So many of us focus on the ways we can improve our health from a physical perspective, but we often neglect the equally important aspects of our mental health. In fact, according to a July 2021 survey by Verywell Mind, only 39 percent of Americans spend more time concentrating on improving their mental health compared to 61 percent who spend more time concentrating on improving their physical health. Enter: meditation.
One of the easiest and most tried-and-true ways to harness your mental and emotional health is through meditating, a practice that’s been around since as early as 400-100 BCE.
What is meditation?
Put plain and simple, meditation is a technique to enhance the connection between mind and body. It is founded in spiritual and philosophical traditions across the globe and is central to Yoga and Buddhist contemplative theory, notes Rashmi Bismark, M.D., M.P.H., a Yoga Medicine® instructor and Preventive Medicine physician. “Through purposeful strategies for training focus and open attention, meditation lets us become more familiar with ourselves and our innate ways of being aware,” he says.
What are the benefits of meditation?
The benefits of meditation are practically boundless, which is why it’s so highly recommended as a tool for health enhancement. Here’s a look at some of its perks:
Because meditation helps reduce the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is a key component in anxiety, it can help lower the incidences of this mental health condition, according to board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. “Meditation helps you consciously choose your focus, by letting your attention to the inner conversations take an occasional rest,” he says. “Then you’ll notice a deep pool of peace and love beyond these two chattering voices, and your anxiety can melt away.”
Enhanced heart health
Research has found that meditation can be great for heart health, so much so that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends it as a part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. “In addition to helping modulate blood pressure, meditation has been associated with positive changes in heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of heart health that reflects how quickly your heart makes small adjustments in time between heartbeats,” explains Dr. Bismark. “Higher HRV is suggested to be a marker of greater cardiovascular fitness.”
Chronic inflammation has been linked to being the root of a myriad of diseases, from diabetes and digestive disorders to cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s. Luckily, research, including one study published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, has shown that meditation can cut down on the levels of inflammation in the body, therefore reducing the risk of these diseases.
Because meditation focuses on being present and understanding the here and now, it teaches how to be more aware of one’s surroundings, as well as shines a light on all the intricacies within ourselves, according to Kama Hagar, a certified holistic wellness coach. “[You’ll likely] find yourself noticing unconscious habits, patterns, or unhelpful ways of thinking or choosing healthier behaviors, thoughts, and more compassionate ways of speaking,” she says. “Meditation lifts the veil, so we can see and hear ourselves more clearly.”
Better sex life
Yep—research published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy has linked meditation to increased sexual desire and functioning. How? Being present allows us to enhance our experience with everything, from tasting our food in all its rich flavors to feeling the soothing sensation of the breeze on your face, explains Hagar. “As sensuality is all about feeling the moment and meditation helps with that, you may feel more turned on and connected than ever,” she adds.
How to start a mediation practice
If you’re looking to establish a meditation practice for yourself, it’s easy to start. Here are a few expert-approved tips for doing so.
Connect with an intention for your practice
“Easeful attention follows heartfelt intention,” says Dr. Bismark. Before you start your meditations, he recommends figuring out your why. Perhaps it’s to reduce your stress levels or to carve out some self-care time for yourself each day. “Figure out your hopes and intentions for this practice and try to make sure that it aligns your actions with the wisdom of heart and mind,” he says. “It’s something you can return to for encouragement whenever you need it.”
Even designating a few minutes a day is a great place to start. Lianna Nielsen, London-based integrative nutrition health coach, suggests picking a time that will be easy to stick with every day (or at least most days). “First thing in the morning or right before bed tends to work for a lot of people,” she says. “A few minutes a day is more beneficial than an hour once a week.”
Choose a designated spot
When starting a meditation routine, Amy Robbins, Psy.D., doctor of clinical psychology and BIAN Chicago‘s director of mental health, always recommends setting aside a special space that is for these meditations. “Having a designated space tells your body and your mind that this is sacred time,” she says. “Some people like to include a candle, something they have collected on a trip that was meaningful to them, or a picture they might have that brings them calm and peace.”
Don’t worry if your mind wanders
It’s likely that your mind will wander during your meditation—and that’s OK, according to Nielsen. “In the beginning your mind will be all over the place—making grocery lists, thinking about work, obsessing over something embarrassing you said—your only job is to bring it back and refocus it,” she says. “I always tell my clients in the first few weeks if you only ‘remember’ that you’re meditating once or twice during a five-minute meditation, that’s success.”
Try a guided meditation or app
When Kien Vuu, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA and author of Thrive State: Your Blueprint for Optimal Health, Longevity, and Peak Performance, first started to meditate, he found it easier to be guided through the experience. “The guidance helped me know where to place my attention and awareness,” he says, adding that it also helped keep distraction from his thoughts at bay. Luckily, there’s no shortage of meditation apps available, such as Insight Timer, Simple Habit, and Calm.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, it’s time to take five minutes to unplug and put this advice to work.