Find Your Inner Calm: Your Guide to Four Popular Types of Meditation
New studies show that meditation can help you live happier, healthier, and even longer. And it's far less difficult to learn and practice than you may think. Choose the right technique for you, and start reaping the benefits immediately.
Do believe the hype: Meditation improves our mental, physical, and spiritual health. In the past four years alone, research has shown that it can sharpen our attention, boost compassion, dissolve stress, and ease chronic pain. It can also shrink areas of the brain linked to negative emotions, and help maintain telomeres, those vital parts of our DNA that get shorter as we age. And while regular sessions make the most profound impact, a single one can be revelatory: A 2018 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that just 15 minutes had a similar effect to a day of vacation.
If you're picturing the Dalai Lama, Don Draper 2.0, or Rafiki from The Lion King and thinking, "Not for me," sit tight. You can pretzel your legs, repeat a mantra—or not. There are many ways to meditate, and these days, there's an app for most of them. Even more compelling, each has unique benefits, as a 2016 Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences study found. The German scientists recruited adults to try four popular styles: breathing, observing thought, loving-kindness, and body scan. The body scanners' negative thoughts about the past and future declined significantly, and those in the loving-kindness camp felt, just as the cozy name promises, the biggest empathy surge.
To turn a spark of interest into a practice, consider these methods to determine which one soothes you most. Just like with exercise, you may prefer the elliptical to kickboxing, and while they build different skills, all give you the cardio you need. In other words, to each her own enlightenment.
The Reward: You'll be more focused and energized, and less distracted.
The Research: Controlled breathing heightens our concentration by directly affecting noradrenaline, a chemical messenger that, when produced in the right amount, benefits our attention levels and overall brain health, per a 2018 study done at Ireland's Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.
The Gist: "It's as simple as sitting or lying down and making your breath your focus point," says Cory Muscara, a former Buddhist monk and the author of Stop Missing Your Life: How to Be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World ($25.20, barnesandnoble.com). As you breathe, pay attention to what you feel in your nostrils or belly. You can also count your breaths silently, or mark them by thinking, Inhale, exhale. Keep going for a minute or so; the idea is to build up to 30 minutes over time. It's a great entry-level exercise, since you can reset whenever thoughts about lunch or your email intrude—you haven't missed a thing. "The key is to not judge your wandering mind," he says. "Think of it like training a puppy. You just say, 'Good job,' and celebrate when it returns."
Try It: MNDFL Video sessions are one to 30 minutes long to help you ease in. There's a free two-week trial, then it becomes $10 a month.
Go Deeper: Sign up for Muscara's 31-day course ($27, corymuscara.com). You'll get a short lesson and audio session in your inbox daily.
The Reward: You'll feel more rested, relaxed, and connected to your body.
The Research: Several recent studies found that practicing this method as part of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) program alleviated chronic insomnia by helping subjects wind down before bed; they also spent less time up during the night.
The Gist: Start at the top of your head. Focus on really feeling any sensations there—tingling, tightness, warmth. (Nothing at all? That's fine, too.) Then move downward to your face, neck, shoulders, and so on, homing in on just one body part at a time. When your mind wanders—and it will—acknowledge it, then return to taking inventory.
Try It: Listen to the Foundation for a Mindful Society's Mindful podcast. The episodes feature free guided three-to-25-minute body scans you can do in bed or at your desk. Or try the Calm app, where even LeBron James has gotten into the game to up his own; teachers also include author Jeff Warren. There's a free one-week trial; then you pay $15 a month or $60 a year.
Go Deeper: Look for a yoga nidra class, or download the Deep Sleep experiences in the Sanctuary With Rod Stryker app ($10 a month, parayoga.com). Yoga nidra begins with a detailed body-scan that sends you into full relaxation mode; just lie back and drift off until gentle chimes bring you back. You'll feel like you got a full night's sleep in a fraction of the time.
The Reward: You'll learn to tune into yourself—and turn down repetitive, critical inner monologues.
The Research: The practice, also known more generally as mindfulness meditation, wakes you up to your thought patterns. That isn't just productive for you, reported a 2017 study published in Journal of Cognitive Enhancement; it also makes you more empathetic to others.
The Gist: Get comfortable (sit or lie down—anything goes), and spend a few minutes "watching" your thoughts move like clouds across the sky, says Sharon Salzberg, a pioneer in the field and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts: "Some can be ominous; some can be soft and fluffy." Your only goal is to avoid labeling them as positive or negative, or letting darker ones derail you. "It can be helpful to say to yourself, 'It's just a thought,' and then move on," Salzberg adds.
Try It: Type in "observing thought" on the Insight Timer app; many free sessions clock in at under 15 minutes. Or cue up the basic version of the Stop, Breathe & Think app (which is owned by our parent company, Meredith Corporation). It's noting exercise will help you quiet internal chatter.
Go Deeper: Attend a retreat where a teacher can help you navigate any emotions that crop up. Kripalu, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; Art of Living Retreat Center, in Boone, North Carolina; and Insight Meditation Center, outside San Francisco host them. Your local yoga studio may, too.
The Reward: You'll empathize more easily with others, and feel more optimistic about the world.
The Research: This Buddhism-derived approach, also called metta meditation, can ease depression and social anxiety, a 2019 review of studies published in Clinical Psychology in Europe found.
The Gist: Salzberg sums it up by quoting the Steve Carell movie Dan in Real Life: "Love is not a feeling. It's an ability." To foster it, you silently repeat a phrase that broadcasts positive feelings, first to yourself, then to a loved one, then to a person who challenges you, then to the whole world. The traditional phrases are: "May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I live with ease," and so on, replacing the I as you go.
Try It: Former ABC News anchor Dan Harris's Ten Percent Happier app features a 15-part series led by Salzberg called "10% Nicer." There's a free one-week trial, then pay $15 a month or $99 a year.
Go Deeper: Read Salzberg's Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation ($13.46, barnesandnoble.com), which was just reissued for its 10th anniversary; it lays out an easy-to-digest four-week plan of exercises, journal prompts, and meditation downloads. American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön is another loving-kindness icon; her latest book is Welcoming the Unwelcome ($12.49, amazon.com).