“It’ll change your life!” my trendier friends say. For the past year, they have been urging me to meditate. “Not my thing,” I answer. I’m not good at Zen—I’m good at running late to an appointment as I fire off five texts. But after a particularly chaotic week in which I reeled from work crisis to kid crisis—feeling panicky, my mind whirring nonstop—I decided to try it out. It’s not like meditation has any weird side effects or causes injuries. It doesn’t require any gear (like my failed cycling venture) or an expensive trainer. So why not give it a go?
Although I couldn’t care less about being on-trend, meditation is having a moment. Katy Perry reportedly does a 20-minute session every morning (“the only time my mind gets absolute rest”). Hugh Jackman, who actually sits in stillness with his two children, has said that the ritual changed his life. Actress Jordana Brewster meditates on set. It’s become a go-to stress reducer for powerhouses Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom have offered classes to their employees.
Meditation used to be viewed as a self-involved exercise done by, as devotee Russell Brand put it, “weird, old hippies.” But that perception has vanished thanks to an avalanche of research on the ritual’s benefits: It can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, slow Alzheimer’s and curb tobacco cravings. One major review from Johns Hopkins University showed mindfulness meditation may be just as effective as antidepressants for treating anxiety symptoms.
I couldn’t imagine finding the time to make meditation a daily thing—but, oddly enough, that’s what happened.
OK, deep breath
Hindus have meditated for thousands of years. In fact, forms of the practice have been used in most of the world’s major religions. It wasn’t until Transcendental Meditation‘s popularity surged in the West in the ’70s that scientists started paying attention to its array of health benefits. Known as TM, Transcendental Meditation involves closing your eyes and repeating a mantra to free the mind from conscious thought.
Another popular form of meditation, mindfulness, is also gaining steam among health experts. Doctors at prominent hospitals regularly recommend it for conditions like insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. All you need to do is pay attention to your inner and outer experience in the present moment, without judgment. Like TM, it’s shown to decrease stress within eight weeks. I decided to try it. But first, I consulted a few experts for guidance.
Ideally, you get mindful in a quiet spot—although it can be done while walking, sitting at your desk at work or even standing in a long line at the grocery store. It’s more important to be away from engaging distractions, such as your computer, say experts, than it is for your space to be dead silent. “Close your eyes or not, however you feel most at ease,” advises Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. “Settle your attention on the feeling of the normal, natural breath, wherever it’s most clear to you—the nostrils, chest or abdomen. See if you can feel one breath fully. Then the next breath.” It’s that simple.
I sat on my couch with my legs folded, closed my eyes and breathed. In. Out. Soon I felt calmer in my body, but my mind was buzzing with not-very-chill thoughts about a friend who never stops talking about her boyfriend. Perfectly normal, says Salzberg: “It’s a common belief that to meditate successfully, you have to wipe all thoughts from your mind. That’s unlikely to happen, and it’s not the goal anyway.”
When you find your mind wandering, the experts say to notice the thoughts, then just let them go. Gently bring your attention back to the present and your breathing. I started with 10 minutes, setting an alarm on my phone (soft church bells, in keeping with the mood). I had to refocus on breathing six or seven times; I guess that’s why they call it a practice. At the end of my session, though, I felt like I had awoken from a refreshing nap. The point is not to go into a trancelike state or to be visited by wondrous, life-changing thoughts, but rather to enter a state of relaxed alertness.
“It’s ideal to make meditation a daily part of your routine, even if you begin with 5 or 10 minutes,” says Hugh Byrne, PhD, a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. He recommends working up to at least 30 minutes. That proved impossible for me, though it was amazing how much time I freed up when I didn’t go online shoe shopping. Yes, I’m perpetually busy, but it’s not like I’m the secretary of state.
By week three, I was able to get in the zone faster. I went on for 20 minutes, as does hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, author of the new book Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. “Starting off my day without meditation would be like going to work without brushing my teeth,” he says.
While I’m not that committed, I have grown to love the refreshed and clear feeling that carries over throughout the day. I don’t feel as overwhelmed. As many studies show, meditation elicits a physiological reaction that actually dampens your stress response (see This Is Your Body on Meditation, center). Now when I’m in a nerve-racking situation, I can notice it with a bit of detachment, which helps me take action.
I like to do 10 minutes before or after an event that makes me twitchy, like a dentist appointment or a conversation with my accountant. Training myself to refocus my thoughts on the right now has improved my concentration, as well. It’s not that my stress has magically vanished; I still have little control over, for example, work dead-lines, the IRS or teeth cleanings. But I do have more of a handle on how I feel. Plus, if I ever run into Hugh Jackman at a party, we’ll have some-thing to talk about.
This is Your Body on Meditation
Blood pressure drops
And the effect isn’t just temporary: A long-term study from the Medical College of Wisconsin showed that people who meditated twice a day for 20 minutes lowered their blood pressure by 5mmHg.
Your brain releases happy chemicals
You get a boost of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, all linked to a good mood.
Digestion runs more smoothly
Stress triggers that stomach-churning fight-or-flight instinct, shutting down digestion. Relaxed, the body reboots the parasympathetic nervous system, which gets digestion flowing.
The practice appears to change activity in key pain-processing regions of the brain—in one study, meditators experienced a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity.
Meditation can reduce stress-induced inflammation, offering relief from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and asthma.