Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Gwyneth on you with a super-virtuous account of how meditation made me a perfect human—you can head to Goop for that. Instead, this is some honest insight into how taking up the practice changed a few aspects of my life—from my sleeping patterns to my motivation levels and even my weight. I won’t be using icky words like journey or BS phrases like finding myself.
It all started about a year ago when a friend took a five-day course in the Oprah-approved practice of transcendental meditation (TM). “You’ve got to try it,” she told me. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Intrigued, I looked into it and discovered TM has the stamp of approval from Jennifer Aniston, Russell Brand, Ellen DeGeneres, Cameron Diaz, Miranda Kerr, and dozens of other successful celebrities.
Lynne Goldberg‘s another fan: The certified meditation coach, yoga instructor, author, and founder of the hugely popular “OMG! I Can Meditate” app—as well as one of the most zen people you’ll ever meet—was introduced to meditation after a series of devastating life blows, including losing her twin baby girls, her marriage, her mother, and her job.
“I started meditating when my life fell apart,” she told us. “I used to fly off the handle very easily. I would easily get distracted and lose my focus, and I found it very difficult to sit still and not be in constant motion. I hated being alone and had to constantly distract myself with things like a new trip or a new purse.”
Today, she attributes her new sense of calm and happiness to taking up regular meditation practice.
Although there aren’t conclusive large-scale studies about the health benefits of meditation, smaller studies have found that regular practice can bring relief from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. An American Heart Association report found that transcendental meditation lowers blood pressure and even recommended it be practiced to prevent and treat hypertension.
Goldberg explained that meditation can be the antidote to disease-causing stress: “When we feel stress, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Our blood platelets get sticky, and our heart rate and blood pressure can increase. When we meditate, we release feel-good hormones, like serotonin and oxytocin. Our heart rate tends to slow, and our blood pressure can begin to normalize. Moreover, our immune system can actually be strengthened. All in all, this makes us feel better both in mind and body.”
Intrigued? Keep reading to see what’s changed for me since I parted with a cool $700 to find out whether meditation really lives up to the hype it’s been getting since, well, around 1,500 BC.
I sleep like a baby.
Normally, the second my head hits the pillow is the moment my mind starts racing with everything I didn’t do that day and all the things I want to do the following day. I also usually hit the gym late, eat dinner late, and loathe mornings—a perfect cocktail for insomnia. Not anymore.
At the beginning of my practice, I’d meditate once a day in the morning. Now I meditate in the morning and in bed just before I go to sleep—and it’s insanely effective. Within seconds of finishing my mantra, I’m always totally zonked and enjoy a deep, uninterrupted sleep until my alarm goes off the next morning.
Interestingly, I’ve also noticed mornings following a meditation-induced sleep are way easier—I’m never going to be the type of person who jumps out of bed, but simply not wanting to throw my beeping phone against the wall is a huge step in my book. Even if I’m late to bed, I can now function on six or seven hours of shut-eye a lot better than I did pre-meditation.
It’s not coincidence either: A recent study found that taking up meditation can help fight insomnia and fatigue more effectively than a dedicated sleep-education course. So if counting sheep isn’t working, you might want to give this a shot.
My weight is much more stable.
I’ve never been overweight or particularly underweight, but my dress size has always fluctuated up or down a bit depending on my motivation levels, work schedule, and social commitments. A weird thing’s happened since I’ve started meditating though—my weight has completely plateaued. I didn’t lose weight (sorry, this isn’t a hidden weight-loss fix), but the number on my bathroom scales has certainly stopped yo-yoing.
Although there’s not a lot of research to support my experience, I put it down to having a more balanced approach to food and exercise, a general feeling of contentment that’s been a welcome side effect of the practice, and the fact that I’m rarely tired now so don’t make silly impulse decisions when it comes to food.
I’m less quick to get angry.
Don’t get me wrong: I still believe manspreading on the subway should be punishable by a hefty fine, but little things like that are way less likely to irk me now.
Goldberg explained that this shift in attitude is common among meditators, and one of the first changes that her clients experience. “The first thing I notice is that my new clients seem more content, less frazzled, and better able to deal with whatever life challenges brought them to meditate in the first place. Little things set them off less and less,” she said.
I have zero anxiety.
Throughout early and mid-2014, I started experiencing panic attacks that would be set off for the strangest reasons. Although they were usually pretty mild, one episode actually ended with an ambulance visit and several more with calls to free nursing hotlines. I started meditating toward the end of the year, and I haven’t had a single panic attack since.
There’s no chance this is a coincidence—the link between meditation and the management of anxiety, depression, and pain is well-documented. JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed 47 studies and found that the positive effects on anxiety, depression, and pain can be modest, but are seen across multiple studies.
“It was surprising to see that with [the subjects having] so little training [about 2.5 hours of meditation practice per week], we were still seeing consistent effects,” wrote Dr. Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
The benefits become more exaggerated with time.
Perhaps you started meditating a couple of times a week and haven’t notice any real difference. You probably felt relaxed immediately afterwards, but that wore off as soon as your boss gave you a hard deadline or your phone bill landed in your in-box. I, too, began the practice by meditating infrequently—just a few times each week. But I then moved to two 20-minute sessions per day on my teacher’s recommendation. In my experience, the benefits of meditation are cumulative, and frequency is important—the more I do it, the stronger and more long-lasting the benefits.
Goldberg agrees: “Ideally, we should meditate daily for between 10 and 30 minutes. As little as 10 minutes daily can begin to improve attention and concentration, while 30 minutes per day can physically change the brain, increasing the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for executive functioning) and reducing the amygdala (the part of the brain that’s associated with reactivity, fear, and fight-or-flight response).”
It’s not just how long you meditate that’s key though; it’s how often. “Frequency is more important than duration, so if something has to give, meditating more often for less time is the way to go,” Goldberg explained.
I totally agree. My ability to stay chill, laugh off frustrating situations, sleep uninterrupted, remain focused, and ignore negative thoughts has compounded threefold since I upped to twice-daily meditation. If you’re like me, you might feel that instant stress relief straight after practicing, but the deeper, longer-term benefits come when you practice daily.
I’m no scientist, but based on my own experience, I recommend meditation to anyone who will listen. You don’t have to part with $700 for a fancy course like I did either; guided meditation apps like Goldberg’s start at $5 per month, and all you need is a quiet place and a few spare minutes. You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor either—a chair is just fine as long as you’re comfortable.
Goldberg recommends meditating first thing in the morning before your mind starts racing. “When you notice you’re having thoughts, which you will, simply notice them and come back to the breath. Do this over and over,” she said.
And don’t beat yourself up and have unrealistic expectations, because it can take a couple of weeks before you start to get the hang of it. Goldberg’s top piece of advice is simply to stick with it: “Meditate every day for three weeks, and you’ll get the hang of it.”