Why meditate? What are the benefits, and how are they measured? How do you learn to meditate? Is there a difference between meditation and mindfulness? Will you need to sit on cushions and find perfect silence? All are valid questions, and we’re here to help you with this guide to meditation. We’ll explain the meditation basics and dig into the setup, the styles of practice, the science behind it, and the discoveries that may happen over time.
Meditation is both a skill and an experience — a formal exercise to cultivate awareness and compassion. By sitting with the mind, we’re training it to be more open and at ease, and we consequently discover greater calm, clarity, contentment, and compassion. In doing so, we increasingly learn to have a direct experience of the present moment.
Some of this may seem abstract; it can also be helpful to describe what meditation is not:
Headspace guided meditation
Life is sometimes difficult. While we can’t control what happens, we do have the potential to transform the way in which we relate to those things. Life is also busier than ever, leaving us overloaded with information and digital chatter 24/7. It’s no wonder more and more people are looking to find peace of mind. The more we can stay in the present — not bogged down in thoughts or reactivity — the more we are able to take life in stride. Whether we’re feeling challenged by circumstances or frazzled by tech, meditation can provide a reset for the mind through a graduated path of learning in both awareness and compassion.
Awareness allows us to better understand how and why we think and feel the way we do, often resulting in a healthier perspective on life. Compassion allows us to be not only kinder to ourselves but to others, leading to healthier relationships with partners, family, and friends.
For some, the benefits of meditation can be profound and life-changing; still, it’s important to remember that meditation feels different for every person who practices it (and often different each day). In short, it has the potential to improve the psychological, emotional, and physical quality of life for those who practice regularly.
People who incorporate meditation into their lives often report heightened levels of happiness, patience, acceptance, and compassion after meditating. They note lower levels of stress, frustration, depression, and pain. People who have difficulty sleeping say they experience better sleep. People with anxiety disorders report reduced anxiety. Other people describe having better relationships and sex lives after incorporating meditation into their routines.
These aren’t just anecdotes; there is a large body of scientific research that supports the effectiveness of meditation. Mindfulness-based meditation has been thoroughly embraced many years ago by the medical community, approved for use by the U.K. National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), and is now studied by neuroscientists all over the world.
If meditation is the training ground where we familiarize ourselves with the here and now for a limited period of time, mindfulness is the quality of being present that we carry throughout the day, available to us — when we remember to be aware — as life unfolds, fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment, free from distraction or judgment.
Here at Headspace, our co-founder (and former Buddhist monk) Andy Puddicombe, suggests viewing mindfulness as meditation-in-action applied to everyday life. Mindfulness is not a contrived or temporary state of mind that has to be created or maintained; it is a way of living — a way of stepping back in the moment and resting the mind in its natural state, free from the surrounding chaos or whatever circumstances might be proving stressful, upsetting, or overwhelming.
Try thinking of the difference between mindfulness and meditation this way: imagine you’re learning to drive a car. At first, you’d likely head out to a quiet country road rather than a busy motorway. Of course you can drive on either, but one is much easier than the other when you’re learning. The same is true of mindfulness. You can use it in any situation and for any purpose, but the easiest place to learn the skill of mindfulness is during meditation.
As with any new activity, beginners will often benefit from guided meditation in which a teacher — in person or via a recording — provides clear instruction and guidance. Unguided meditation can be done solo without any assistance and usually features longer stretches of silence. To revisit the driving metaphor: guided meditation is like learning to drive with an experienced instructor beside you, offering encouragement and support. Some of us will need this guidance for a long time and prefer it that way; others will decide to go it alone after just a few lessons, preferring the silence.
There are several great guided meditation options for those new to the practice, but you don’t have to be a seasoned meditator to give unguided meditation a try.
These guided meditations are probably the easiest way to jump into meditation at your own pace and comfort level while still benefiting from valuable instruction and insights. Research has shown that some forms of digital meditation can be just as effective as a traditional class.
There is probably a meditation group meeting regularly near you. Joining them for a session can help you learn and provide a sense of community. Or you can try signing up with an instructor or class to learn the ropes.
Give unguided meditation a shot on your own with the guide below.
So you’re ready to give meditation a try. The first steps include making time to practice and finding a suitable location, ideally one that feels comfortable and has minimal interruptions. You may not have access to a perfectly quiet place, and that’s OK. Take a moment to quiet your own distractions — turn off your television, silence your phone, send the cat out to the garden.
