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You need a guide if you’re exploring a new place; otherwise, you might get lost. And if you’re exploring the practice of meditation, the same holds true. That is where guided meditation comes into play.
There are many different types of meditation. Examples include mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Even the simplest types can be challenging for beginners. Guided meditations walk you through the specifics of each practice. They also help you recognize and overcome any challenges that might come up during your practice.
While you may think of meditation as a silent, solitary activity, even expert meditators sometimes rely on guided sessions with an experienced teacher to deepen and expand their practice. Here’s what guided meditation is all about.
What is guided meditation?
As the name suggests, guided meditation is any type of meditation practice that a meditation teacher or instructor leads. That teacher or instructor could be a person sitting in a meditation studio in front of you, or it could be a recording on a meditation app, podcast, or YouTube video. It could even be a book or other written resource (Moral, 2017).
While every guided meditation is in some ways unique, many of them share similar characteristics. For example, the person guiding you will probably offer instructions for getting into the correct posture and state of mind (Roquet, 2018). Guided meditations could also involve body scans (where you concentrate on different parts of your body), breathing exercises, visualization techniques, or deep relaxation practices (UCLA-a, n.d.).
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class where a teacher led you through the different movements and breathing techniques, you’ve got a good idea of what guided meditation is all about. The person guiding your meditation is there to help you navigate the experience in fruitful or therapeutic ways.
Meditation: what it is, types, benefits, techniques
Guided vs. unguided meditation
Unguided meditation is any type of meditation that does not involve in-the-moment instruction. If you’re sitting in a quiet place and meditating without an app or other aid, then you’re practicing unguided meditation.
There’s not a lot of research comparing guided and unguided meditation. But some researchers have argued that guided meditation may interfere with some aspects of the meditation process (Ivanovski, 2007).
For example, one study from Australia found that unguided meditation may involve slightly different brain systems and neurochemicals than guided meditation. It may also activate parts of the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system more than guided meditation (Lehmann, 2001).
But again, there’s very little research that directly compares guided and unguided meditation. At this point, comparing the two is sort of like comparing solo exercise with group classes. While there may be some subtle differences, both are good for you.
Guided meditation exercise example
If you’ve never tried guided meditation and you’re wondering what it’s like, here’s a brief example from the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA-b, n.d.). Imagine a calm voice talking you through these instructions:
- Find a relaxed, comfortable position seated on a chair, on the floor, or a cushion.
- Keep your back upright but not too tight.
- Let your hands rest wherever they’re comfortable.
- Let your tongue rest on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
- Start to notice your body—its shape, weight, and feel.
- Let yourself relax.
- Again, become curious about your body, seated here.
- Its sensations,
- Its connection with your chair or the floor.
- Try to relax any areas of tightness or tension.
- Just breathe.
The benefits of guided meditation
You’ve probably heard about the study-backed benefits of meditation. What you may not realize is that most of the clinical studies on meditation involve guided meditation practices. For example, mindfulness-based training is one of the most studied types of meditation for insomnia and improved sleep. It’s a type of meditation that focuses your attention on the present moment. And most of the studies on mindfulness have used guided meditation (Ong, 2017).
Apart from the sleep research, there’s a lot of evidence that meditation—particularly guided mindfulness meditation—can provide physical and mental wellbeing benefits. Here’s a summary that focuses on the areas with the most research:
Guided meditation for anxiety and depression
Mindfulness-based meditation may help people with depression or anxiety disorders (Blanck, 2018). Research has shown that meditation may be as effective as psychotherapy (talk therapy) or prescription medications for these mental health conditions. Mindfulness training alone may be helpful, but there’s evidence that combining mindfulness with medication or psychotherapy may be especially effective (Saeed, 2019).
Guided meditation for pain
There’s some evidence that meditation practices like guided meditation may be more effective than traditional treatments such as pain medication and physical therapy for chronic pain. For example, among people with low-back pain, mindfulness can reduce pain and improve activities of daily living that involve movement (Cherkin, 2016). Meditation can also help people with migraine headaches control their pain (Tonelli, 2015).
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
Guided meditation for immune health
Some research suggests that guided meditation may enhance immune health. For example, one study found that mindfulness training improves the antibody response when people are infected with some types of viruses (Davidson, 2003). People who practice mindfulness may also be less likely to get sick from common illnesses, but more rigorous research is needed (Fortney, 2010).
