Archaeologists in the Indus Valley discovered evidence of meditation in wall art dating from 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, according to Psychology Today. And while meditation has been practiced in other parts of the world like Egypt and China for centuries, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it was popularized here in the West.
For that, we can thank a number of researchers, but most notably, Dr. Herbert Benson, for leading pioneering studies that highlighted the various health benefits of meditation (like lowered heart rates and increased brain waves that help with sleep).
Those early studies combined with celebrity fans (like the Beatles, who famously practiced Transcendental Meditation in the late '60s), brought meditation into mainstream consciousness, where it remains today. But if you know anything about meditation, you know that it’s not a one-size-fits-all practice, and there are actually many distinct types. Read on for seven of the most popular variations, plus who each one is best for. (Of course, meditation is an ancient, often deeply spiritual practice, so this should just be considered a very broad introduction, not a foundational text.)
1. Guided Meditation
Best for beginners
If you’ve never tried to meditate before, this is probably the best place to start. In guided meditation, a teacher leads you through the practice, either in person or via an app (like Headspace or Calm). Because our minds have a tendency to wander, listening to someone else tell us what to do makes it easier to focus and relax. Some common forms of guided meditations are mindfulness, stress reduction and relaxation.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
Best for the uber stressed
Developed by Buddhists more than 2,000 years ago, mindfulness meditation is basically a technique that helps you stay present with whatever is happening. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist and meditation teacher, mindfulness is an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” Proponents say that mindfulness meditation can contribute to stress reduction, improved sleep, heightened focus and increased creativity, just to name a few.
3. Chakra Meditation
Best for sleep
Chakra meditation is a blanket term for any type of meditation that seeks to clear blocked chakras (energy centers that unite mind, body and spirit) and harness the power of these centers located throughout the body. They can be used for everything from promoting calm and relaxation to encouraging spiritual awakening (note that those meditations devoted to spiritual awakening should be guided by a certified teacher, not a YouTube video). Basically, if your goal is to feel more balanced or relaxed, or even just to have an easier time falling asleep, a self-monitored practice should suffice. If your intentions are a little deeper, your best bet is to learn from the pros.
4. Transcendental Meditation
Best for those who need a routine
One of the most popular forms of meditation today, transcendental meditation (TM) has the ultimate goal of rising above the person's current state of being, or transcending. A TM practice involves sitting with your eyes closed for 20 minutes, twice a day, repeating a mantra that was given to you by a certified Transcendental Meditation teacher (which you can find here). Heads up that getting a personalized mantra isn’t free: A four-session TM course with one-on-one instruction, group training and lifetime support starts at $500 for those making less than $50,000 and goes up to $960 for those making more than $200,000. Also note that while studies have shown meditation to be an effective tool for relieving stress, sharpening attention and more, there isn't any scientific proof that practitioners of TM reap further benefits like transcending or levitating.
5. Zen Meditation
Best for those who are spiritual
Sometimes called zazen, zen meditation is a meditation technique rooted in Buddhist psychology. Many Zen practitioners study under a teacher because this kind of meditation involves specific steps and postures. The meaning and method of zazen varies from school to school, but in general it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. Though similar to mindfulness meditation, Zen meditation requires more discipline and practice.
6. Movement Meditation
Best for those who can’t sit still
Though many types of meditation are done while sitting still or laying down, meditation doesn’t require stillness. Movement meditation, or moving meditation, is, very basically, meditating while moving. Movement meditation allows you to cultivate a sense of mind-body awareness by focusing on your body's physical sensations as it moves. In a 2013 study, German researchers examined 75 individuals who had perceived high levels of psychological distress. They found that those who engaged in mindful walking for just ten minutes a day showed reduced levels of stress and anxiety, and overall improvement in quality of life compared to those who did not participate in mindful walking. Other examples of movement meditation include yoga, tai chi or other martial arts and mindful running.
7. Visualization Meditation
Best for visual learners
Like its name suggests, this type of meditation involves visualizing positive scenes or images in order to enhance feelings of relaxation, peace and calmness. More than some of the other types of meditation on this list, visualization meditation often has a tangible end goal, versus a broader goal of calm and happiness. Similar to manifestation, visualization might seem familiar if you’ve heard of the Law of Attraction (yes, that thing The Secret was based on). The general gist is that if you focus on the good and positive things in your life, you’ll attract more of those positive things into your life. On the flip side, if you're frequently focused on the negative, that’s what will be attracted into your life. The belief is based on the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from pure energy, and that through the process of like energy attracting like energy, a person can improve their own health, wealth and personal relationships. Again, like with TM, visualization meditation can feel a bit too New Age-y for some folks, and you should be sure to manage your expectations when starting a practice. (As great as it would be, there isn't solid scientific proof that visualizing a new car will mean you'll find one parked in your driveway.)