The amount of time you choose to spend meditating may change based on experience and circumstances. It often takes several minutes (or more) just to settle in and sit with the mind, so beginners may want to start by planning for 10 minutes three times a week.
Instead of one longer session, you might try two shorter sessions per day, which can help boost daytime mindfulness and improve nighttime relaxation and sleep. Even a 3-minute session during lunchtime can be beneficial.
Most people find it easier to develop a habit when they make their practice part of their regular schedule, with the idea of “same time, same place” making it more straightforward. One tip is to tie your practice to a daily routine (like brushing your teeth or taking out your contacts) to help ensure you get in the habit, especially when you’re just getting started. That said, it’s important to be flexible, so it’s no problem if you prefer to meditate at different times of the day.
Whichever way you choose to set up a practice, posture is important for focus. Here’s how to get started:
How to sit
There are several ways to sit; we encourage you to experiment with a few positions and figure out which you feel the most comfortable in. Different days, times of day, locations, and the duration of the meditation itself may call for a different seating position, or it might even be done lying on your back. Here are some suggestions:
Sit with your hands resting in your lap or on your knees, and try to maintain a supported spine. Sitting toward the front of the seat might help with support.
Sit on the floor with your legs resting loosely in front of you. Place the heel of your front foot on the back of your other foot.
Kneel on the floor with your body weight resting on your seat. You may wish to use a cushion to support your weight and your spine.
Standing meditation may be an alternative for those who find sitting or kneeling painful (or for those who might doze off while sitting). Standing meditation is substantively the same as sitting — focusing on posture, breathing, and clearing the mind. As when seated, find a comfortable position for your legs and arms, and try to support your spine and avoid locking your knees.
For a walking meditation, try to find a space with minimal distractions and room to move. Slowly and steadily — almost as if walking in slow motion — take 10-15 steps in one direction, focusing on the rise and fall of each deliberate step and paying attention to how your foot rolls and lifts from heel to toe. Pause, breathe, and let the thoughts come and go as with a seated meditation, and then turn and retrace your steps.
OK, now you’re ready to start your meditation practice. If you’re doing a guided meditation from a podcast or app, this is where you’d hit "play" and follow the audio instructions. If you’re doing unguided meditation, follow the instructions below.
Basics - Session 1
Meditation is known to have existed for at least 3,000 years. It has adapted and evolved through geography and time, meaning there are many ways to learn the skill and thousands of different techniques in the world. With that in mind, and whether your preference is guided or unguided, here’s a basic introduction for you to use, wherever you are (even in as little as 10 minutes):
Breathe deeply: Take five deep, audible breaths: in through the nose and out through the mouth. Focus on the sensation of your breath. Feel your chest rise and fall. Don’t think about breathing or try to alter your breathing — breathe naturally, and stay focused on that sensation. On the last exhalation, let your eyes gently close.
Check in: Take a few moments to settle into your body. Gently observe your posture and notice the sensations where your body touches the chair and your feet meet the ground. Acknowledge your senses: notice anything you can smell, hear, or taste and sensations of heat or cold.
Scan your body: Scan your body from head to toe, observing any tension or discomfort. Don’t try to change what you find; simply take note of it. Scan again, and this time, notice which parts of the body feel relaxed.
Turn your awareness to your thoughts: Notice any thoughts that arise without attempting to alter them. Gently note your underlying mood, just becoming aware of what’s there without judgment. If there’s nothing obvious, that’s fine, too.
Observe the breath: Bring your attention to your breathing. Don’t make any effort to change it; just observe the rising and falling sensation that it creates in the body. Focus on the quality of each breath, noting whether it’s deep or shallow, long or short, fast or slow.
Count the breaths: Silently count your breaths: 1 as you inhale, 2 as you exhale, 3 on the next inhalation, and so on up to 10. Then start again at 1. It’s completely normal for thoughts to bubble up. Just guide your attention back to the breath and continue counting.
Allow your mind to be free: Spend 20-30 seconds just sitting. You might find yourself inundated with thoughts and plans or feel calm and focused. Whatever happens is completely fine. Enjoy the rare chance to let your mind simply be.
Prepare to finish: Become aware once more of the physical feelings: of the chair beneath you, where your feet make contact with the floor, your arms and your hands resting in your lap. Notice anything you can hear, smell, taste, or feel.
Open your eyes: Whenever you’re ready, open your eyes.
Take it with you: Before standing up, form a clear idea about what you are going to do next, whether that’s brushing your teeth, making breakfast, or getting ready for work. Try to carry this awareness with you — that’s mindfulness.
