Stories That Teach Life Lessons

Which Yoga Is Right for Me?


What gives Buddha that happy look? The reason is that now more people than ever practice meditation.

The “enlightened” among us, whoever they may be, must surely be encouraged that meditative practices are being taken up in boardrooms of corporate America, taught at YMCAs, introduced to schoolchildren around the world, and even advocated within the military. Of course, the true “Buddha mind” finds reason to smile from within and is said to be unfazed by such spacetime frivolities as cultural trends.

Words like “mindfulness,” “Zen,” “Transcendental Mediation,” and “countless others” are now commonplace. There are hundreds of scientific studies that attest to the benefits of meditation for everything from boosting immunity to speeding up personal development and even turning back the hands of time.

But how does one pick an appropriate and efficient meditation strategy for themselves or their loved ones from the plethora of options available? A long-time meditator and meditation instructor of 35 years shares some time-saving advice to help you determine which type of meditation might be best for you.

There is a wide variety of ways to meditate.

Realizing that not all methods of meditating are the same is the first step. Different types of meditation use the intellect in unique ways. Vipassana, also known as mindfulness meditation, is a form of Buddhist contemplation that focuses on nonjudgmental observation and, in its more philosophical iteration, on the musings of impermanence, as well as the mind-body link. Concentration is a common component of Zen Buddhist rituals, whether it’s on the breath or on attempting to solve a Zen koan. By focusing one’s awareness without exertion, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation are able to ‘transcend’ into higher mental states and gain new insights. A phrase of praise is used in Christian centering prayer to open one up to God. And these are just a few examples of what is meant when the term “meditation” is used to describe a wide range of different techniques.

The goals, methods, and outcomes of various approaches vary greatly from one another. Asking yourself what you hope to gain from meditation and how much time you are prepared to devote will help you narrow down the many possible approaches to finding the one that is right for you. While some meditation practices are designed to give you a quick burst of inspiration or help you relax when you’re feeling stressed, others stress the importance of practicing daily or twice a day over time to achieve maximum benefit and advance to higher stages of personal development.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you want your meditation to be tied to a specific belief system. Whether one takes a Buddhist or Taoist approach, which views the cosmos and the human mind as inseparable elements of a single order, or one takes a more atheistic or nihilistic stance, which seeks to get beyond all dogma and see the world as it truly is, one is still operating from a conceptual world view. Mindfulness meditation, which is gaining popularity in the West, and the Transcendental Meditation method are two examples of secular practices that don’t require an adherent to adopt a specific worldview or dogma.

Do you want to use meditation to gain new perspectives and ideas? These forms of meditation are examples of meditative practices. They guarantee a more in-depth comprehension of the subject under consideration and aid the mind in exploring different perspectives. These exercises can be relaxing and energizing if they don’t require any mental effort or concentration. Most of the time, people follow along with a CD, a teacher, or instructions found in a book when engaging in these activities.

Methods supported by science:

Is there a specific health advantage, like reduced anxiety or blood pressure, that you’re hoping to achieve? Despite widespread claims of positive health effects, much of the research cited in support of these claims has been done on completely different types of meditation than the one being promoted. However, studies have shown that not all forms of meditation produce the same results.[1] If you’re looking for a particular health benefit from meditation, it’s important to make sure that the study supporting that benefit was conducted on the form of meditation you’re considering. When investigating studies, make sure they were conducted by qualified researchers and published in a reputable academic or scientific publication. If multiple studies on the same practice corroborate one another in finding benefits like increased relaxation or decreased worry, the scientific case becomes stronger.

Once again, scientific research has shown that not all forms of meditation are created equal when it comes to alleviating tension and nervousness. One meta-analysis showed that most meditation techniques are no more successful than a placebo at reducing anxiety, and another found that practices that employ concentration actually increase anxiety.[2]

Want to reduce your blood pressure? Try yoga. Independent clinical trials and meta-analyses have shown that the Transcendental Meditation technique significantly reduces high blood pressure in hypertensive patients.[3] A search at PubMed or Google Scholar can help you find out if a particular type of meditation has scientific evidence supporting a particular benefit. More than a thousand scholarly articles have been published on different types of meditation, with Transcendental Meditation and awareness meditation receiving the most attention.

