The types of meditation, the science behind whether or not meditation can help you sleep, advice for your meditation practice—and a curated list of tools to get started.
According to the National Center For Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the use of meditation among adults in the United States tripled between 2012 and 2017—jumping from just 4.1 % reporting the use of some form of meditative practice to 14.2 %. Obviously meditation is gaining popularity in America, but what exactly defines meditation and why might more Americans be practicing it today?
Generally speaking, meditation involves basically being quiet and contemplative in a specific physical position—whether that be a form of sitting, standing, walking, lying down or holding a yoga pose. But there’s a bit more to it than that. While meditation involves contemplation, the goal is to choose a focus and stick with it. Some forms aim to allow thoughts to come, be acknowledged and move on or encourage the practitioner to closely monitor their breath, get pulled in to the rhythm and eliminate other possible distractions.
Types of Meditation
We explored six popular categories of meditative practice as outlined in this article from Healthline:
Most popular in the West, mindfulness meditation stems from Buddhist teaching. In order to practice mindfulness meditation, one must allow thoughts to essentially float by. The trick is to be aware and acknowledge thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations without getting too wrapped up in them. Concentrating on the physical sensations is a great way to resist letting your mind wander too deep into a passing thought while practicing mindfulness meditation.
While in practice all types of meditation may feel similar, spiritual meditation has a differing goal than mindfulness. Spiritual meditation aims to more closely connect the practitioner with their God and the universe. Spiritual meditation practitioners also often employ essential oils to enhance the experience. This form of meditation is practiced both in homes and places of worship.
The name here pretty much sums it up: focused meditation requires specific focus on one or more of the five senses. Practitioners can focus meditation on breath, sense of smell or hearing and can also bring external stimuli into the practice—something to zero in on visually and mentally, like looking at a flickering flame or counting objects.
Again, the name is indicative of this practice. Movement meditation involves movement in the form of stretching through yoga, walking, gardening and other tranquil forms of movement. The key for this type of meditation is to allow your movement activity to guide you and allow your mind to wonder. If you take a walk every day without listening to a podcast or music, and have a set path that allows your movements to go on autopilot and your brain to explore, you might basically have a meditation practice in place without even knowing it.
With Buddhist and Hindu origins, mantra meditation is the form of meditation that is most typically depicted in popular culture. It’s a form that includes chanting of a mantra (which is sometimes a sound like “OM”) while meditating. For those who struggle to silence their minds and focus mainly on the breath, mantra meditation may help. It gives your brain a repetition to focus on and an action to do during your meditation sessions.
Similar to mantra meditation, transcendental meditation involves the repetition of sanskrit words. Unlike many of the previous forms of meditation, transcendental meditation is a bit more regimented and specific. If you choose to practice this form of meditation, your mantra is assigned to you based on different factors like birth year and gender. It is typically practiced for 20 mins, two times per day.
Meditation and Sleep
There is plenty of research connecting meditation to improved sleep, especially mindfulness meditation. That form of meditating is popular, simple, can be done at home and can even be practiced when you’re in bed and trying to doze off to sleep. It offers a great approach to taming those unruly thoughts that can keep us up at night. Research suggests that while there is some proof in favor of mindfulness meditation technique as a sleep aid, it’s not fully conclusive and is not an appropriate intervention for someone with severe anxiety—at least not on its own.
This excerpt from the NCCIH website explains some of the research: “In an NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.”
But this isn’t the only research out there. In a study conducted in 2015, two groups of elderly individuals with moderate sleep disturbances were administered two different types of intervention: a standardized mindfulness awareness practices intervention and a sleep hygiene education intervention. When compared with those provided with sleep hygiene education, there was much greater improvement among the mindfulness awareness group.
Finally, this more recent study from 2018 basically concludes that “mindfulness meditation may be effective in treating some aspects of sleep disturbance. Further research is warranted.”
That said, there’s research out there to suggest there are positive health benefits of meditation that can also aid in improving sleep in addition to general wellbeing. For example, transcendental meditation was found to reduce blood pressure (though the NCCIH reports that it’s not clear if this type is specifically superior to other forms of meditation—it seems meditation in general can help to lower blood pressure). Meditation may increase melatonin (the sleep hormone), increase serotonin, reduce heart rate and activate the part of the brain that controls sleep. Studies have also found that meditation is useful for improving mental health—which is often linked with sleep disturbances. It can even increase the amount of gray matter we have in our brains, which can result in more feelings of happiness.
Though remember: while the research reflects a number of proven health benefits, the impact of meditation on mental, physical and sleep health likely varies from person to person.
Tips, Resources + More
The great thing about meditation is that you don’t have to take a class or even go anywhere to do it. It’s typically a low to no cost activity you can do at home—it requires little effort or commitment to try. And there are numerous resources available to help you get started including playlists, apps for your phone, podcasts and articles linked in the read more section. Use the following tools and resources to give it a try. Sample a few different types, try them at different times of day—you never know what might work for you!
- Spotify has a robust playlist of guided meditations
- The Cut created its own meditation playlist
- Apple music offers one
- So does Pandora
- Searching Youtube also brought about a combination of music playlists, guided meditation and videos
- Headspace (offers a free trial) - Headspace seems to have been around for a really long time. When we think of apps for meditation, this is the first that comes to mind. But it’s not the only one.
- Calm - Calm is another and while there are more still, these two showed up the most across lists of meditation apps
- Simple Habit - Simple Habit is one more option that offers a wide range of different types of guided meditation selections you can pick from.
- You can check out more apps through top rated lists curated by Oprah Magazine and Very Well Mind
- Very Well Mind published this list of meditation podcasts
- Here’s another from Urban List
- Tara Brach, a meditation and mindfulness practitioner, has a podcast and series of talks where she blends psychotherapy with her mindfulness practice
Even if you aren’t ready to invest money into your meditation practice, most of the companies that sell services to support meditation experiences also publish rich content to support the practice that can be accessed for free.
This story originally appeared in eNews. Click here to get Sleep Retailer eNews delivered straight to your inbox.