In times of increased risk for stress and social isolation, it is important to check in with yourself, giving space to mentally decompress from stressful thoughts and emotions. Meditation and mindfulness are a pair of connected practices that allow you to pay attention to how your body and mind are feeling. They can be practiced for free, at any age, and from wherever you call home.
This factsheet offers multiple exercises for practicing mindfulness and meditation – note that these guidelines are flexible. You can choose and adapt whatever method feels right for you in your current situation and environment.
Meditation and Mindfulness Benefits
Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness have a wide range of health benefits, including the following:
- Meditation has been shown to help slow mental decline in older adults. Research indicates that functions like attention span, self-awareness, and memory remain stronger in older adults who practice regular meditation (Malinowski 2013).
- Multiple reports have shown that mindfulness and meditation reduce anxiety (Smart 2017).
- Research has linked mindfulness practice to lower glucose levels in older adults (Loucks et al 2016).
- Mindfulness can increase your emotional flexibility – being able to stay in control of your emotions, in response to changes in mood or the surrounding environment (Smart 2017).
- “Brain networks” strengthen through meditation. There are certain networks in your brain that are activated when you do a certain task, like focusing your attention. By repeatedly activating these networks through focused meditation, they stay engaged, and help with paying attention to other tasks on a more regular basis (Luders et al 2016).
- For older adults who experience high levels of stress and/or decreased mental function, mindfulness has been shown to reduce levels of excessive worry and depression (Wetherell et al 2017).
What is Meditation? (Bushak 2016)
In its broadest definition, meditation is a practice of focusing your mind. It is often practiced regularly ̶ a few times a week, or even daily. Meditation can be practiced in a number of ways, depending on what you are looking to gain from it. It is extremely versatile. For example, when watching television, you could mute the sound during commercial breaks and meditate for those couple minutes instead of watching the advertisements.
It’s important to remember that meditation is a personal and flexible experience, with no one right way to do it. The following are some general guidelines if you are looking to start meditation. If you find that a variation of any of these steps feels more comfortable, feel free to adapt accordingly (Winston et al 2018).
- Set a time limit. Start small ̶ anywhere between two to ten minutes a few times a week can suffice.
- Select a space. When you are ready to begin, find a comfortable, quiet space where you won’t be bothered.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Many people sit in a chair with their feet flat on the ground, and others prop themselves up with pillows in bed or sit on a cushion on the ground. It is recommended that whatever position you choose, you are sitting upright. This helps keep your body and mind alert.
- Focus on your breath. Close your eyes or lower your gaze and focus your thoughts on your breathing. Pay attention to how it feels as your breath goes out and in.
- Be gentle with wandering thoughts. It is likely that your thoughts will begin to wander during this time. This is common! When you notice your thoughts drifting, gently bring yourself back to focusing on your breath.
- Practice! Remember that staying focused during meditation is something that takes time to master. You may find yourself distracted during the first couple sessions, but over time, you can cultivate this skill through regular practice.
As mentioned earlier, there are multiple ways to meditate. The above guidelines are a common practice to start with. If you would like to try other choices, here are a few other popular meditation exercises:
- Body scan: This is, quite literally, a mental scan of your body (some imagine it as a slow-moving laser scan). While taking slow, even breaths, focus your thoughts on how each part of your body feels, starting with your feet. Once you have begun “listening” to how your feet feel, you can gradually bring your focus up to how your calves feel too, then your thighs, and so on ̶ until you have worked your way up to the very top of your head. Pay attention to any discomfort or tension you may feel, continuing to breathe through whatever you notice.
- Walking meditation: This is a more mobile alternative to sitting still, where you meditate as you walk. Walk a little slower than usual and coordinate your breathing with your steps. Find a rhythm of breathing in and out with the steps you take. For example, you can try breathing in while taking two or three steps, then breathing out while taking three or four steps. You can experiment to see which ratio works best for you. Although this practice does require you to pay attention to where you are going, the focus of your mind should still be centered around your breathing and your steps.
- Guided meditation: In guided meditation, another person guides you through what you will focus on during your meditation session. This often comes in the form of recorded audio or video. Here are a few options for exploring guided meditation:
- YouTube: Searching for Guided Meditation for Beginners on YouTube will give you a range of options to choose from, with varying lengths of time. You can explore the options to find what suits you. Sometimes people are drawn to visuals, topics, or something as simple as how a person’s voice sounds.