Just how long are we talking?

How long it takes to get good at a certain type of meditation is another thing to think about. Some forms of meditation take years to learn and years more to even get a glimpse of their stated purpose or objective, while others can be learned in a matter of months or even minutes. For instant comfort, try listening to a relaxation CD; it may not be nirvana, but sometimes that’s all that’s guaranteed. It makes sense to opt for a method that requires less or no effort if you lack the discipline to stick with a practice that takes many years to achieve success.

Is it necessary to have good concentration skills for the type of meditation you’re thinking about? Concentration mediation can be difficult if you have trouble maintaining focus or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Keep in mind that research suggests that, despite the fact that concentration techniques can help some people concentrate better, they can have the opposite effect on others.[4]

How meditating changes your psyche.

Want to improve your mental performance? Try meditating. You can buy a variety of “scientific tools” for your brain improvement in the form of meditation CDs on the Internet. Don’t be surprised if you can’t locate any peer-reviewed scientific research studies that back up the marketing claims (“Meditate deep as a Zen monk-instantly!”). It’s possible that listening to the CDs will help your brain, but until they’re proven effective, I’m hesitant to recommend them, particularly since they pass themselves off as scientific when they aren’t.

EEG alpha coherence in the prefrontal cortex has been reported by neuroscientists to be present during deep meditative states like those attained by Zen monks and practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation method (which shows EEG coherence throughout the entire brain). Neuroscientists believe this is beneficial because the prefrontal cortex (PFC) “oversees” the rest of the brain and its smoother operation is predicted to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities as a whole. Therefore, some forms of meditation may be beneficial to the brain, as suggested by findings in neurobiology. These claims of enhanced cognitive performance by meditation Discs on the market would have more weight if prefrontal EEG alpha coherence could be demonstrated. Claims of brain enhancement may soon be exposed as true or untrue, based on what happens in the brain during meditation, thanks to recent advances in neuroscience and an influx of new scientific data on brain patterns during meditation.

Calming Effects of Meditation:

The relaxation reaction can be induced in many different ways, including simply sitting with the eyes closed and listening to soothing music. Since the mind and body are so closely linked, the more you settle the mind in meditation, the more deeply your body will relax. When compared to the effects of concentration practices, which are another main category of meditation techniques, the effects of contemplation practices are unique. Because the mind is kept active in contemplation and concentration practices, the mind is not able to settle inward and find the deepest peace and rejuvenation that it needs. The Relaxation Response, Christian Centering Prayer, and relaxation CDs are just a few examples of practices that, based on the individual, can involve a blend of contemplation and concentration. Be wary; research suggests these types of contemplation and focus practices have no effect on blood pressure or anxiety. If mild relaxation and a little emotional upliftment are your goals, easy-listening meditation CDs that don’t require much active engagement of the mind may be your best option, particularly if they don’t use guided voice instructions that keep the mind engaged in the world of meaning and contemplation.

When it comes to physiological relaxation, most forms of meditation—including the Relaxation Response technique—do not go beyond what can be achieved with basic eyes-closed rest, which is why I refer to them as “mild”.[6]

If you want to truly unwind, you need a meditation practice that can transport you beyond your ordinary awareness.

Religious or nonreligious:

It’s possible that some forms of meditation could clash with your morals. Despite its presence in so many faiths, meditation has more commonly been linked with Eastern practices. Some of these methods demand an interest in or knowledge of Eastern philosophy, while others (like counting your breath) are purely mechanical and can be practiced by anyone. Certainly, the East has much to offer the West, and vice versa, and most people discover that they can integrate a meditation practice based on an ancient Eastern tradition without compromising their own personal beliefs.

This is a sitting position in which I could never remain seated.
Is there a specific way of sitting in which you must engage in a given form of meditation? Just because you see yogis in leotards sitting in the lotus pose doesn’t mean you have to give up on meditation. There are meditation techniques that don’t require you to sit in a specific posture, so even if you can’t sit in a pretzel or for long periods of time without back support, you can still benefit from them. Walking is an integral part of some Zen and meditative practices.

