Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/22/2022
It’s no secret that our modern world is fast-paced and busy. Between full-time jobs or demanding schoolwork, social lives and keeping up with self-care, our everyday lives can be stressful and difficult.
But trying to find a moment to relieve that stress can be even more difficult.
But taking time to slow down and recharge shouldn’t be considered a luxury — it’s actually important for our health to reduce the stress we feel in our lives.
One popular way to slow down in your daily life is through meditation.
But you may be asking yourself where do I start? How do I meditate?
Consider this your handy guide to meditation as we go over what meditation is, the benefits of meditating and break it down step-by-step.
The practice of meditation is more than just sitting and breathing with your eyes closed.
Meditation is a mindfulness practice where you focus your mind on a particular thought or activity to train your attention and awareness and create a calm and stable emotional state. Using mindfulness, you practice being in the present moment.
While there are many types of meditation, most have four things in common:
A quiet location with as few distractions as possible
A specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down or in other positions)
Something to focus your attention on (a chosen word or mantra, an object or your breath)
An open attitude (letting distractions come and go)
While some forms of meditation have roots in Hinduism or Buddhism and many spiritual traditions include meditation as part of their practice, meditation isn’t an inherently religious or spiritual practice.
The number of adults in the U.S. who meditate has increased significantly over the past few years, up to over 14 percent, according to a 2017 National Health Interview Survey.
When you learn how to meditate, you also learn to:
Connect your body with your breath
Deepen your breath
Sharpen focus or attention
Accept difficult emotions
There is no right or wrong way to practice meditation, and there are even different ways to do meditation.
There are several different types of meditation exercises, which incorporate different techniques.
Some popular forms of meditation:
Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the most popular and researched type of meditation in the West. You pay attention to your thoughts as they pass through your mind and don’t judge or become involved with them. You simply observe and take note of any patterns. This practice combines concentration with awareness and may have you focus on your breath while observing bodily sensations, thoughts, or feelings.
Spiritual meditation. The types of spiritual meditation are diverse, and used in nearly all religions and spiritual traditions. A 2017 study states that spiritual meditation focuses on connecting with a higher power and developing a deeper understanding of spiritual/religious meaning. Buddhist meditation is an example of a spiritual meditation.
Focused meditation. Focused meditation is another type of meditation that involves using one of the five senses to sharpen focus and attention. This practice may be a difficult way to meditate for beginners.
Movement meditation. As the name implies, this form of meditation is done while moving gently. This helps you achieve a deeper connection with your body and develop body awareness by paying attention to the physical sensations. Some examples include yoga, walking meditation, tai chi and even gardening.
Mantra meditation. Mantra meditation uses a repetitive word or sound (like “om”) to clear the mind — this is what many people may picture when they think of meditation. Chanting a mantra several times lets you experience deeper levels of awareness and become more in tune with your environment.
Transcendental Meditation. Transcendental Meditation (TM) refers to a specific practice designed to quiet the mind and induce a state of calm and peace. It involves the use of mantras and is best taught by a certified TM practitioner.
Not all meditation practices are right for everyone. The best practice for you is the one that feels most comfortable and encourages you to keep practicing. Because no matter which meditation type you choose, it is an exercise you have to practice daily.
The good news is that not only is meditation accessible for nearly everyone, but there are also numerous health benefits from meditation.
Learning how to meditate can provide you with many benefits for your physical, mental and emotional health.
Possibly one of the biggest benefits of meditation is that it can help reduce stress.
Stress, either mental or physical, increases levels of the hormone cortisol. The increase of cortisol releases inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines, which can disrupt sleep, increase blood pressure, promote anxiety and depression, contribute to fatigue and more.
But meditation can help reduce stress-caused inflammation. In an eight-week study, people who practiced mindfulness meditation showed a reduction in the psychological effects of stress.
Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has been shown in clinical and experimental studies to significantly reduce pain.
Over time, learning how to meditate can retrain your brain structure and change how it deals with pain. A 2018 study suggests that meditation and mindfulness increase cortical thickness in some brain areas, which makes you less sensitive to pain over the long-term.
Other research also suggests that meditation helps you use different brain mechanisms to deal with pain. A 2012 study found that meditation increased cognitive disengagement, decreasing the sensation of pain by 22 percent.
In a 2016 study from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), adults with chronic low-back pain who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction saw the same level of improvement in their pain as those who received cognitive-behavioral therapy, even long after the study ended.
However, due to the wide variety of studies conducted, research on reducing pain through meditation has mixed results.
Some studies show meditation lessens chronic pain and stress for some people though. Studies also show that learning how to meditate for beginners could help with managing pain.
Along with reducing stress, following a guide to meditation can result in less anxiety.
A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that Transcendental Meditation possibly decreased anxiety in nearly 1,300 adults, most notably in those with the highest levels of anxiety.
Other types of meditation can also reduce anxiety symptoms and levels.
In addition to reducing stress and anxiety levels, meditation can help boost self-esteem and your overall outlook on life. It can also help with depression.
Antidepressants and psychotherapy are usually the first-line treatments for depression, but ongoing research has suggested that a meditation practice can help change how the brain responds to stress and related mental health conditions.
