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What are the different types of meditation and what are the benefits?

The benefits of meditation have been celebrated across the centuries, with something of a renaissance in recent years thanks to the influence of celebs and industry leaders. It’s continually growing and meaningful wellness trend, according to the Global Wellness Summit. However, with that continued uptake in meditative practice, we’re also getting more specific about different types of meditation and their unique impacts. So, what are the core types of meditation that we can expect to hear more about this year?

“Hindu and Jewish traditions for over 5,000 years, as a modern endeavour, it’s very young. The future: Meditation will move from a singular to a plural practice—from a generic concept to specific types, with people starting to understand their specific brain mechanisms and outcomes.”

– Global Wellness Summit

Focused Attention Meditation 

This is about training to clear the mind of thoughts through concerted concentration exercises. You might focus on the breath or bodily sensations or even a particular object, and if your mind wanders, the practice hinges on bringing your focus back to that one thing. This is about achieving mental calm and seeing thoughts as disruptive in themselves.

Because of the intense control in this kind of meditation, it’s said that the practice creates very fast gamma brain waves. These are involved in higher processing tasks and cognitive functioning, such as learning and memory. It’s also said that this meditation can lead to a higher volume of gray matter in prefrontal brain regions, which are all about attention, higher-level awareness and monitoring.

Open Monitoring Meditation 

This includes Mindfulness Meditation and is the most commonly practised form of meditation in the West. It doesn’t see thoughts as negative, but is about training ourselves to pay attention in the present moment. It’s about learning to simply observe emotions and thoughts. 

Open Monitoring Meditation often begins with a body scan (moving awareness through the body slowly, paying attention to each part and sensation). Or by focusing on your breath and then expanding awareness to thoughts, sounds and feelings. It primarily generates slow theta brain waves, which are dominant in daydreaming and sleep and are associated with a relaxed state of mind. 

Self-Transcending Meditation

Reportedly used by everyone from veterans with PTSD to celebs such as Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Katy Perry, Jerry Seinfeld and George Stephanopoulos, Self-Transcending Meditation is quite different to the other two practices mentioned, and which may sound more familiar to you.

Self-Transcending Meditation and Automatic Self-Transcending (AST) are not about thoughts or feelings. It’s not taught in a class, but one on one by a specially trained practitioner. Confusingly, it’s not about concentration, control, or training. The Meditation Trust describes it as being about “allowing the mind to go beyond surface level thinking towards silence (the source of thought) and concentration, focus and control as well as freedom and creativity are the spontaneous results.”

For Automatic Self-Transcending Meditation is where innocence is the key. Again deferring to the greater skill of the Meditation Trust in explaining, they say: “Alpha brain waves (characteristic of reduced mental activity and relaxation) permeate the whole brain, which receives more oxygen. Increased blood flow to the front (which is coordinating activity) while the core of the brain is more quiet, indicates alertness in the midst of deep rest, the state of transcendental or pure consciousness (pure silence!).”

Mindfulness, meditation and yoga

Mindfulness has often been conflated with other practices including yoga in recent years. However, the thinking is that our rising stress levels and overall growing interest in wellbeing will start to bring mindfulness more to the forefront in its own right. That said, for those of us wanting to get into different mindfulness practices or bring elements of it into our daily lives, mindful spa experiences provide an opportunity to learn and dip into different types of practices and combinations of them.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also other mindfulness practices that are less mainstream that are beginning to attract more attention, such as Sophrology - an emerging stress-management technique that marries components from Eastern meditation practices and Western relaxation concepts. 

There’s also Kundalini yoga - the most meditation-heavy type of yoga which moves into a more spiritual space. At the opposite end of that spectrum, one of the most powerful wellness trends is adding mindfulness to the workout, either in fitness classes where you’re trained to move consciously with intention and/or by ending classes with a dose of mindful meditation.

The net result of this kind of meditation is shown in research to increase the brain waves associated with quiet thoughts, daydreaming, and a state of relaxed awareness. It calms the amygdala reactivity centre and strengthens connections within the prefrontal cortex, which is also called the executive centre. There is also some suggestion that it has physical benefits on heart health, reducing blood pressure and supporting those with mental health problems such as PTSD.

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