Choosing a Professor:

Do you require the services of a mentor or meditation teacher? That could be a function of how deep or how high you want to go. Instructional methods picked up from a book or Recording won’t get you very far when trying to reach the deeper levels of meditation. Reading and teaching yourself can taint your perspective and make it harder to move past the automatic, surface levels of your thinking. The famous short book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki beautifully emphasizes the importance of maintaining a state of naivety during meditation. Playing both the part of the knowledgeable instructor and the conscientious pupil can make it difficult to maintain an air of innocence.

After that, doubts about whether or not you’re succeeding naturally emerge. There’s no way to learn without the direction of a seasoned instructor. Meditation was taught by sages in the major enlightenment traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and the Vedic tradition, but only to those who had undergone rigorous austerities and demonstrated a capacity for learning. The “initiation” ceremony was held in the highest regard, and the pupil demonstrated a profound respect for the instructor. For the sake of learning from a master instructor of meditation and, by extension, gaining liberation or enlightenment, a complete awakening to the true essence of life, kings have been known to donate half or more of their kingdoms to charity. The ancients had high respect for meditation. Many people today claim to be meditation instructors, but if you’re serious about developing your meditative abilities and seeking enlightenment, they might not have the experience you need. Verify the instructor’s instruction and experience. Does the teacher reflect a prestigious school of thought on meditation? Does the instructor insist on using only tried and true methods? Is the instructor a straight descendant of an earlier enlightened master who taught them the proper techniques?

What should I expect to pay?

Since meditation is considered a spiritual exercise by many, it is often offered at no cost. A meditative practice can be learned in many yoga sessions, or from a friend, a CD, or a book. However, the cost of many meditation classes can be prohibitive. There are overhead and instructional costs associated with the more comprehensive meditation courses offered by some instructors who charge for their services. You get what you pay for; remember that old saying. It’s possible that you’ll have to shell out some cash for the luxury of attending routinely scheduled group meetings and receiving ongoing follow-ups at a meditation center. Paying for a service that improves one’s health and happiness is not in any way materialistic or un-spiritual. It is unusual for people in the West, a region where consumerism reigns supreme, to consider spending money on intangible goods. If you’re having trouble getting started with meditation because of financial concerns, consider the long-term benefits of reduced healthcare costs, enhanced productivity, and enhanced well-being. Find out how the money is spent to ensure the group is legitimate and working toward a cause you believe in, such as international peace.

Careful, and Leap into the Interior!

In conclusion, think about what you want out of meditation and how strongly you want to do it. Think soberly about what you can accomplish and what is expected of you in this profession. Research the program thoroughly; most meditation courses will have a website. Also, if you know somebody who is meditating and you’re curious about it, you can always ask them for a first-hand account. Examine the assertions and the evidence supporting them (if any). Verify the instructor’s and the school’s background before enrolling. Then you should join the millions of people who are looking inward to affect positive change.

1. D.W. Orme-Johnson & K. Walton. American Journal of Health Promotion, May/June 1998, [5]: 297-298, “All Approaches to Prevention Are Not the Same.”
2. Ibid
3. Strategies for reducing stress in people who have hypertension were the subject of a recent systematic review and meta-analysis by Rainforth (M), Schneider (R), Nidich (S), and colleagues. 2007;[9]:520-528 of Current Hypertension Studies
4. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Volume 45, Issue 9 (November 1989), Pages 957–974.
5. Scientific Research on Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Programme: Collected Papers, Volume 1: 208-212, 1977; Volume 4: 2245-2266, 1989; International Journal of Neuroscience 14: 147-151, 1981; Psychosomatic Medicine 46: 267-276, 1984; International Journal of Neuroscience 46: 77-86, 1989.
6. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45, 957–974, 1989; Eppley, Abrams, & Shear.

For over three decades, Tom McKinley Ball has been sharing the benefits of Transcendental Meditation with others. From the Maharishi University of Management, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Western Philosophy; from Columbia University he received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing; and from Maharishi European Research University he received a Doctor of Philosophy in Peace Studies. He’s an author with publications in places like The Paris Review and WHR. Tom is presently a writer for the David Lynch Foundation after a successful career as a lecturer and teacher in the United States and abroad. He runs the Transcendental Meditation Institute in Asheville, North Carolina.

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