Much of meditation’s beauty (and success) lies in its simplicity — it doesn’t require any material items to be successful.
In fact, the Headspace app itself was designed to be used by anyone anywhere. That said, there are some people who find certain tools or accessories useful in creating an environment optimal for meditating. For example:
If finding a quiet place to meditate is a challenge, noise-canceling headphones or earplugs may help. But again, be careful to avoid distraction.
With meditation’s focus on breathing, some meditators may find incense, oils, or aromatherapy beneficial to creating a sense of calm. Just be sure it’s helping you relax and focus, not distracting you.
If you decide to sit on the floor, a yoga mat, carpet, or flat pillow can work well. A firmer cushion or meditation bench allows some people to focus on the moment rather than a numb posterior or aching knees.
As with learning any new skill, meditation takes practice. And, as with any novelty that might wane, it’s likely that the very mind you’re looking to tame will kick up excuses not to sit: you’re too busy, too tired, too restless, too uncertain, or too sad, or it’s just too boring (to name a few). Sometimes, the very ailments you’re hoping to address with meditation can challenge your practice.
It’s worth knowing that meditation is not a skill that can be mastered right away — it takes patience, perseverance, and consistency if you are to feel the benefits. The good news is that many people have come up against these same obstacles, learned from them, and come out the other side. If you’re feeling burned out and ready to give up, that’s also natural; it may be time to modify a bit: try a new location, position, or time of day.
Three tips to keep you on track: Be curious — meditation is about noticing the mind as it is, not how we’d ideally like the mind to be. Keep an open mind — most of us have an idea of what meditation is, but try to release all preconceived ideas. Be patient — meditation is not a quick fix; it’s a journey for life. The more you practice, the more effective it will be, and the more you’ll want to return to it.
While there are countless techniques, each rooted in a different tradition and with a unique emphasis, the intention to remain focused — to hone a natural quality of awareness — is at the heart of most of them. Most meditation tends to rely on at least two essential components: concentration (to calm) and clarity (for insight).
Here’s a breakdown of some of the more popular techniques, allowing you to make an informed choice about what will work best for you. It’s worth emphasizing that all techniques take time. Some you’ll feel naturally inclined toward; others might feel a little more challenging.
This is probably the most common and popular form of meditation — using the breath as the anchor for the mind. By focusing attention on the breath and the rise and fall of the chest, we are strengthening the ability to focus and remain aware. When the mind wanders and we notice that it has wandered, we return to the breath — and that, in and of itself, is awareness.
Otherwise known as a loving-kindness meditation, the purpose of compassion meditation practice is to open our hearts and minds for the benefit of others. Often, it requires us to bring to mind someone we know or love, and then pay attention to the sensations around the heart. In this context, a mental image of the person is used as the object of focus, not the breath. When the mind wanders, we keep bringing the attention back to that same image.
In visualization, as with compassion meditation, a specific mental picture is imagined as the object of focus and might be a person we know or something more abstract, such as a pinprick of light or rays of sunshine. Visualizations can vary, but the key lies in adopting a relaxed focus, not trying too hard to conjure too much detail. Over time, and with practice, the detail will emerge on its own, and the image will gain greater stability.
Noting is a technique in which you “note” a particular thought or feeling when you become distracted and lose the awareness of the breath (or whatever the object of focus might be). In that moment of awareness — the moment we realize we have been distracted – we gently note the distracting thought or feeling by quietly naming it in our head, be it “happiness,” “sadness,” “worry,” “wanting,” “fear,” “excitement,” and so on and so forth. In giving the thinking mind something to do, we’re creating a bit of space from whatever we’re experiencing as a way of letting go and also to familiarize ourselves with the mind’s habits, tendencies, and conditioning to the point that this exercise becomes effortless and natural.
Body scan is a technique that uses meditation to better connect with our body and the sensations we might be experiencing in the moment. Each of us can carry stress, tension, or anxiety internally, so this technique offers a mental way of checking in to see how we are feeling physically. If you can imagine the scanning light of a photocopier as it slides across the paper, that’s what we are mentally doing in this meditation: imagining ourselves scanning the body from head to toe and paying attention to what discomfort, sensation, or aches exist in different areas with the intention of bringing awareness to the body.
