People have practiced meditation for thousands of years, across many different cultures. And it now appears to be having a mainstream moment. The number of adults who practiced meditation grew from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ready to give meditation a try? Here’s what to keep in mind.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation has existed for thousands of years. It has roots in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.
To meditate is “to engage in mental exercise” to achieve heightened spiritual awareness, according to Merriam-Webster.
But you don’t have to be religious to practice meditation. Many people do it to reduce stress, find a deeper sense of calm, and achieve inner peace. In fact, you’re likely to feel an increased sense of calm and focus after your first try. If you notice that your mind wanders a lot — this is normal. It settles down a bit with practice.
Many different types of meditation exist, so you’re likely to find one to match your unique lifestyle, age, and physical ability.
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Types of Meditation (and What They Have in Common)
Various types of meditation exist, including Transcendental Meditation®, Zen meditation, and mindfulness meditation. Other forms incorporate movement. Meditation can be part of the practice of yoga.
Take walking meditation, for example. While walking in a quiet space, you pay close attention to your body’s physical sensations. You might concentrate on your breath or how the breeze feels on your skin.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, different forms of meditation have four things in common:
- A quiet, distraction-free space to practice
- A comfortable position (sitting, lying down, walking, or a variety of positions as in yoga)
- Focused attention on specific sensations, such as the experience of breathing
- An open attitude (allowing distractions and thoughts to come and go freely in your mind)
What Are the Health Benefits of Meditation?
Meditation provides a host of physical and mental health benefits:
- Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found mindfulness meditation can improve anxiety, depression, and pain, according to a review published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
- Because meditation often relaxes the mind and body, it may help reduce stress-induced inflammation and bolster the immune system.
- Research suggests meditation may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It can also be a low-cost and low-risk addition to traditional treatment, according to the American Heart Association.
- Meditation earned an “A” grade from the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) for having strong scientific evidence supporting it. The SIO recommends meditation for patients with breast cancer to ease anxiety and depression and improve their quality of life.
- Mindfulness meditation also helped people struggling with chronic insomnia, according to a 2018 study published in Mindfulness.
Getting Started with Meditation
When you’re learning to meditate, it is normal not to feel calm. Instead, you become upset when your mind wanders, or you feel fidgety. If you notice these feelings, try to maintain a sense of openness and acknowledgment without judgment. Calmness arises from within that attitude of acceptance.
Learning how to meditate can feel daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Follow these tips to get started.
- Start with guided meditation In guided meditation, a teacher or narrator — either in person or through a recording — leads the meditation. You’ll be guided through the exercise as you focus on your breathing or other body sensations. You may be asked to visualize a calming scene, which may help you feel relaxed.
- Download a meditation app Online meditation classes and mobile apps are good places for beginners to start. They offer a variety of meditation types and lengths. Many apps offer guided meditation for kids, too. In March 2020, The New York Times review site, Wirecutter, published a roundup of meditation apps, including easy-to-use guided sessions for beginners.
- Keep it short and sweet At first, you’ll want to meditate in short increments. Five minutes is a good target. From there, you can build up to longer sessions.
- Find a comfy place to practice Be sure to find a spot that’s quiet and comfortable. That should help limit distractions. Give yourself this time and space to simply be — and to notice what arises moment by moment.
- Experiment with timing Experiment with different times of day to see what feels best and can be done consistently — in bed after waking to start your day, during short work breaks, while taking a walk, or as part of your bedtime routine. With some practice, it can turn into a regular habit.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
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UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.