Though meditation has been around for millennia, it can be a bit of a mystery for some. Getting at the truth about what meditation is—and isn’t—may help warm you up to the idea of giving it a try. And it’s worth considering. The practice actually can do a lot for us—psychologically, spiritually and physically.
Some basic facts about meditation are a good place to start. Different types of meditation have been practiced historically by diverse cultural groups, but the term generally refers to a group of techniques that encourage you to focus on the moment, breath by breath, toward the ultimate goal of achieving a deep state of relaxation and centeredness. A meditation practice may involve repeating a word or phrase (known as a mantra) to yourself, or you may be asked to sit silently with your thoughts. Whatever technique you choose, one thing is sure: Over time, daily meditation may improve your overall wellbeing.
It is believed that meditation works by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system (which mobilizes the body for action) and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for slowing heart rate and breathing, increasing digestive juices and improving blood flow).
The benefits of regular meditation may include:
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Decreased blood pressure
- Less fatigue and insomnia
- Improved airflow to the lungs (particularly beneficial for those with asthma)
- Better pain management
Considering that these health advantages can be obtained free of charge and with no side effects, you’d think everyone would want to meditate. But according to a recent survey, only 9.4 percent of the U.S. population does. Don’t let common myths dissuade you. Find out the facts and you just might decide to finally give meditation a try. As many fans would say: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Myth: Meditation is a religious practice.
Fact: Although meditation is associated with certain religions and cultures, you can be completely secular and still reap its benefits, both physical and spiritual.
Myth: It takes a long time to learn to meditate, and years to master it.
Fact: Meditation, at its core, is about freeing your mind of internal chatter, gently pushing such thoughts away when they enter your consciousness so that you become centered and present. Do that for five minutes and you are meditating. However, as with most activities, the more you practice, the deeper and longer your meditative state may become (and the more helpful you may find it).
Myth: Some people just can’t meditate.
Fact: People who are easily distracted, nervous or simply very busy may not be as naturally inclined toward meditation, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t consider giving it a try. With patience and practice, anyone can meditate.
Myth: You have to chant to meditate.
Fact: While different forms of meditation can include chanting, it is not essential to a successful practice. Think of chanting or repeating an affirmation (such as “I am at peace”) as an optional tool; actively repeating words or sounds may help you keep stray thoughts at bay. If you’re more visual, gazing at an image or candle flame may help you reach a meditative state. Or you can opt for none of the above and simply breathe.
Myth: You have to sit in an uncomfortable, difficult yoga position to meditate.
Fact: It’s best to keep your spine straight during meditation to allow for easy natural breathing, but there is no single posture you need to adopt. You can do it seated in a chair or even while moving or exercising. If you happen to do yoga, meditation can be incorporated into your practice.
There are a variety of avenues open to you if you’re ready to explore meditation. Some people prefer guided meditation (taking a class or workshop with a certified teacher), while others like the convenience of self-meditation at home. There are excellent books, DVDs, CDs and apps available to help you. Or, you can try it right now:
- Sit up straight but comfortably in a quiet place. Light a candle or play soft music if you like to enhance the ambience and deflect distractions.
- Begin to become aware of your breathing. Focus on the sensations of your inhalations and exhalations.
- If it appeals to you, focus on your body, starting at your feet and slowly moving up. Or you can recite a mantra/affirmation, or gaze at the candle or image—experiment to discover what suits you best.
- When stray thoughts occur, try your best to “move” them aside gently, acknowledging that you can come back to them at a later time. Many people find themselves frustrated by such thoughts when beginning to meditate, but they are an extremely common part of the process. With this in mind, try to maintain an open attitude towards these distractions—don’t judge or chastise yourself for having them.
While five minutes of meditation can bring benefits, try to at least devote 10 to 15 minutes to your practice. Set a timer and allow yourself to focus only on the present.