Shavasana is not, strictly speaking, a meditation; it’s a form of relaxation intended to rest the body post-yoga, not calm the mind (though this might well be a byproduct). It is more about being in a state of surrender than a state of awareness. For many people, shavasana is their first introduction to simply being with the mind and body, and it’s perfectly fine to meditate in this way. The object of adopting this specific pose — often called “corpse pose” — is to relax. It is also useful for anyone feeling particularly tired and in need of rejuvenation. Lie on your back, eyes closed, with heels spread and arms flat on the floor for several minutes, and allow your whole body to feel soft and heavy, all the time inhaling and exhaling deeply.
Transcendental meditation, also known as "TM," offers a mantra-based approach to meditation where one is given a mantra, a Sanskrit word of significance, in person as part of a small and intimate ceremony. Having been given that mantra, TM encourages practitioners to meditate for 20 minutes twice a day — in the morning and in the evening. The object of focus during the meditation is the mantra itself repeated over and over.
MBSR is a formalized program of mindfulness meditation that is designed specifically for stress reduction. It lasts eight weeks, with weekly meetings and one six-hour silent retreat. Some of the scientific studies we’ll mention below involved participants in MBSR programs, many of whom showed significant reductions in stress-related problems.
MBCT courses can be very helpful for people to learn meditation, though they do require a little more commitment, often asking participants to meditate every day for 40 minutes or so. Designed to help people who experience depression or chronic unhappiness, MBCR combines the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditative practices and seeks to cultivate mindfulness. The idea is that participants become so familiarized with the patterns of their thinking that they are better equipped to develop a new relationship with their moods.
With technology like functional MRIs, we can actually observe meditation physically changing the brain. For example, brain scans of participants who meditated (using a variety of meditation practices and with ranges of years of experience) showed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus (the area of the brain that is important for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection) and decreased density in the amygdala (which processes fear, anxiety, and stress).
Scientists also now know more about how the brain processes information after practicing meditation. Generally, the brain interprets the world through the medial prefrontal cortex, or “me center.” This part of the brain plays a big role in regulating feelings of anxiety and safety. Several changes happen in a brain that practices mindfulness meditation, one of which is decreased neural connections to the “me center.” Because your brain is less focused on yourself, negative sensations can better mitigate fears or anxieties.
Basically, mindfulness meditation can build new positive pathways and decrease negative pathways in the brain associated with different functions. This means that meditation can result in rewiring the brain — also known as neuroplasticity — for the better.
Reducing stress is a common motivation for people considering meditation. Traffic, politics, your to-do list — your blood pressure might already be rising. That’s why meditation is a perfect antidote to the stress of modern life.
Stress is more than merely unpleasant. Chronic stress can be a key factor in myriad mental and physical health issues, so it’s important to deal with it in a healthy way.
People who experience stress can discover significant benefits from meditation. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted a rigorous study on the effects of meditation on mental and physical health. They reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies and chose the 47 highest-quality ones to analyze. Those studies found evidence that general mindfulness meditation programs have helped ease psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain related to stress.
Another study found significant hormonal and immunological evidence that mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques (MBSR) can enhance resilience to stress in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder. And still another showed that people who meditate have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that is associated with physical and emotional stress.
Meditation for stress
A 2014 by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, showed that a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder (symptoms that often include racing thoughts, poor sleep, and irritability).
Try a meditation for anxiety
According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people worldwide experience depression, which often manifests as other ailments, including trouble with sleep or focus. The symptoms of depression are complex and unique to the individual, and third-party studies of people diagnosed with depression have shown significant improvements after they used mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programs (although meditation is not a substitute for medical care).
One analysis of multiple studies looked at the effectiveness of general internet-based mindfulness programs and found they significantly lowered stress, anxiety, and depression. (Guided mindfulness recordings showed more benefits than unguided.)
Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, explained that because meditation evokes a relaxation response in your body, honing that ability during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at bedtime: “the idea is to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation.”
One of the most common underlying causes of insomnia is stress overload. While we may feel tired when we go to bed, a busy mind tends to keep us suspended in a state of hyper-arousal, meaning we’re unable to come down from being on high alert. Studies have shown that meditation-based mindfulness helps regulate this kind of rumination and stress, and with a calmer mind, people report improved quality of sleep.
Try a meditation for sleep
Since anger and frustration can cause physiological responses) to stress, a meditation practice can help calm feelings of aggression, irritability, and temper. Meditation helps you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to intervene when negative experiences do arise, dial down the intensity of your emotions, and act with more intention. Emotions like anger can increase blood pressure, breathing, and heart rates. But when your mind experiences calm as a result of meditation, your body is more inclined to follow.