A review of treatments given to over 3,500 adults found that mindfulness meditation helped improve symptoms of depression.
Depression can often lead to dark thoughts of feeling hopeless, unworthy or angry at yourself. However, meditation teaches you to let thoughts and feelings pass without judging or criticizing them. You acknowledge the thoughts, then let them go or pass by.
Meditation can help you get to a place where you can notice an unwanted or negative thought, accept it as one possibility and acknowledge that it’s not the only possibility.
Meditation can also help you to stay in the present moment rather than worrying about the future which you can’t control.
Meditation alone won’t cure depression. Your healthcare provider may recommend meditation, but may also prescribe a common antidepressant such as Lexapro® or Celexa®, depending on your symptoms. If you want to talk to someone about different treatment options for depression, you can meet with one of our providers today.
Meditation can improve your physical health by lowering blood pressure and reducing heart strain.
One review concluded that several types of meditation produced improvements in blood pressure and the cardiovascular system.
Starting a meditation practice can also lead to better sleep. Learning how to meditate can help your body relax, release tension and put you in a peaceful state where you’re more likely to fall asleep.
A study compared mindfulness-based meditations and found those who meditated stayed asleep longer and saw a reduction in the severity of their insomnia.
As meditation improves your focus, you may see improvements in mental clarity and memory — especially as you get older.
Kirtan Kriya, a method of meditation that combines a mantra with repetitive finger motions to focus thoughts, has been shown to improve performance on neuropsychological tests in people with age-related memory loss.
Meditation can also partially improve memory in patients with dementia, as well as help control stress and improve coping in those caring for family members with dementia.
Now that you know about the benefits and some of the types of meditations, you may be wondering how you get started.
Meditation might feel intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Fortunately, the steps to basic meditation practice are simple enough to follow. This step-by-step guide keeps the meditation techniques very simple and easy to follow.
We’ll break down the steps of a basic mindfulness meditation.
Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you. You can sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet on the floor. You can even kneel, as long as it’s comfortable for the time you’ll be meditating.
If you find sitting on the floor uncomfortable, use a meditation cushion. This can be any pillow or cushion you can sit comfortably on.
Once you’re comfortable, either close your eyes completely or soften your gaze downwards slightly (think of looking at the floor in front of you).
If you’re just starting out with meditating, aim to start with only a few minutes — no more than five or 10 minutes. Even one minute is a good place to start if you don’t have a lot of time.
Setting aside the time to meditate is important in establishing a regular daily practice and getting comfortable with the act of meditating. Just like trying anything for the first time, you’ll need to practice continuously to get better. Even just a few minutes a day can make a difference.
As intuitive as it may be, breathing is an important part of meditation.
Once you’ve settled into a comfortable position, follow the sensation of your breath as you take deep breaths in and out.
You can even repeat (in your head) the words “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale, or count each breath up to 10 and start over.
Noticing your breath will help you come back to it when your mind wanders — which it inevitably will. We’re all human after all.
Your mind will roam when you meditate, especially if you’re a beginner. You may start to daydream, get distracted by a noise or sensation in your body or start making a to-do list. It’s okay if this happens.
When your mind wanders or a thought pops up, you may want to scold yourself for getting distracted. Instead, simply notice and acknowledge the thought, then return to your breath.
Whenever you get around to noticing that your attention has left your breathing, whether it’s five seconds or five minutes later, simply return to your breathing.
No matter how often your mind wanders, try not to judge yourself too harshly. Similarly to starting meditation, this too takes practice.
When you get to the end of your established meditation time, gently and slowly open your eyes or lift your gaze. Take a moment to notice any sounds in the environment, how your body feels and your thoughts and emotions.
Congratulations, you just completed your first meditation!
Another type of meditation involves focusing on sensations in the body rather than focusing on the breath.
You’ll start out the same way in a comfortable seat. Then instead of turning your attention to your breath, you’ll do a body scan from head to toes.
Start at the top of your head and slowly and deliberately bring your attention to the surface of your skin. Try to feel your scalp, your ears, your eyelids and your nose. Continue downward across the face, over the ears, down the neck and shoulders and all the way down to your toes.
If you feel any particular physical sensations — warmth, tingling, itching, soreness — simply note it and continue on. Try not to react or even label it good or bad. If you need to move to relieve pain, do so. Otherwise, continue your body scan until you’ve reached your toes.
Ideally, a regular practice involves meditating for at least a few minutes each and every day.
But the most difficult part of meditation is sitting down each day. Try scheduling your meditation practice for the same time every day — maybe right before your first cup of coffee or when you get home from work — to better get into a routine.
Have compassion for yourself if you miss a day or two, especially when you’re just starting out.
Whether you’re looking to reduce stress or cope with anxiety, there’s a meditation practice for you.
Meditation is something everyone can do anywhere to improve their mental and emotional health, without special equipment or memberships. Even learning how to meditate for beginners is actually very easy.
There’s no one right way to meditate and meditation can take on many forms. But all types of meditation have numerous benefits and can improve both physical and mental health.
At the end of the day, it’s important to try to stick to a regular practice to reap the benefits of meditation.