Since I started a daily meditation practice in 2014, I’ve tried most styles and techniques (including all the listed below), and I’m currently studying at the University of Oxford to become a mindfulness meditation teacher. So here’s the overview I wish I had when I first started out.
First…Meditation is quite simply focused attention (often with an implicit intention to gain insight, relax, or both). This broad definition means you can call many things meditation.
One key aspect that differentiates meditations is the object of your attention, such as focusing on a mantra, or your breath, or a sound, etc. Further down is a list of the nine most common meditation types.
I’ve also listed the main meditation teachings/disciplines, from which most meditation types originate. You don’t have to follow a particular teaching to practice meditation, I would consider the teachings opportunities to deepen your knowledge and engage with a bigger community of practitioners.
* If you are new to meditation I would suggest trying the meditations we have linked to below under types. These are all guided meditations, making them easy to do at any time.
* You don’t need to stick to one type of meditation, ideally you could combine them to cultivate different benefits. Although most people will find some favorites that they come back to.
TYPES OF MEDITATION:
Body Scan Meditation
Focusing your attention on different parts of the body, moving from head to toe. Areas of the body tense up in response to stress, thoughts, and emotions. Bringing a particular kind of friendly awareness throughout your body will start to release some of the built-up stress and tension. For this reason, and that it’s well suited to do lying down, I often do a Body Scan in the evening and I find it transforms my quality of sleep.
Befriending Meditation / Loving Kindness Meditation
The mind’s primary goal is to keep us alive, making it naturally inclined toward threat, judgment, and negativity. The aim of a Befriending Meditation is to counteract this human tendency by intentionally inclining the mind toward attitudes of friendliness, care, and compassion. The technique has a strong evidence base and often involves repeating well-wishing phrases like “May you be safe & well” in combination with bringing a person to mind.
The 3-Step Breathing Space (mini-meditation)
This 3-minute meditation is part of mindfulness training and is designed as a quick pause & reset throughout the day. Particularly, when you feel triggered or stressed it can offer a sense of steadiness and perspective – and more skillful response to a situation (as opposed to being consumed by emotion or mood and reacting habitually).
Breath & Body Focus Meditation
Turning your attention inward, and training your attention to rest on your breath and body is an opportunity to move your awareness beyond the thinking mind and cultivate an ability to observe your inner workings. This observing awareness, in turn, will support useful insights about the nature of your mind, body, and emotional states as well as an ability to notice and disengage from habitual thought patterns or emotions that aren’t helpful. The benefits are many. Try for yourself, just remember that it’s a bit like a muscle and will take a bit of training to build up more and more benefits.
Working with Difficulty Meditation
This meditation starts by stabilizing your attention, providing a solid foundation from which you can then investigate difficulties like intense emotions, worrisome thoughts, or pain in the body. Our natural tendency is to try to get rid of any discomfort by avoiding, suppressing, or reacting strongly to these thoughts or feelings. This meditation invites us to do the opposite and discover a great paradox; becoming still and approaching the discomfort can relieve it, even dissolve it.
This meditation can involve any form of movement or activity – from doing the dishes to walking – the point is to become fully present by bringing your attention to the detailed physical sensations of each movement. It’s a great way to incorporate meditation into an everyday activity.
When I’m out walking, I often try to take at least 5-10 minutes to do walking meditation, which creates a little break from the mental chatter, makes me feel more at ease, and most of all takes me out of my head so I can notice and appreciate what’s around me. Sounds basic, but it’s incredibly rewarding – and surprisingly challenging to stay present.
Mantra and chanting meditation uses sounds, words or phrases to focus the mind, taking you out of thinking-doing-mode into being-mode. In my experience, these forms of meditation can get you to a very deep, trans-like state easier than any other meditation form. In some mantras the vibrations of the word are also said to have significance and support a deeper state of consciousness.
Whilst mantra meditation is just repeating the word mentally or quietly over and over again (like Transcendental Meditation), chanting is a more rhythmic and singing format, sometimes accompanied by music (like Kirtan from Yoga).
Sound-based Meditation a.k.a. Sound Healing / Sound Bath
Instruments like gongs, quartz crystal bowls, and Tibetan singing bowls are tuned to strategic frequencies, producing vibrations that affect the brain and body in a way that reduces feelings of stress, tension, depression and create states of ease and wellbeing. It’s not as far grasping as it sounds if we consider the scientific fact that everything in the universe vibrates at a certain frequency and one vibration affects another. Regardless of what you make of the science behind this meditation, I recommend giving it a try to see if it’s a format that suits you.
Our minds aren’t passively perceiving reality as it is; our minds and thoughts actively shape reality. Consider the placebo effect, where pure belief has real effects on health and curing disease. Visualization-based Meditation leverages the power of the mind to create desired outcomes through visual imagination, for example creating a state of relaxation by picturing yourself in the cosiest place you know. This meditation is similar to other visualizations techniques like those famously employed in sports, however, always infused with a sense of equanimity, care, and curiosity, without grasping, striving or forcing.