- Meditation Apps: You can download the Insight Timer app on your phone, which offers a selection of free guided meditation recordings. It also contains features where you can keep track of your meditation progress over time.
- Podcasts: Guided meditation podcasts release new episodes of meditation recordings.
- Hay House Meditation is one such podcast, with featured authors leading each session. The Meditation Podcast is another option, specifically geared for those dealing with a health or emotional challenge.
- Podcasts can be accessed through apps on your phone, or you can listen to them on your computer.
What is Mindfulness? (Jaret 2020)
Mindfulness is focusing on being in the present moment. This is an ability that we all naturally possess, but that takes practice to tap into on a more regular basis. For example, when drinking a cup of tea, you can practice mindfulness by focusing completely on the tea and allowing your thoughts and emotions to take in its scent, warmth, and taste.
You might notice this sounds similar to meditation. The two practices indeed overlap, with mindfulness being something you do during meditation. When you focus on your breath during meditation, you are being mindful of it. However, you do not need to set aside a specific time to practice mindfulness – it is a state of mind you can tap into at any point in the day.
How to Practice Mindfulness (Jaret 2020)
- Meditation is a good way to practice mindfulness. Once you learn how to tap into a mindful state through meditation, reminding yourself to be in the present moment throughout the rest of your day becomes easier. Compare it to physical exercise: when you exercise your body regularly, performing other physical tasks throughout the day can become easier. Meditation is exercise for a mindful lifestyle.
- To start incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine, try picking one or two activities where you will focus completely. You don’t have to change up your schedule for this! Select things you already do during the day, such as eating meals. When you sit down to eat your meals, focus your thoughts on what you are eating, how it tastes, and how your body and mind are feeling as you eat. If your thoughts wander, gently bring yourself back to the present moment.
- Reading is another option where you can practice mindfulness. Take your time and savor phrases or passages that you enjoy. If you pause on a passage, pay attention to not only the words you are absorbing, but also what your surroundings are and how your emotions might be affected in the present moment (Bush 2018).
Mindfulness and meditation have become popular activities for people to engage in to help maintain their overall health. The biggest benefit is that the resources are out there, and most are completely free! Consider adding this to your daily routine as an additional way to keep healthy.
Bush, M. G. (2018, November 22). Three Simple Mindfulness Practices You Can Use Every Day. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/three-simple-mindfulness-practices-you-can-use-every-day/
Bushak, L. (2016, March 10). What’s The Difference Between Mindfulness And Meditation? Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/mindfulness-meditation-differences-377346
Jaret, P., Pal, P., Kuyken, W., Hunter, J., Sofer, O. J., PhD, B. G., & Newman, K. M. (2020, July 8). What is Mindfulness? Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/
Loucks, E. B., Gilman, S. E., Britton, W. B., Gutman, R., Eaton, C. B., & Buka, S. L. (2016, March 01). Associations of Mindfulness with Glucose Regulation and Diabetes. Retrieved from https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/png/ajhb/2016/00000040/00000002/art00011;jsessionid=1piwcqcymvnmv.alexandra
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Gaser, C. (2016). Estimating brain age using high-resolution pattern recognition: Younger brains in long-term meditation practitioners. NeuroImage, 134, 508-513. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.04.007
Malinowski, P. (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7. doi:10.3389/fnins.2013.00008
Smart, C. M., & Segalowitz, S. J. (2017). Respond, don’t react: The influence of mindfulness training on performance monitoring in older adults. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 17(6), 1151-1163. doi:10.3758/s13415-017-0539-3
Wetherell, J. L., Hershey, T., Hickman, S., Tate, S. R., Dixon, D., Bower, E. S., & Lenze, E. J. (2017). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults With Stress Disorders and Neurocognitive Difficulties. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78(7). doi:10.4088/jcp.16m10947
Winston, D. J., Collazo, E. G., Boyce, B. M., Kuyken, W. U., Hunter, J. U., Sofer, O. U., . . . Newman, K. U. (2018, December 12). How to Practice Mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/how-to-practice-mindfulness/