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A beginner's guide to meditation

Stress affects the lives of many people. Family, work and various other commitments and responsibilities sometimes leave us feeling anxious, preoccupied or even depressed. In today's fast-paced society, there is rarely time left to slow down, relax and let the body recharge.

Meditation is a technique that has existed for thousands of years to slow down the mind and to help individuals reach higher levels of concentration and awareness. While meditation exists in many cultures and religions, it's gaining popularity as a beneficial practice for everyone. Recent studies have shown that practicing meditation results in a number of positive effects. These benefits represent the opposite of the "fight or flight" response, and include slowed breathing and heart rate, more efficient use of oxygen and enhanced immune function. In addition, practitioners of meditation report that they experience improved mental functioning and an overall sense of calm. Meditation is useful for alleviating stress anxiety, so it can reduce or eliminate a number of stress-related problems, including headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety, skin breakouts and stomach pain.

Other benefits include:

  • It is generally free to learn and practice meditation.
  • No specialized equipment is required to practice meditation.
  • Meditation can be practiced just about anywhere at any time for as long as desired.
  • There is no risk of any harmful side effects.

Meditation Techniques

  • Transcendental meditation. Introduced in the 1950s, this type of meditation has enlightenment as its goal. While it can cost up to $2,500 for guided meditation and teaching of transcendental meditation, many teachers are beginning to offer free courses. Practitioners spend 20 minutes each day experiencing what is called "transcendental consciousness" and many claim significant stress-relief and relaxation benefits. There has, however, been some controversy around these claims. Some tests have shown that the same effects occur with basic relaxation techniques including listening to peaceful music.
  • Guided meditation. This type of meditation involves listening to a yogi or meditation leader either in person or on a recording, to guide you through the process. Listening to this person as you meditate allows you to focus on the aspects of the body and mind that are most beneficial. He or she may direct you to move your awareness in different directions or to focus on a mantra or the self.
  • Mindfulness meditation. The meditator in this type of meditation focuses his or her attention on a single thing (an object or an occurrence such as breathing). The goal is to keep the mind in the present, in effect giving the mind a break from the rapid thinking processes of speculation and analysis it usually performs. This type of meditation is non-religious in its origin.

While there is no specific equipment required to meditate, many people find that having special meditation cushions or a meditation rug, blanket or shawl allows them to focus and meditate more readily. In effect, these physical "cues" remind the body and mind of the process of meditation, making that process easier. Information on yoga meditation and the other forms of meditation described above is readily available from a number of alternative health centers and online.

Meditation should not be used as an alternative to conventional treatments for illness, however using meditation techniques is definitely worth a try for the relaxation and stress-relieving properties it can bestow on the individual.

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