The changes to the brain’s “me center” that can occur through meditation can also increase empathy. A regular meditation practice can help) us use the part of the brain that allows us to see things from another person’s perspective and lowers distrust of people we may perceive as dissimilar from us.
Even if we can’t reduce negative experiences, regular meditation practice can help diminish the patterns of thinking that we allow to have power over us. Some studies show that people who meditate may be less reactive to thoughts or emotions that are viewed negatively. We might well have a lifetime’s association of what we consider to be a “good” or “bad” thought or feeling, but those who practice meditation seem better able to stand back with an awareness that appreciates that a thought is just a thought without giving it any meaning. It’s this lack of reactivity that can lead to a greater sense of well-being and patience.
Meditation can even reduce the gap between self-professed self-esteem and implicit (or personal) self-esteem, suggesting that meditators are more in touch with their sense of self-worth.
If you struggle with distraction or motivation, meditation might help keep you on track. It has shown a lot of promise in improving mental skills like concentration and memory. For example, meditation is linked to a decrease in the mind wandering, leading to better focus.
A study involving soldiers showed improved “working memory,” which you use to store and recall information in the short term — like when you’re focused on a complex task at work. Another study conducted at a meditation retreat revealed significant increases in attention and competency on a mundane computer task.
Try a meditation for focus
Meditation might even help us think differently. People exposed to mindfulness training showed improvement in getting out of mental ruts; they switched strategies more rapidly to find a solution to a problem. These benefits of outside-the-box thinking correlate with the benefits of mindfulness for depression and suicidal thinking, which also often include repetitive harmful thought patterns.
Exercise is a form of stress on the body and mind. We’ve all fought to overcome flagging willpower during a workout — that’s our brains telling us to stop stressing our bodies. Surprise! Meditation can help with that, too. For example, football players who frequently practiced meditation during preseason training showed considerably higher mental resilience, better attention, and improved mood over other players.
Meditation has been shown to provide Marines preparing for deployment with a kind of “mental armor.” Despite intense stresses, meditation exercises improved their mood, their ability to control emotion, and their focus on complex tasks.
General mindfulness research has shown that mindfulness can reduce stress and increase attention and focus, and these are some of the psychological skills required to achieve enhanced athletic performance. Additionally, research on mindfulness and optimal performance, “flow state” for athletes, shows a powerful alignment. Mindfulness practice, through awareness and acceptance, has been found to be significantly correlated with increased flow in athletes.
A study involving sport shooters showed mindfulness-based interventions decreased pre-competition stress measured by reduced cortisol, and another study involving young golfers showed that mindfulness and acceptance was associated with performance improvement in competition.
The benefits of meditation for sport are no secret to some of the best athletes in the world: Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Carli Lloyd, Trey Burke, Sam Darnold, LeBron James, Derrick Morgan, and many others reportedly have used meditation to boost focus and performance.
Another observable physiological change during meditation is lowered activity in the pain-receptor part of the brain, which temporarily raises pain tolerance. Even better, if meditation is practiced long-term, this change can take root in the brain and increase pain tolerance overall. Pain is just information that your body sends to your brain, after all, and meditation can help change how that information is interpreted.
Because meditation teaches present-focused awareness, which boosts patience, and stimulates the part of the brain associated with empathy, meditators have reported improvements in their relationships that have helped them become more caring friends and partners.
One study showed that mindfulness meditation can even help women get more satisfaction out of sex. Because it’s so easy (and common) during sex to get distracted or lost in your own head, practicing the skill of living in the current moment and listening to your body’s responses (or interoceptive awareness) might help boost sexual satisfaction.
Meditation is a wonderful skill to learn, with a life-changing potential. How you choose to use that skill is entirely up to you. But, with hundreds of themed meditations on everything from stress to compassion, from self-esteem to relationships, from sleep to productivity, Headspace is a comprehensive, personal meditation guide that takes you through all the necessary meditation steps, right on your phone. Because the exercises are underpinned by authentic teachings rooted in the Tibetan approach — brought direct to the app from the monasteries by co-founder Andy Puddicombe — it’s like having 24/7 access to a meditation expert ... in your pocket.
If you’re looking for a meditation beginner's guide, Headspace offers its most straightforward exercises initially for free. You can learn to meditate with our aptly named Basics pack, a 10-day beginner's course involving easy-to-follow meditation techniques that take you through the essentials of meditation and mindfulness. It provides a solid and thorough foundation to build your practice.
The Headspace science team is committed to conducting research on our product to ensure it delivers benefits to our users. While our research is in progress, it's important to note that Headspace is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition.