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How to take advantage of the health benefits of meditation
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Meditation has emerged as one of the darlings of the wellness world, but less than 10 percent of Americans take advantage of its health benefits. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Anita Fredericks spent years resisting meditation. She'd hear friends and colleagues describe the practice's many physical and mental health benefits, and then name the reasons why it wouldn't work for her, most importantly that she quickly grew restless during her attempts to sit still and quiet her racing thoughts.

"I didn't really understand what I was aiming to achieve," said Fredericks, a popular health writer and practitioner based in Perth, Australia.

Fredericks is not alone. Although dozens of headlines, health experts and researchers have proclaimed the benefits of meditation in recent years, only 8 percent of U.S. adults meditate, according to a recent report from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which used 2012 data.

Regular meditators describe meditation as frustratingly simple. It's defined by the NCCIH as an activity that involves sitting in a quiet location with a comfortable posture and focusing on a set of words, an object or the sensation of breathing while "letting distractions come and go without judging them." Starting a practice requires patience, consistency and a sense of humor, they said, noting that a beginner's early frustrations will gradually be replaced by a sense of peace.

It may have taken her a few years to give meditation a try, but Fredericks said her practice, which some days involves simply focusing on her breathing for a few minutes, has now had a ripple effect on the rest of her wellness routine. She's less anxious and feels equipped to face whatever challenges come her way.

"When I'm off-track or off-center, I know my way back home," she said.

Here's what five meditators had to say about their mindfulness habits, including advice on how to get started:

A meditative medley

As the NCCIH's broad definition implies, meditation comes in many forms. The meditation blog Live and Dare offers descriptions of 23 unique types, which vary from Zen meditation, which has its roots in Buddhism and involves sitting and focusing on each individual breath, to loving-kindness meditation, during which meditators aim to build self-love and compassion for others.

Having many different types of meditations to choose from can be both a blessing and a curse, Fredericks said, noting that it's hard to know where to begin.

After a period of exploration, Fredericks now rotates between a few favorite meditations, depending on how much time she has to spare and what she wants to focus on during a particular session.

"I'm a big fan of guided meditation, but sometimes I just put on a piece of music and focus on my breathing while listening," she said.

Beyond thinking about the time commitment they want to make, people might also want to reflect on how meditation could interact with their faith, said Anne Steen, 64, who lives in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.

Steen, a former Catholic who now attends Southern Baptist church services, meditates each morning because it helps her bring a spiritual outlook to her day and reminds her to be grateful for even life's most stressful moments.

"I need that time for me to feel centered," she said.

Health benefits

Although meditation has spiritual roots, the practice is increasingly viewed as an effective way to boost physical and mental health, rather than personal faith.

Recent research has credited meditation with lowering blood pressure, easing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and helping insomniacs sleep better, according to the NCCIH. The reasons behind meditation's effectiveness are still being studied, but researchers generally believe it's the practice's ability to reduce stress by quieting racing thoughts that does the most good.

These health benefits explain why meditation has become so popular among teachers, politicians, athletes and others, as The Atlantic reported last month, noting that people have "embraced mindfulness as a means of boosting performance and productivity."

Falk Burger, 66, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, knew little about the potential positive side effects of meditation when he first tried it in the 1960s. But it quickly became his go-to solution for a variety of ailments, from anxiety to insomnia.

"The benefits were dramatic and immediate," he said.

Similarly, Russ Mayes, a 49-year-old management consultant from Glen Allen, Virginia, said meditating has helped him manage chronic pain from fibromyalgia to headaches.

Getting started

Unlike many healthy habits, such as exercise classes or eating more fruits and vegetables, meditation is, for the most part, cost free. People need only commit to five or 10 minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on their breathing.

Beginners can take advantage of free guided meditations, which are available online from organizations like UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center and through meditation apps for smartphones.

However, it can still be intimidating to get started, Fredericks said, noting that potential meditators need to spend time considering what attracts them most about the practice, and then stay focused on that goal during the awkward moments that will inevitably come.

"You need to understand why you want to (meditate). Without intention, there will be no conviction," she said.

Joanne Piacenza, who learned how to meditate from a monk in Bangkok, Thailand, said initial meditation attempts are often derailed by a busy mind.

"Starting is the hardest part," noted Piacenza, a 29-year-old editor who lives in Washington, D.C. "The first month or so, you will find yourself completely derailed by your thoughts, unable to clear your mind, let alone stop checking your phone. But be relentless, set a time aside and get a timer."

Beginning meditators should be patient, as well as open-minded about what meditation will feel like in the early days of practice, Mayes said.

Don't "get caught up with the concept of doing it right. It's not like weightlifting where improper form could cause injury," he said. "It's more like watching a movie if you are doing it, you are doing it right."

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