3 meditation techniques

Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts – it’s more about building awareness of your body and mind. Here’s why it’s good for you, and a few different styles to try.

3 ways to meditate

For many of us, meditation sounds great in theory but actually doing it is a different thing altogether. With to-do lists longer than a six-year-old’s birthday wish list, sometimes it’s hard to prioritise being still for 10 minutes or more.

But according to meditation experts and enthusiasts, there’s a good chance you’ll become intrigued, if not converted, especially once you realise how beneficial it can be for you. It’s only since the development of functional MRI scans that scientists have been able to get a good look at what’s going on in the brain and confirm what Buddhists have known for centuries: meditation can reduce stress, as well as symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain perception.

There are hundreds of different meditation styles, which seek to manage our attention, regulate the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system and modulate our moods. “The term meditation refers to a group of practices that cultivate the mind,” explains Dr Paula Watkins, founder of the Calm, Conscious & Connected meditation course. “They tend to involve some kind of repetitive activity, such as one’s awareness of the breath, or repeating a mantra. No one technique is better overall. Try a few styles and follow what feels right to you.” The type you try might be linked to how you’re feeling or what you’re striving for at a particular time.

TECHNIQUE #1: Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is defined as ‘paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally’. It usually involves closing your eyes and focusing on your breath, as well as the sounds around you and any sensations you are experiencing. “Mindfulness meditation is simply about observing your present state – it’s not about changing how you feel, what you’re thinking or what you’re doing. It’s about building awareness,” says Dr Addie Wootten, CEO of Smiling Mind, an online meditation website.

There’s fascinating research into this particular style of meditation with brain scans revealing that regular practice actually changes the brain. “Meditation can lead to stress reduction, attention control, improved sleep, improved connection, communication and relationships, as well as reductions in anxiety and depression,” explains Dr Wootten.

What's it good for? Clear thinking and reducing anxiety and depression. “If you want to benefit from the relaxation benefits of meditation but also improve your ability to deal with unhelpful or negative thinking patterns, then mindfulness approaches are likely to be beneficial,” says Dr Watkins.

How to try it: Download the free Smiling Mind app (www.smilingmind.com.au).

TECHNIQUE #2: Automatic transcending meditation

Transcendental meditation is repeating a mantra (often a Sanskrit sound) over and over in your mind. “The word ‘mantra’ is actually a combination of two words, ‘mana’ (mind) and ‘tra’ (tool), so it means ‘tool of the mind’,” says Lauren Falconer, doula, yogi and founder of The LifePod (www.thelifepod.com.au). The idea is that the mantra overrides your mind’s chatter and you slowly ‘transcend’ to a deeper level of consciousness. “Your awareness can effortlessly move beyond your normal level of thinking so you experience deeper states of awareness,” explains Jonni Pollard, meditation teacher and founder of 1 Giant Mind meditation app.

What's it good for? Relaxation. “Techniques that emphasise absorption, such as mantra, can be soothing,” Dr Watkins explains. Mantra meditation can also help in childbirth. “By using a mantra, such as ‘I breathe in I open, I breathe out I relax’, women can slide into the relaxation response, helping them to focus and believe,” says Falconer.

How to try it: “Mantras can be anything that help you focus,” says Falconer. Try a few of her favourites: ‘I CAN do this’, during a tough fitness session; or ‘This too shall pass’, if you’re not feeling great about something. You can also download the 1 Giant Mind app, a free 12-step beginner’s course (www.1giantmind.org).

TECHNIQUE #3: Loving kindness or metta meditation

As the name suggests, this technique involves mentally repeating loving phrases towards yourself and others to bring more compassion into your life. One study showed that when people practised this form of meditation for nine weeks, their positive emotions had increased, and they also reported improved life satisfaction and reduced symptoms of depression.

Loving kindness meditation usually starts with a few deep breaths, then you slowly say a series of phrases directed at yourself, such as, ‘May I be happy. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease.’ Then you think of someone else and direct the same phrases towards them, repeating, ‘May you be happy. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease.’ By concentrating on the phrases, the idea is that your heart will swell and you’ll feel more positive about yourself and others.

What's it good for? Connecting with yourself and others. “If cultivating better empathy, enhancing your interpersonal skills and connecting better with others is something you’re interested in, then metta meditation could be great for you,” says Dr Watkins.

How to try it: Choose thoughts to direct at yourself and others.

Article first published 1st of March 2016