A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation
Here’s how to get started — for real this time.
If hearing, once again, that you should really take up meditation makes you think "ugh," you're not alone. But the truth is, there's a reason so many people swear by going inward for everything from de-stressing to getting to know themselves better. Here's what you really need to know about meditation, its benefits — and the least intimidating ways to get started.
What is meditation, exactly?
Words like meditation and mindfulness get thrown around all the time these days, so it can be tricky to know what a person really means when they say they're into one or the other. Interestingly, meditation and mindfulness aren't exactly the same thing, though they have similarities, according to Nathalie Walton, CEO and co-founder of Expectful, a meditation app for fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood.
"Meditation typically refers to an intentional practice. The practice can be seated, laying down, or even walking," Walton explains. Meditation is usually done for a specific amount of time, and you're continuously guiding your mind to a point of focus like your breath, a body part, or a mantra, she adds.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is being present in your actions, and you can practice it anywhere, with anyone, at any time, Walton says. "In mindfulness, we bring our attention to the present moment and what we're experiencing with our senses," agrees Gabby Ortega, a therapist and meditation instructor. "We notice the warm water on our body as we shower, the pleasant smell of soap, the soft texture of our loofah, and it brings us a sense of grounding and overall peace."
Another way to think about it: "Mindfulness is all about cultivating an awareness of our outer life, where meditation is focused on doing the same, but for our inner life," Ortega says.
The benefits of meditation
What's so good about taking some time to pause and breathe? "Meditation is scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety," says Walton. Considering stress and anxiety have been dominant mental health concerns since the beginning of the pandemic, that's a pretty big plus. One study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that meditation rivals antidepressants in reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain, Walton points out.
Ortega cites a host of other potential benefits including:
As for how long it takes to see these benefits, it depends. Some people notice a difference straight away after one meditation sitting, but we benefit the most when we have a daily practice — even if it's for as little as five to 10 minutes, says Manoj Dias, co-founder and instructor at Open. Even with a small time commitment, we start to notice how our mind works, understand why we do what we do, and see the decisions we need to make to lead to happiness and fulfillment, he adds.
Who can benefit from meditation?
Experts agree that basically everyone can get something positive from meditation. "You can be a high-powered executive, athlete, mom, or everyday human," Dias says. "We can all benefit from more moments of presence, connection, and compassion in our life." Still, there are some groups that can especially benefit.
People who are super stressed. "Whether it's because you're raising kids, have a high-stress career, are dealing with difficult life circumstances, or just feel generally burned out— meditation will be your sanity's saving grace," Ortega says.
Pregnant women: "I was personally motivated to deepen my meditation practice during pregnancy because it's proven to reduce pain during labor," Walton says. "As soon as I heard about these studies, I began deepening my meditation practice through hypnobirthing [a birthing method that uses self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques]. Meditation and hypnobirthing enabled me to have an unmedicated labor that would have otherwise been inaccessible." (FYI, Meghan Markle used hypnobirthing!)
People with sleep troubles. If you have difficulty sleeping from time to time, then meditation is for you, Walton says. Meditation is shown to fight insomnia and help improve sleep quality. "The benefits of meditation accumulate over time, but just one meditation can help you sleep better," Walton adds.
Meditation skeptics. "Usually it's those who are the most resistant to meditating that see the biggest difference after beginning meditation," Ortega notes. "The skeptics always become believers — myself included."
Tips for getting started with meditation
Convinced you should give it a try? Here's how to set yourself up for meditation success.
Use an app. "For anyone new to meditation, I recommend starting with guided meditation," Walton says. There are a ton of options out there, from Open and Expectful (if you're in the fertility/pregnancy life stage!) to Insight Timer (Ortega's pick), Headspace, and Calm.
Keep it short and consistent to start. "You don't want to feel overwhelmed by the task at hand," Dias says. That's why he recommends starting out with five or 10-minute meditations. Then, pick a time that works with your daily routine and commit to it for three weeks. After that, reevaluate and see if you want to keep going, or maybe step up your habit and meditate for a little longer.
Get comfy. "It's easier to develop a consistent practice if you enjoy coming to your meditation 'spot,'" Walton says. "Find a pretty yoga mat or a cozy weighted blanket — whatever it takes to motivate you."
Don't worry about trying to empty your mind. This isn't a thing you can actually do, Ortega says, and it can be frustrating if you try to clear your head completely. (Also, if a meditation teacher tells you to try to do this, run, Ortega says.) "It's not possible to not think, and the more we try to do this, the more frustrated we'll become. The goal of meditation is to simply notice your thoughts and let them drift away — not to erase them or try to stop them from showing up."
Create your own playlist. "Sometimes it's easier to drop in when we have something to listen to," Ortega says. If you're not going the guided meditation route, Ortega recommends putting together a playlist with meditation music, chanting, nature sounds, or anything that helps you go deeper, faster.
Get support. "Work with a mentor or teacher who can guide you through the safest, most supportive ways to approach meditation for you personally," Ortega recommends. "If you're a trauma survivor or deal with high anxiety for example, you'll want to work with someone who understands that sitting meditations might be too uncomfortable for you to do. They'll show you options that feel better, like walking meditations, so you can get the most out of your practices with the least amount of stress." (If you have anxiety, check out these tips for practicing mindfulness, even when you're anxious as hell.)
Remember: It's okay if it feels hard. Meditation won't always feel easy. "Be patient with yourself and keep going," Ortega suggests. Her advice? Check out lots of different videos and teachers, and play around with what feels right for you.
Don't give up. If you're struggling at first, it can help to know that it's normal. "It took me many years to find a meditation practice that worked for me," Walton says. "If a guided meditation doesn't work, you can try binaural beats [an emerging form of sound wave therapy]. If that doesn't work, try a body scan or mantra-based meditation. There are endless variations on meditation, and there is a type of meditation that can work for you."