Chances are, you know why meditation is good. The list of benefits is long and constantly growing: It reduces stress and anxiety, strengthens your immune system, and can make you more compassionate. It may even keep your brain young (and sharp) and help you lose weight.
The real issues are: When to do it? And how?
We’re all beyond busy, so you first have to make the conscious decision to commit to a practice. The beauty of meditation is that it can be as long or as short as you want it to be, and you can do it anywhere. “That one minute you spend on Facebook, you can meditate instead,” says Dina Kaplan, founder and CEO of The Path, a meditation community based in New York City. “You can find one minute, even if it’s in the bathroom.”
There are many ways to meditate, and there’s really no wrong way. As you practice, expect thoughts to enter your head. “Just come back to your breath or mantra,” says Myk Likhov, founder of Modern Om, a lifestyle brand based on the chakras. “You can’t force yourself to meditate, and you can’t force yourself to meditate well. But over time, you get better at it.”
How you meditate depends on what you want to get out of your practice. There are four main types of meditation: mindfulness, mantra, energizing and goal-oriented. In addition to reducing stress, each has particular benefits. “Think of these as tools,” Kaplan suggests. Use what’s right for you in your current situation, and feel free to mix and match.
This is what many people think of when they hear the word “meditation.” You simply focus on one thing, typically your breath, Kaplan explains. You can also choose to focus on the flame of a candle or do a body scan, noticing how each part of your body feels.
The biggest benefit: Over time, mindfulness helps your mind wander less. “You’re training the mind to be focused,” Kaplan says. “People who do mindfulness tend to be very focused on the present moment.”
How you do it: Kaplan explains: “A great way to start mindfulness is to sit with your back straight, feet on the ground and hands wherever feels good. Close your eyes. Breathe in and out of your nostrils, and focus your entire attention on the sensation of your breath as it comes in and out.” What does it feel like? Warm? Cool? Tingly? It doesn’t matter, just focus on those sensations.
How long: Beginners can start with 1 minute. As you continue to practice, you’ll be able to sit for longer lengths of time.
Traditionally people who use mantra meditation go to a teacher and receive a personal mantra, which is in Sanskrit. “But the newest thinking is that you’ll get 90% of the benefit of this style of meditation by using a generic mantra,” Kaplan says. She suggests trying “hamsa” (pronounced “hum-sa”) or “soham” (“so-hum”). Both mean “I am that”; the syllables can be interchanged without altering the meaning.
Likhov suggests that you can use simple phrases like “thank you,” “I am great,” or “life is good.”.
The biggest benefit: It makes you more creative — and not just with writing or painting. “It also makes you good at creative problem-solving, so it’s good for business people,” Kaplan says.
How you do it: Gently repeat your mantra to yourself in your head. There’s no set rhythm to follow, and you don’t need to time it with your breath. Do whatever feels natural. End your practice with 1–3 minutes of mindfulness meditation. “You can get a bit dreamy during mantra meditation, so this will help ground you before you re-enter your day,” Kaplan explains.
How long: Most schools that teach mantra meditation recommend meditating for 20 minutes, twice a day.
There are several ways you can do energizing meditation, including practicing certain martial arts and kundalini yoga, but the simplest way might be alternate nostril breathing.
The biggest benefit: As the name implies, rather than downing a Red Bull or espresso, you can use this meditation style to naturally boost your energy.
How you do it: Sit comfortably, and bring your right hand to your nose. Place your thumb on your right nostril and your ring finger on the other. Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your ring finger and calmly hold that breath. Then release your thumb and exhale out your right nostril. Pause, then breathe in through your right nostril and repeat, this time exhaling through your left nostril.
You can inhale, exhale and hold for the same length of time (say, four counts). For more energy, inhale for a longer amount of time; to feel more relaxed, lengthen your exhale.
How long: 1–6 minutes, or about 1–10 rounds
In this meditation, you set an intention to accomplish something. Your goal could be anything, but compassion is a common one, in part thanks to Sharon Salzberg popularizing “loving kindness” meditation in the West.
The biggest benefit: Studies show that practicing loving-kindness meditation can cause changes in areas of the brain that help us empathize with others. In real life, that translates into making it easier to act with compassion and be less reactive.
How you do it: Sit comfortably, with your eyes open or closed. Repeat the following phrases to yourself:
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I live today with ease.
When it feels right, think of someone who is easy to love and direct these phrases at them as you picture them in front of you. Keep expanding out, and do the same with an acquaintance, someone who’s a bit difficult to love and even your city, state, country and the entire world.
How long: Aim for 15 minutes