When you hear the word meditation, what do you think about? Closing your eyes, focusing your thoughts, taking some deep breaths?
Many of us think about meditation as a mindful activity done using one specific technique. The truth is that there are many different types of meditation, each with its own benefits.
“Talking about ‘meditation’ is like talking about the word ‘sport’. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses many different disciplines. There are hundreds of sports and hundreds of meditation techniques,” explains Francisco Mendizabal, meditation instructor and founder of HackSelf. HackSelf is an organization that helps people find the meditation technique that’s right for them through a quiz and consultation, and it provides coaching sessions for the various techniques.
But why does it matter that there are different types of meditation? Firstly, studies show that different kinds of meditation can have unique effects on those who try them. Secondly, people’s personality types and life experiences determine their responses to different types of meditation. If one type isn’t great for you, you don’t need to write meditation off forever; another type might feel completely different—propelling you into a sustainable meditative practice, or at least something you can stick with long enough to experience the effects
If we believe there’s only one way to meditate, we might become discouraged when we struggle to meditate in whatever way we’ve been exposed to or conjured up. In truth, there are many ‘right’ ways to do meditation, and it’s okay if it takes you a while to find the best meditation style for your practice.
“Many people believe that in order to meditate, you must be sitting up tall with your eyes shut, not moving a muscle, in complete silence, hushing your mind—and for extremely long periods of times,” says Jess Kimborough, a yoga and meditation instructor. “If any part of this long list of dos and don’ts seems difficult to carry out, we throw out the entire idea of starting a meditation practice,” she says.
Instead of trying to stick to a long list of requirements, we should find the meditation techniques that work for us, Kimborough suggests. “Your meditation practice does not need to look one particular way and can very well change from day to day,” she says. “You do not have to be sitting, your eyes can be open, you can add in movement with your breath, you can meditate to music or chanting, and your meditation practice can be a very quick timeout.”
Both Kimborough and Mendizabal say that practicing meditation consistently is key. It’s easier to be consistent in your practice when you find something that works for you, which is why experimenting with various kinds of meditation is a great idea.
If you haven’t yet found a meditation technique that appeals to you, or if you’re interested in trying different kinds of meditation, read on to understand the most popular techniques.
Different Types of Meditation Techniques
There are two broad categories of meditation: open monitoring meditation and focused attention meditation, Mendizabal says.
“Open monitoring techniques usually involve being open to anything that enters your awareness,” he says. “Examples include feelings, thoughts, or sounds. All experiences, either internal or external, are simply observed—or ‘monitored’—without reaction or judgment,” he explains. Most of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness meditation, which is a kind of open monitoring technique.
Focused attention techniques, on the other hand, require you to focus on a specific object, sound, or word. “Common meditation objects include focusing on your breath or a mantra,” Mendizabal says. “Transcendence or mantra meditations are the most common examples of this focused attention techniques,” he adds.
Of course, these techniques have different effects on practitioners. For example, a study suggests that focused-attention meditation improves convergent thinking while open-monitoring meditation improves divergent thinking. Mendizabal suggests that focused-attention meditation increases your ability to concentrate, while open-monitoring meditation improves your ability to relax.
Beyond those two categories of meditation, there are further classifications when it comes to the different types of meditation that you can practice.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Many of us are familiar with a kind of meditation that involves relaxing, sitting quietly, and observing our thoughts and surroundings. This is mindfulness meditation, and it’s a form of open-response meditation. This is sometimes called observing-thought meditation.
Learning to be mindful is a useful skill that can help you during any form of meditation, at work, in relationships, and in other situations. “Mindfulness is being completely present in the current moment and aware of yourself within your surroundings,” Kimborough says. “My favorite thing about a mindfulness practice is that it can be completely mobile. Yes, you want to be mindful during any meditation practice, but you can also be mindful by taking a shower, riding a bike, walking down the street, or talking with friends,” she says.
2. Mantra Meditation
Mantra meditation is a kind of focused attention technique that involves thinking about a specific word or phrase. Kimborough suggests you come up with a mantra or affirmation that means a lot to you in that moment. As you meditate, try to match the mantra to your breath.
“Suppose your mantra is ‘I am supported.’ As you breathe in, say to yourself, ‘I am,’ then exhale out as you say to yourself, ‘supported,’” Kimborough says. “Imagine the words in your mind fully—the color, font, size of the words. Whenever you notice your mind starting to wander, gently guide your thoughts back to your breath and your mantra, carrying yourself back into the current moment once again.”
3. Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental Meditation is a widely-practiced form of meditation. The technique is instructed exclusively by a non-profit organization and can only be taught by one of their licensed instructors. Because Transcendental Meditation is a formal practice associated with an organization, you’ll have to pay a fee to learn it. That said, the technique itself involves engaging in a kind of mantra meditation for 15 to 20 minutes a day, twice a day.
While research suggests Transcendental Meditation has numerous health benefits including stress reduction and improved cardiovascular health, many people are also critical of the practice and those who follow it.
4. Loving-Kindness Meditation
Also known as compassion meditation, loving-kindness meditation involves focusing on feelings of compassion toward oneself, one’s loved ones, acquaintances, and the universe in general. You start off by wishing well on yourself, and you gradually work toward wishing well on those around you. This could include focusing on mantras like “May I be well, safe, and happy”.
