Meditation used to be a fringe practice, but now it’s regularly recommended by health care providers to help with symptoms ranging from stress and sleep disorders, to cancer treatment and its side effects like fatigue.
“Almost every single patient that I talk to has heard of, or has tried, meditation,” says Smitha Mallaiah, a senior mind-body intervention specialist in MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center. “That’s a huge cultural shift in awareness over the last 10 years.”
But there are still misconceptions about what meditation is, how to do it and how to tell if you are doing it correctly.
“Really, anyone can meditate, and I would like to invite everybody to try this promising practice,” says Mallaiah.
Here are seven things she wants you to know about meditation.
1. Meditation is great for stress management. Reduced stress is one of the main benefits of meditation, and it’s proven by research. Symptoms of stress like anxiety, depression, restlessness and frustration have all been shown to improve with meditation.
“There are many psychological and physiological aspects under the umbrella of stress,” says Mallaiah. “Meditation can help manage your heart rate and even stress-related heart conditions like hypertension.”
2. Meditation can make you smarter. If you think of your brain as a muscle, meditation is the exercise to make it stronger. Meditation has been shown to increase gray matter, concentration, focus, and improve your awareness of what is happening around you. And studies have shown that taking a break for a short meditation increases productivity at work.
3. Meditation improves sleep. Millions of Americans have sleep issues, including half of cancer patients. Meditation can improve sleep, and with that comes many other physical health benefits.
“Rest is so important. Our bodies need that time to reboot and re-energize,” says Mallaiah. “As a nation, we have become so wired up, but having a regular meditation practice cultivates a culture of rest for all of us.”
4. Meditation starts with simply breathing. When it comes to how to meditate, a practice usually starts with breath.
“I always say, if you can breathe, you can meditate,” says Mallaiah. “And then at the body level, have a posture that is open, relaxed and comfortable.”
You can sit or lie down, and then bring awareness to your breath. Start with a short amount of time, like five or 10 minutes. Add background music if you find it helpful.
5. Guided meditation can be useful. If you are a beginner, it may be easier to use a guided meditation, where an app or other recording supports you as you watch your breath. It’s also helpful to take a class so you have a teacher you can talk to about your experiences.
6. It's OK to have thoughts while you meditate. Meditation is not about controlling your mind or shutting down your thoughts. It is about observing your mind without judgement.
“You might be thinking, ‘I’m failing at this,’ or, ‘I can’t believe I can’t even quiet my mind,’ but those are all ways we judge ourselves,” says Mallaiah. “Meditation is about awareness. Try simply sitting and observing your mind.”
7. Meditation does not have to take a lot of time. Experienced meditators often can meditate for more than 30 minutes or an hour at a time, but shorter amounts of time still have benefits.
“Starting with too much may lead to restlessness, and you may not want to come back and try again,” says Mallaiah. “Beginners can start with as little as a minute and then build up from there.”
Use your phone, an exercise tracker or any other timer to help you get to the amount of time that is right for you.
“Try not to have expectations of meditation. Instead, just develop the practice as much as you can,” says Mallaiah. “Take the pressure off that you should be doing it in a certain way, and if you have just two minutes, start with that. Every minute counts, and every minute benefits.”