Lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and blood cortisol levels. Decreased feelings of stress and anxiety, along with a lifting of depression. Improved focus and better sleep. Increased awareness, clarity, compassion and a sense of calm.
These are just some of the physical and mental health benefits gained by people who meditate … benefits backed by a growing amount of research. That’s why meditation is one of the fastest-growing health practices among Americans; the most recent CDC National Health Interview Survey statistics show the number of adults using meditation tripled between 2012 and 2017 alone, from 4.1% to 14.2%.
Meditation goes hand-in-hand with the concept of mindfulness – which, put simply, means being in a state of deliberate awareness of the present moment. According to the American Psychological Association, “Mindfulness is cultivated through meditation, in which a person focuses attention on his or her breathing; and thoughts, feelings and sensations are experienced freely as they arise.”
While the exact number depends on which source you consult, there are several different types of meditation. The most popular in the U.S. is mindfulness meditation, but also commonly practiced are transcendental meditation [TM], movement meditation techniques [such as yoga, walking and others], spiritual meditation and mantra meditation.
They all have four general elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a comfortable posture [sitting, lying down, walking, or other positions]; a focus of attention [a specially chosen word or guiding script, an object, or the sensations of each breath]; and an open, non-judgmental attitude.
Often, the biggest obstacle for those who want to try meditating is its one requirement: quieting both body and mind long enough to do it, according to St. Luke’s Hospital Nurse Community Educator Laurie Chappell, MSN, RN. A certified health coach, holistic stress management instructor and experienced meditator, Chappell teaches Basics of Meditation as well as other mindfulness-related classes at St. Luke’s in Chesterfield.
“It’s hard to sit still when we’re not used to doing that, because we are such a culture of productivity … but I think both from experience as well as the scientific research that has gone into it, that meditation can have a profound impact on physical and mental health and overall well-being,” she said.
Chappell added that taking a class is good, but not essential.
“I think it’s important to start small, and do meditation frequently for a short time rather than every once in a while for a longer period. It’s important to make it a commitment and establish a routine,” she said.
She also recommends using guided meditations, which focus on specific topics like anxiety, gratitude, kindness, etc. A number of apps which provide guided meditations are readily available. Some popular apps include Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, Shine, Unwind, and Meditation and Relaxation Pro, among many others. Most of these have a free component, with additional features available for a fee.
Above all, Chappell said, it’s critical to be gentle with yourself when learning to meditate, and to start without any specific expectations. Be aware that it’s natural for the mind to wander.
“There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. That is a huge issue, and a very common question,” she pointed out.
“It’s like starting to drive … it’s really challenging at first, but once you’re used to it, driving is almost automatic as long as you’re paying attention. Meditation isn’t that difficult to do either; what’s difficult is the ‘slowing down’ part. People get caught up in all of these details, but the biggest thing is just to do it.”
With a little patience and time, anyone can begin to see health benefits from meditation, Chappell emphasized.
“The more aware and present-moment focused we are, the more we are able to slow down, and the more we use our senses. It enables us to have a much richer life,” she explained.
“Your stress just goes into a sort of dormant state, so you’re going to be calmer, less irritable, more focused and a better problem-solver… just a happier person in general. And who doesn’t want that?”