One small study has suggested that loving-kindness meditation may help improve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, while other studies indicate that it could help improve connectedness and well-being by promoting positive emotions.
5. Sound Meditation
As the name suggests, sound meditation involves focusing on a sound. You might focus on ambient music or the sound of birds or cars in your surroundings, for example. A pilot study has suggested that Tibetan sound meditation could improve the cognitive function and mental health of breast cancer patients. Another pilot study suggests sound meditation improves relaxation among cancer patients.
“Music has the power to move us—literally! It can make us cry, jump up and down, healing us,” Kimborough says. “During a sound meditation—whether set to live music, singing bowls, or your favorite jams—you would allow the sound to fall on you and notice how the vibrations feel,” she says.
6. Movement Meditation
Movement meditation involves focusing on the movements of your body. You might even match your movements to your breath as one does during yoga, Kimborough says. “In yoga, you are uniting your movement and your breath. As you inhale, you move up and as you exhale you move down,” she says. “Matching up the breath and movement in this way encourages you to be in the current moment.”
However, movement meditation isn’t limited to yoga: You can do it while swimming, cycling, stretching, dancing, or even walking. Kimborough suggests you practice movement meditation while walking. “Be mindful with each step, noticing how your feet connect with the earth, how your arms sway in unison. Notice your shoulders, your neck holding up the weight of your head, and so on,” she explains. “You can move mindfully in any action you choose and call that a meditation practice. A fun practice—if you dare!—is to do this walking meditation while barefoot in the grass, and notice what comes up as you connect to mother nature.”
7. Visualization Meditation
Visualization meditation is a great way to hone your imaginitive skills and manifest your goals, says Kimborough. “When we were kids, we would imagine the most grandiose ideas. We’d say, ‘I want to be a firefighter,’ then continue to imagine this story play[ing] out fully in our minds to the point where we [could] act out the life of a firefighter with just a water hose,” she explains. As we age, we often lose our ability to imagine ourselves and visualize our goals. “Visualization allows us to tap back into this forgotten skill of ours,” she says.
During visualization meditation, you might imagine yourself accomplishing your dreams and goals. “What would you look like? Where would you be? Who would you be with? What is happening around you? Paint the picture fully and sit with it,” Kimborough suggests.
8. Guided Meditation
If you’re unsure where to start with meditation, guided meditation can be super helpful. You could turn to apps like Headspace or Mindworks, or you could find guided meditations on YouTube or in audiobook format. Kimborough says that guided meditations are great for time-keeping and combating distractions during meditation. “The guide will remind you to remain in the present moment with different cues to draw your attention to breath, movement, mantra, and so on,” she says.
Mendizabal believes guided meditations can be useful, but that it’s a life-changer to learn how to meditate without relying on external guidance. “You stop requiring external tools and start being able to access the benefits by yourself,” he says. “You also gain more profound insights and experiences as the practice develops.”
9. Gazing Meditation
Most of us think we need to close our eyes when we meditate, but this is not necessarily the case. Your sight could help you reach a meditative state. With gazing meditation, you focus your vision on something like a flame, a spot on a wall, or even tea in a teacup.
Want to practice your social skills? Gazing meditation could be a great technique for you. “You treat your sense of vision as another sense. Instead of closing your eyes, you focus your gaze on a meditation object, such as a point on a wall,” Mendizabal says. “Since eyes are key in social interactions, this can be great training to be able to look into people’s eyes, keep your gaze calm and confident, and so on,” he says. “The amount of scientific data is limited on this, but the thousands of hours spent by different schools of meditation are enough to be a source to trust.”
Which type of meditation should I choose?
There are so many types of meditation out there that you might struggle to decide which style to try first.
Mendizabal says that you could choose a type of meditation based on whether you have a type A or a type B personality: type A being particularly goal-oriented and driven, and type B being more relaxed and flexible.
“Type A personalities tend to find focused attention meditation techniques easier to stick to. This makes sense since they are goal-oriented and tend to be always focused on something. So transcendence or mantra meditation is a good approach for if you fall under this category,” says Mendizabal.
Type B personalities benefit from focused attention meditations if they want to be able to concentrate better, although it might not be as easy for them.
“If you don’t have a preference, or [are] looking mainly to increase your ability to relax, go for an open monitoring technique,” says Mendizabal. “Mindfulness meditation is a good approach, and you’ll still be able to improve your ability to focus.”
Kimborough suggests experimenting with different types of meditation and even combining meditation styles until you find what’s right for you. “Get fancy with it and combine a couple and see what jives with you,” she says. “I personally like to combine mantras and visualization. Choose your mantra, pair it to your breath, then imagine that mantra fully realized in your life. How powerful is that?”
No matter the type of meditation, remember that consistently meditating is more important than meditating “perfectly”—however you might perceive a “perfect” meditation to be. Consistency is more important than length, too. Mendizabal points out that meditating for ten minutes every day is way better than doing it for an hour every week.
“Always remember: Every meditation counts, even the ones that don’t feel right,” Mendizabal says. “Each time you sit down and meditate, you strengthen your neural pathways. You are optimizing your brain to live a better life. Every meditation is a good meditation.”