MEDITATION TEACHINGS & DISCIPLINES OVERVIEW:
Mindfulness Based Meditation
Level: Beginner (easy for anyone to do without a teacher or prior knowledge)
Format: Guided audio instructions (mostly)
Technique explained: Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in each moment, intentionally bringing our awareness to different aspects of our experience in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. Mindfulness training leverages many different types of meditations, from body scan meditation to befriending meditation. The practice of mindfulness traces back to ancient eastern spiritual teachings, but has been reintroduced in a secularised format and combined with modern psychological science. I personally prefer this meditation technique due to the versatility in meditation type and its practical application in modern day life.
Recommended dose: 40 min per day (can vary), but as little as 10min 4 times / week is proven beneficial
Scientific evidence: The most widely scientifically studied meditation form demonstrating many benefits for well-being, as well as tailored programs to treat depression and anxiety.
Cost: Most resources are free and the 8-week courses are around £300-£400 at the well-established institutions.
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
Format: Mantra / No guided instructions (apart from the initial training)
Technique explained: Mantra-based; effortlessly repeating a sound/word mentally to settle the mind, and transcend the busy surface levels to reach deeper, calmer levels of consciousness.
Recommended dose: 2 x 20min per day
Scientific evidence: Strong evidence base with over 400 studies
How to start: Requires one-to-one training by a licensed TM instructor from the Maharishi Foundation (1 hour x 4 days).
Watch the Transcendental Meditation introduction video.
Costs: from £300 (flexible income based fee)
Insight Meditation / Vipassana Meditation
Level: Advanced (in my opinion there are easier techniques to start with)
Format: Not Guided / Partly Guided
Technique explained: Vipassana which is a Buddhist term for ‘insight’ or ‘seeing things as they really are’ is a technique rooted in non-judgmental observation of your inner world, with the aim to gain insights into the true nature of reality and thus reduce the pain and suffering we cause ourselves. The specifics can differ, however, the popular Vipassana meditation taught by S.N Goenka is similar to a body scan meditation where you move you attention around the body and bring awareness to every sensation – intense, subtle, pleasant, unpleasant – whilst also noticing changes and reactions to these sensations.
Recommended Dose: 2 x 60min per day (Vipassana as taught by S.N Goenka)
Scientific Evidence: It has been found that Vipassana helps promote brain plasticity, relieve stress, improve mental wellness and reduce anxiety.
How to Start: The most popular branch of this practice (in the west) requires participating in a 11-day residential course to learn the technique, but there are also other ways to try it out via for example Buddhist institutions or teachers.
You can read more about the 10-day Vipassana retreat here
Costs: Free (often taught in a volunteering capacity)
Zen / Zazen Meditation
Level: Advanced due to emphasis on posture
Format: Not Guided / Practice on your own
Technique explained: Rooted in Buddhism like Vipassana and Mindfulness, Zazen is also a technique based on self-discovery through self-observation. The breath is used as the main conduit for settling the mind, counting in-and-out breaths up to 10 and then starting over. In my experience Zazen is slightly stricter with emphasis on the posture (sitting with a straight spine, hands folded in your lap in a ‘cosmic mudra’, eyes open with gaze down).
Recommended Dose: As a beginner 15 minutes daily is a good start. When I meditated with a Zen Master we did around 45 minutes total Zazen (sitting meditation) and 5 minutes Kinhin (walking meditation) daily.
Scientific Evidence: Zazen has similar benefits like other types of meditation such as stress relief. In addition there has been research suggesting that people who practise regularly increase their ability to stay focused, keep their attention steady and not get as disturbed by distractions.
How to start: You can either seek out a professional Zen master (or attend a retreat) to help you with the basic understanding of the teaching and things like your posture. You can also try various online resources by yourself.
Cost: Around £40 at a Zen/Zazen center to learn the technique, but there are variations in pricing.
Level: Can be practiced at beginners level as well as advanced level
Format: Often guided but can also be self directed
Technique explained: Kundalini Meditation has ancient roots and has been traced back to Hindu religious texts. The teaching works on the belief that it can help people awaken their energy to realize their true spirit and experience enlightened awareness. The teaching uses many different techniques to achieve this such as deep breathing, mantras and mudras to mention a few. The Kundalini Meditation is said to help you move energy through your body and your chakras (energy centers) until you release the energy though your crown chakra, ultimately balancing the body, mind and spirit.
Recommended Dose: Kundalini meditation can be practiced at different lengths but if you are new to it you can start with a three minute session, to then increase gradually.
Scientific Evidence: There are studies suggesting benefits people who practice Kundalini meditation regularly report a range of benefits cuh as reduced anxiety, stress and increased cognitive function.
How to start: As mentioned there are numerous variations of Kundalini meditation so as a beginner it could be wise to find a group session or a teacher to guide you along. There are also many great online resources.