becoming more mindful. You not only observe the physical like your heart beating or breathing, but also emotions, as well as thoughts.
- Transcendental meditation: uses repetition of a mantra to detach yourself from your stresses and anxieties. This helps you learn more about yourself, as well as get in harmony with yourself.
- Yoga: most of us think of yoga as a series of poses that are designed to improve physical strength and flexibility. However, yoga is more than just performing the poses. It includes controlled breathing that aims to promote focus. This helps calm the mind in addition to becoming more flexible.
- Tai chi: is a form of slow movement Chinese martial arts where the practitioner performs various motions and poses while practicing deep breathing.
- Qi gong: also has Chinese origins. It is another gentle form of movement exercise that combines physical postures involving balance & stretching, meditation and controlled breathing.
These are among the more popular types of meditation practiced around the world, but the list is by no means comprehensive.
Reasons You Should Meditate Everyday
One of the reasons why so many types of meditation are available is that different cultures have their own methods and techniques. These developed over the centuries.
And because of its healing and relaxing benefits, the different methods have stuck.
Here are proven benefits of meditation…
And why you should spend a few minutes every day doing it.
Meditation Lowers Stress
Stress is the body’s internal response to help us deal with potentially dangerous or anxious situations.
It is designed to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline through our bloodstream. This in turn increases both our lung and heart function. This is why we experience a faster heartbeat and breathe more when we get stressed.
The increased function of these 2 organs help transport more oxygen to our organs and muscles that allow us to have a heightened level of awareness as well as energy and strength.
This lets us deal with speaking to a large audience or getting out of the way of something that’s about to hit us.
Research has found that meditation alters our brains.
Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, point to meditation as being able to induce neuroplasticity. This is the state in which our brains create new neurons (brain cells) and grows new connections.
In perhaps what could be among the most stressful situations in any person’s life, a study found that a one and a half hour a week meditation session for 7 weeks plus practicing at home, helps lower stress levels and mood disturbances in 91 patients diagnosed with cancer.
Meditation Improves Your Focus and Concentration
If you have problems with your attention span or find yourself having difficulty focusing on one thing at a time, meditation will help you stay of specific projects or tasks for longer periods of time.
It will also help reduce the amount of switching you do from one thing to another. Part of the benefits of meditation include changes in our brain’s structure that that’s responsible to self-control and focusing.
This can be very beneficial for school as well as work.
Psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that 20 minute daily meditation for only 4 days produced significant improvements in critical cognitive skills.
The improved attention from mindfulness training also helps when it comes to test performance. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that a 2 week training helped reduce mind wandering and improved working memory capacity, resulting in higher GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scores.
Meditation practice also helps keep you focused on tasks for sustained periods. This lets you complete projects you started or work on things and finishing them before jumping to something else.
Psychologists as UC Davis, found that meditation helps improve sustained attention on everyday tasks by allowing participants to keep their focus on what they’re doing.
It Increases Your Sense of Well Being and Happiness
People who meditate are also generally happier and at peace with themselves and the world around them.
They have a better feeling of self-awareness as well as acceptance of who they are, both features in people found to be happier and more content in life.
A study published in the Journal of Religion and Health found that in people who have low mood and are affected by stress, meditation helps improve their psychological well-being.
Part of the reason that meditation helps with improving mood is that it increases the brain signals on the left side of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, while lowering the activity in the right side of the brain.
The left side is responsible for positive emotions while the right is associated with negative emotions. Shifting the balance helps change the mood from negative or neutral to positive.
- Dopamine is one of our body’s “happy chemicals”. Along with Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphins, Dopamine helps give us a positive mood and happier overall outlook. Dopamine doesn’t make us happy per se, what it does give us is that anticipation of the reward, or happiness. This makes us strive for something.
- Serotonin is a hormone produced by the body which is associated with our moods, as well as the functioning of our body’s muscles, cardiovascular system and others. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and the hormone has been used to help treat this disorder.
- Melatonin meanwhile helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Increased levels especially during the night time helps us sleep.
Meditating Makes You More Creative
Creativity is the ability to think outside the box, and away from the traditional.
When it comes to modes of thinking, there are 2 often used:
- Convergent thinking is pooling together different bodies of knowledge from different areas, topics and fields to come up with a solution to a problem or an answer. This works very well when it comes to tests and things that are already known.
- Divergent thinking meanwhile, is thinking in different directions to find one or more new solutions to a problem. It takes a more untraditional, unstructured path. It also allows you to keep an open mind so you can explore things that may not seem related, but potentially help providing a solution. One example of divergent thinking is using brainstorming to get as many creative ideas as possible.
Meditation fosters divergent thinking and helps you generate new ideas. This helps improve your creativity in looking at situations as well as solving potential problems that may pop up in lit.
Researchers at the Leiden University in the Netherlands found that Open Monitoring (OM) meditation, a type of meditation where the practitioner opens themselves to any feelings, sensations, thoughts and ideas that arises, helps improve the ability to think creatively and in a divergent manner.
Participants who performed OM, were better able to come up with new ideas that were creative.
It Slows Down Our Aging Process
Aging is a natural process that our body’s cells go through. As we get older, the rate at which our body produces new cells to replace the old cells slows down which is why we don’t have as much muscle when we get old, our skin isn’t as supple and our bones aren’t as strong.
These changes don’t only affect our limbs and body parts, it also affects our brains. This is why we start forgetting things as we age and are more prone to mental health related illnesses.
Research shows that practicing meditation helps improve mental health, cognitive flexibility as well as other age related issues like blood pressure. Together they improve our chances of living longer, healthy lives.
