Are you unsure of how often should you meditate? Do you benefit more from meditating two times a day as opposed to just one? Does meditating for longer periods get better results?
These are just some of the questions that are regularly asked regarding meditation. People are busy and time matters so it’s important to find a balance between your passions and obligations.
“Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight” – Ajahn Brahm
So, what is the truth?
As a general guideline – meditation is best practiced on a daily basis. Daily practice will offer you the fastest progress, however, this may not always be possible.
Not to worry! You can still reap the fantastic mental and health benefits from meditation.
This article will cover everything from the benefits, to how often should you meditate for and how long a meditation session should last.
When and how often should you meditate?
If you are one of the lucky people who has the time for it, two meditation sessions per day is ideal. This would be one session in the morning, soon after waking up and another before you head to bed.
Right after you wake up is a great time to practice meditation because your body and mind are already relaxed. Additionally, it helps to set up your day and create an organized train of thought.
Meditating before you sleep helps to purge your body and mind of any stress that you collected during the day. It will also help you wake up feeling rested the next morning.
According to Headspace:
“The most important part of developing a meditation practice is consistency. Research shows that you don’t have to meditate every single day in a row, but that the benefits are tied to regular, consistent practice”
Some people may feel they need three sessions a day. However, based on the research, just three meditation sessions a week is associated with benefits for most people.
Everyone is different. Experiment with how many times a day you practice and at what time. Find out what works for you individually.
How Long should you meditate for?
Many studies have reached the conclusion that just 20 minutes of meditation a day can result in significant benefits. In most cases, that’s all it takes to enrich your brain function and overall physical and mental health.
That’s not to say meditating for shorter periods is a waste of time. Sometimes, short sessions are a great way to take mindful breathers throughout the day.
Next time you are taking a walk, consider stopping for a moment to take in the sensations around you.
Listen to the sound of the birds. Feel the breeze. Be aware of your surroundings. This is a great way to incorporate short sessions of mindfulness meditation into your life.
At the same time, that’s not to say you should limit your meditation sessions to just 20 minutes a day. People who have practiced it for years can meditate for hours. For instance, most monks wake up early and meditate for 1-3 hours.
Ultimately, rather than focusing on the quantity and length of the sessions, focus on the quality.
If you haven’t practiced meditation before and try to do a 1-hour session, chances are you’ll become restless and gain nothing from it. As with most things in life, start small and work your way up.
So, now that we’ve covered the topics of how long for and how often should you meditate – we’ll take a look at some of the benefits you can expect.
Scientifically proven benefits of meditation
There is an increasing amount of research that shows the benefits achieved with regular meditation practice.
1. Improves memory and learning capabilities
One study from the University of Harvard took 16 participants and put them through an eight-week, mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) where they are taught certain meditation and yoga practices.
At the end of the 8 weeks, researchers observed that the regions of the brain that are associated with learning, emotional control, self-awareness, perspective and memory increased in volume.
So, when you ask yourself “how often should you meditate” – these results indicate that setting aside just a few minutes a day could make a measurable difference.
2. Helps to preserve the Aging brain
Another study from UCLA revealed that as people age, those who had practiced meditation long-term had better-preserved brains than those who didn’t practice.
Participants who had been consistently meditating for an average of 20 years were found to have more grey matter volume throughout their brain.
While the older participants still had small volume loss in comparison to the younger participants, it wasn’t as pronounced as with the non-meditators.
The expected results were small effects located in some regions in the brain previously associated with meditating. What they actually found was a widespread effect of meditation that covered regions throughout the entire brain.
3. Has effects that rival anti-depressants
The problem with anti-depressants are the many side effects that are associated with them. What if it was possible to achieve the same uplifting effect through natural medication?
Well – according to one study at Johns Hopkins, it is possible. This natural medication is a simple practice of mindful meditation.
Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team studied the effects of both anti-depressants and regular meditation. A total of 3515 people participated in 47 different trials where the effect size of both treatments was found to be equal.
Many people have the impression that meditation is just sitting down and doing nothing. According to Goyal, this is not true. He states that “Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness”.
4. May lead to positive structural changes in the brain
In a 2011 study at the University of Harvard, Sara Lazar and her team found that mindfulness meditation may actually change the brains structure.
Participants put through eight weeks of MBSR were found to have increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which is behind your learning and memory capabilities. Certain areas of the brain that control emotion regulation were also found to increase in thickness.
In addition to this, there was a reduction in brain cell volume in the amygdala which governs stress, anxiety and fear. These changes directly corresponded to the participants reports of their stress levels.
This indicates that meditation not only changes your brain structure, but it changes your subjective perception and feelings as well.
A follow up study by Lazar found that meditation training led to changes in regions of the brain linked to mood and arousal. Participants also reported improvements in their psychological well-being.
So, for anyone who doubts that shifts in brain matter mass have any meaning – these studies indicate that our mental health and well-being seem to shift through meditation as well.
5. Reduces anxiety
One of the main reasons people start meditating is to reduce their stress levels and anxiety. What’s more, is that there’s a lot of good evidence to support this decision.
A Study across fifteen healthy subjects showed that mindfulness meditation reduced their state anxiety in every single session across a four-day period. These changes were related to alterations in the brain regions linked with self-referential thoughts.
Further research has shown it aids people with social anxiety disorder. A team at Stanford University discovered that MBSR caused changes in brain regions associated with attention as well as providing relief from social anxiety symptoms.
If that wasn’t enough evidence – there was also a follow up study on MBSR participants, years after the treatment. Researchers analyzed 18 of 22 subjects who had gone through MBSR, 3 years after completion of the program.
The study concluded that an intensive, time-limited mindfulness stress reduction program can have long-term benefits on people suffering from anxiety disorders.
7. Meditation can help with addiction
A growing number of studies suggest that, with its impact on self-control regions in the brain, meditation can be a very effective tool in helping people to recover from addiction.
One report compared mindfulness training with the American Lung Association’s freedom from smoking(FFS) program. It found that people that went through mindfulness training were several times more likely to quit smoking at the end of the training.
The reason behind this may be the ability of meditation to separate thoughts from acts. It allows you to experience the craving, ride it out and choose not to act on it.
A 17 week follow up also found users more likely to have quit smoking after the initial mindfulness training as opposed to those in conventional treatment.
For more information about mindfulness, check out our article on ‘How mindfulness empowers us’.
The bottom line
Meditation is an art, and as with any art – it takes practice. So, how often should you meditate? The answer is up to you. Experiment with times you meditate, how long you meditate for, and the intent.
The key is consistency and quality over quantity. Whether its three times a week or three times a day, keep to your schedule and watch yourself reap the rewards.