As we discussed in our first Mind Your Mindfulness article, mindfulness and meditation offer many benefits for our bodies and minds. They help us regulate our emotions, remain calmer in moments of crisis, improve our concentration and working memory functions, help us more effectively control negative thoughts, reduce anxiety and panic, as well as depression and posttraumatic symptoms. Here, we will talk about some of the main types of meditation exercises and their benefits.
Types of Mindfulness and Meditation Exercises You Are Likely to Come Across
There are several different types of mindfulness and meditation exercises, and while they all have many common characteristics (like directing attention internally with the purpose of gaining more self-awareness), they also offer slightly different approaches to mindfulness. While some focus more on the body as a vehicle for achieving mindfulness and relaxation (for example, Progressive Muscle relaxation or PMR), others focus on gaining more control over our thought process (for instance, Cognitive Defusion). Here, we offer a short and by all means not exhaustive list of the types of mindfulness exercises you may enjoy and benefit from. We have chosen the most commonly used categories, and also the ones you can practice alone and almost anywhere you are. As such, we hope to make the practice of mindfulness more easily accessible to you.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation—PMR is a technique of tensing and relaxing various muscle groups in the body. It is widely used to manage anxiety and panic, as well as reduce insomnia. The practice of PMR is based on the premise that we can achieve mental calmness through relaxing our body. This proposition is not without merit. The autonomic nervous system—the part of our nervous system responsible for arousal and relaxation—has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system makes sure that if we see a bear, we start running immediately. It is also responsible when we feel jittery, restless, cannot sleep, or experience anxiety and other kinds of emotional arousal. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is tasked with calming us down. When it is activated, it suppresses or inhibits the sympathetic nervous system, allowing us, for instance, to slow our breathing, take a restful position, and eventually doze off at night. By alternating tensing and relaxing different muscle groups, PMR helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and thus experience a sense of calm.
- Autogenic Relaxation/Training—this is a method of mindful meditation, which invites you to imagine that various parts of your body, in succession, are feeling heavy, warm, and relaxed. Autogenic Training was developed in the 1930’s by Johannes Heinrich Schultz. He realized that when people enter a state of hypnosis, they report feeling sensations of warmth and heaviness. AT, in turn, aims to mimic these sensations, and also fosters a deeper connection between mind and body. A meta-analysis[i] (a research study which involves reviewing all of the existing studies on a subject matter) showed that the psychophysiological response elicited through AT can have an impact on both our psychological (mood and cognitive performance; anxiety and depression) and our physical (high blood pressure, headaches/migraines, sleep) health.
- Cognitive Defusion—If you ever find yourself ruminating over issues, replaying situations in your head over and over again, lying awake at night, unable to reign in your restless mind, Cognitive Defusion is the right meditation exercise for you. It is an exercise that is widely used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and involves several ways of imagining letting go of disturbing thoughts, words, and pictures that circle through our minds on repeat. Cognitive Defusion helps us become more aware of our thoughts and thought patterns, focusing on the process of forming them, then helping us detach from them, rather than taking them as absolute truths which control our lives.
- Guided Meditation and Visualization—these meditation exercises are exactly what they sound. You practice following the voice of the teacher, who may ask you to visualize anything from colors to emotions, to landscapes, to yourself in your future. Visualization and guided meditation are especially useful for those of us who are new to meditation. Often times, people who are just beginning to meditate will say that when they try to let their mind just float, they feel inundated by their anxious and distressing thoughts, thus making it even harder for them to relax. In guided meditation and visualization, your mind will be guided into mindfulness, thus helping you direct your attention away from distressing thoughts and images.
- Loving Kindness Meditation—LKM is similar to mantra meditation in that the practitioner is guided into silently repeating a number of statements aimed at developing compassion and softening the heart in order to deepen feelings of kindness and unconditional acceptance. Loving Kindness Meditation is especially helpful when we need to cope with our harsh inner critic and build up more self-compassion, as well as move past grudges and feeling stuck on thoughts of how others may have wronged us.
- Body Scan & Body/Self Awareness—body scan is a meditation exercise which involves sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, and direct our attention to various parts of our body, noticing our experiences. They may be sensations, such as tingling, twitching, or pain, or simply the ways I which our body responds to stress, such as tightness. Body scan exercises can be, at times, difficult for beginners. The problem is, we often hold all our stress in our bodies and are therefore reluctant to breathe in silence and be faced with that stress, thankyouverymuch. However, over time, the benefit from becoming more mindful of how your body is feeling can have significant impact on both your mental wellbeing, and on your ability to regulate emotions and tolerate stress.
- Mantra meditation—there are different types of mantra meditation, but they have one thing in common: using a word or phrase as a vehicle for the brain to achieve a meditative state. In other words, they involve repeating that word of phrase over and over again, in order to quiet down other mental processes and thoughts. In this way, mantra meditating helps the brain rest from the constant onslaught of our anxious or negative thoughts. It also relies on the idea that sound (even if repeated internally) and patterns have a healing effect on the body.
[i] Stetter, F. & Kupper, S. (2012). Autogenic training: A meta-analysis of clinical outcome studies. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 27(1), 45-98.