Anxiety levels may have gone through the roof in recent times but in the midst of the chaos, meditation apps have seen a huge rise in demand. The Calm app was downloaded 3.9 million times in April, while rival Headspace had 1.5 million downloads.
Calm aims to help users relax, meditate and sleep better using a variety of techniques. Its ‘sleep stories’ are supposed to help people drift off, with John McEnroe, actor Matthew McConaughey and basketball star LeBron James among the narrators. But is your phone the best place to start?
Here, then, is your quick-fire guide to how to meditate.
Work out why you want to meditate
For cynics, it may help to really understand what it could do for you. Coach Shirley Zerf says that meditation has been proven to have profound health benefits if practised regularly. "It can literally change the way we function," she says. "It can take depressed people and make them well, it can make you clearer, it can make you more empathetic. It does all kinds of things, physiologically, to the chemicals within your body and your heart rate and blood pressure. You have to say: ‘I’m doing this because it releases stress and it makes your body function better.’"
Don’t get fixated on switching your thoughts off
Aiming for an empty brain is counterproductive. Jillian Lavender, who runs a meditation centre in London, says this is one of the biggest misunderstandings about meditation. "A lot of people say ‘my mind’s just so busy and I could never sit down for 20 minutes." If you’re sitting there trying not to think, it’s not going to work. Rather than trying to achieve a ‘blank’ mind, Zerf says it’s about training yourself to notice your thoughts and bring yourself back to your breathing.
"What people think is going wrong is that they keep losing themselves in their thoughts, but that’s how you do it," she says. "It’s like training a dog. If you take a dog for a walk in the forest, it’s allowed to run off but you just keep calling it back."
Zerf advocates starting with just three minutes. "You brush your teeth for three minutes a day and we wouldn’t dream of going without that. But meditation, which is our mental hygiene, we do nothing with," she says.
All you are required to do is to sit with your eyes closed, ‘observing your mind’. Consider it a three-minute treat for yourself, like having a cup of tea. "You’re not trying to fight something. It isn’t a chore, it’s about getting your mind on board," adds Zerf.
Play white noise in the background
Many experts recommend playing music or a mantra during the meditation itself. Lavender says in her practice, a mantra is used "like a vehicle" to focus the mind. "It pulls the mind into these super subtle states. And then, as is the mind, so is the body. And the body gets to rest very deeply." Zerf says even a YouTube video of white noise would do the trick. "Something you like – the sea or rain – so that if your mind wanders, you have a sensory thing to come back to."
Do it every day
Meditation works when you do it regularly. Zerf tells clients to stick Post-it notes everywhere reminding them to meditate. "It’s much more important to make it a habit than to do it for a long time."