In the 3 year follow up on the 73 elderly patients with a mean age of 81 years old, those who were grouped into meditation treatments, one doing transcendental meditation (TM) and another mindfulness training (MF) showed much better survival rates, at 100% for the TM group and 87% for the MF group, respectively. The non-meditation groups had lower survival rates.
Researchers at the Department of Neurology at UCLA in Los Angeles also found that long term meditators have more grey matter volume in their brains, compared to those who didn’t meditate.
The brain’s grey matter is where most of the neuronal cell bodies are located. It is what controls our senses like speech, hearing as well as our decision making ability, memory and emotions.
Mediation Helps Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can be caused by a number of different things including a diet high in sodium, a stressful lifestyle, smoking and excessive alcohol among other things.
It is one of the fastest rising health problems in the U.S. and the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that close to 33% of Americans have high blood pressure. This puts the figure at around 70 million.
If you suffer from high blood pressure or are at risk of hypertension, spending a few minutes a day to meditate will help lower your blood pressure numbers.
Meditation is a natural way of lowering blood pressure. It helps you achieve better numbers without having to take antihypertensive medication, which can be costly and has side effects.
A number of different types of meditation have been shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure, including transcendental meditation and mindful meditation, as well as yoga.
In a review of transcendental meditation publications, researchers at the University of Kentucky found that in 9 studies related to blood pressure, the meditation groups saw their systolic blood pressure (the upper number) drop by 4.7 mm Hg, while diastolic (the bottom number) blood pressure decreased by 3.2 mm Hg.
It Reduces Your Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates around 1 in every 4 deaths in the U.S. is caused by this dreaded disease.
Heart disease is a result of plaque developing on the walls of the blood vessels. As the plaque builds up, it constrict blood flow through these vessels as the passageway becomes narrower and narrower.
When too much blockage occurs it reduces the amount of blood going to and from the heart, causing heart disease. This blockage also affects other organs as they don’t get enough oxygen that the blood carries.
Without enough oxygen, our organs don’t function properly and get damaged if left untreated. On example of this is stroke, which occurs when the brain doesn’t receive the amount of oxygen it requires.
Heart disease is a result of various things we do in our daily life, ranging from diet, lifestyle, amount of physical activity, stress, inflammation and many other factors.
Meditation’s ability to help improve a number of these facets including lowering blood pressure, stress levels, anxiety among others helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In groups that in higher risk of heart disease, like African Americans, meditation helps as a preventive measure.
A research done by The Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Iowa found that participants who were included in the transcendental meditation program showed a 48% reduction in their risk of heart disease and stroke in a 5 year period.
Meditating Helps Reduce Anxiety Levels
Anxiety is often associated with stress. While very much related with one often being the cause of the other, anxiety differs from stress in that it produces that immediate feeling of being uneasy, nervous or worries about something that may happen or you’re uncertain of the result.
Spending time to meditate helps easy the levels of anxiety.
A meta-analysis of random trials found that in 25 studies, meditation reduces symptoms of anxiety, pointing to its potential as a tool for clinical use.
Among the different types of meditation, the technique where most studies have focused anxiety relief is mindful meditation.
At the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, scientists found that 4 days of mindful meditation reduced anxiety levels in participants with an improvement each day.
Meditation was able to activate sections of the brain that were related to anxiety relief, including the anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex and anterior insula.
Mindful Meditation Reduces the Feeling of Depression
In as much as meditation helps lift our moods and make us feel positive, it also helps prevent depression. The release of serotonin hormones during and for a short time after meditating in part, contributes to lowering the risk of depression.
A meta-analysis and review of research studies done on meditation revealed that in 47 trials, mindfulness meditation practices helped reduce depression, lowered anxiety levels, as well as pain. The researchers at Johns Hopkins University also found it to improve the mental health quality of life.
Mindful meditation also helps those who have histories with depression and mood disorders. A study found that practicing meditation helps alter their cognitive processes such that the participants focused less on distressed thinking and feelings.
Meditation Boosts Your Immunity and Makes You More Resilient to Stress
Along with the beneficial effects on cardiovascular health and lowering of stress, practicing meditation also helps keep you from getting sick by boosting your immune system.
A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, observed that participants who followed an 8 week meditation program showed positive increases their brain and immune functions compared to those in the non-mediation group.
The practice was is protective against psychological stress that may arise. One study found that participants who were give 6 weeks of meditation training, were less affected when exposed to stressors. Their reduction in their response to stress help make them less vulnerable to stress induced or related disease.
According to the Harvard Medical School, patients who were optimistic helped them overcome disease and recover faster.
This is one reason why oncologists have shown good success with integrating meditation programs along with their cancer treatment regimens. It not only helps them achieve a more positive outlook but also helps with the psychological stresses that come with radiation treatment and other cognitive dysfunctions related to cancer and its treatment.
How to Meditate: A Basic Guide for Beginners
To start with meditation, choose a quiet place that will let you be comfortable. Choosing somewhere that’s away from a lot of people, movement and noise helps you meditate and focus better without distraction.
- Start by sitting in a comfortable upright position. You can sit on a chair or on the floor.
- Close your eyes, relax and breathe normally.
- Focus your attention on each breath and how your body feels and moves as you inhale and exhale each breath.
- Keep your attention focused on how your belly and chest expand and contract as well as your breathing.
- Start by doing this for 2 minutes, then extend to 5 minutes. Over time gradually increase the duration.
For those who do better with a visual aid, here’s a great video. It guides you through an entire 4 minute meditation session so you can follow along with it.
Meditation comes in many types. While they may different technique, form and goals, they all offer us better health.
Spending a few minutes daily provides you with the health benefits of meditation that not only help lower your stress levels and make you physically healthier, it also helps you think better and perform better mentally.