Researchers have also found that this practice may help treat (Fortney, 2010):
- Tension headaches
- High blood pressure
- Unhealthy blood cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Arterial disease
- Poor cognitive functioning in old age
- Psychiatric disorders
The benefits of guided meditation extend to the brain. Researchers have shown that meditation can reduce stress and bolster concentration, attention, and mood (Fortney, 2010; Ricarte, 2015).
How guided meditation provides benefits
A lot of the benefits of guided meditation may boil down to stress reduction. Stress tends to elevate sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity. Over long periods, too much stress, along with heightened SNS activity, is associated with diseases or dysfunctions of the heart, brain, immune system, and gut (Househam, 2017).
Meditation seems to counteract all this trouble by increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is sometimes called the “rest and digest” arm of your nervous system. Basically, meditation helps mellow you out and keeps your SNS activity in check.
In line with this research, some work has linked meditation to improvements in blood pressure and heart-rate variability. These are both indicators of stress and SNS activity. Meditation is also associated with brain molecules and hormones that increase calm and sharpen cognitive functioning (Househam, 2017).
Guided meditation resources
Guided meditation is very popular. You can find hundreds of resources—books, apps, websites, podcasts, YouTube channels—online. There are also numerous meditation centers or studios around the world that offer guided meditation classes.
Meditation for anxiety: does it work?
If you’re interested in an app, Headspace is one of the few that has clinical evidence backing its effectiveness (Howells, 2016; Roquet, 2018).
If you’re looking for institutes or centers that study guided meditation, here are some examples:
- The Global Wellness Institute
- The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
- The Harvard University Center for Health and Wellness Promotion
- The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Integrative Medicine
- The University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Center for Mindfulness
If you’re interested in meditation and are unsure of how to get started, guided meditation may be a great way to explore the many practices, techniques, and benefits.
- Blanck, P., Perleth, S., Heidenreich, T., Kröger, P., Ditzen, B., Bents, H., & Mander, J. (2018). Effects of mindfulness exercises as stand-alone intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 102, 25–35. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.12.002. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796717302449
- Cherkin, D. C., Sherman, K. J., Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Anderson, M. L., Hawkes, R. J., et al. (2016). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA, 315(12), 1240–1249. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.2323. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27002445/
- Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564–570. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2003/07000/Alterations_in_Brain_and_Immune_Function_Produced.14.aspx
- Fortney, L., & Taylor, M. (2010). Meditation in medical practice: a review of the evidence and practice. Primary Care, 37(1), 81–90. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2009.09.004. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20188999/
- Howells, A., Ivtzan, I., & Eiroa-Orosa, F.J. (2016). Putting the ‘app’ in happiness: A randomised controlled trial of a smartphone-based mindfulness intervention to enhance wellbeing. J Happiness Stud, 17, 163–185. doi: 10.1007/s10902-014-9589-1. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-014-9589-1
- Househam, A. M., Peterson, C. T., Mills, P. J., & Chopra, D. (2017). The effects of stress and meditation on the immune system, human microbiota, and epigenetics. Advances in mind-body medicine, 31(4), 10–25. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29306937/
- Ivanovski, B., & Malhi, G. S. (2007). The psychological and neurophysiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 19(2), 76–91. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-5215.2007.00175.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26952819/
- Lehmann, D., Faber, P. L., Achermann, P., Jeanmonod, D., Gianotti, L. R., & Pizzagalli, D. (2001). Brain sources of EEG gamma frequency during volitionally meditation-induced, altered states of consciousness, and experience of the self. Psychiatry Research, 108(2), 111–121. doi: 10.1016/s0925-4927(01)00116-0. Retrieved from https://wp-cdasr.mclean.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/lehmann_prn01.pdf
- Moral, A. (2017). Guided meditation: a regimen for mental health. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 8(20), 180-182. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/openview/ab91b3055b517eba66868a414ad91b9f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2032134
- Ong, J. C., & Smith, C. E. (2017). Using mindfulness for the treatment of insomnia. Current Sleep Medicine Reports, 3(2), 57–65. doi: 10.1007/s40675-017-0068-1. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6171769/
- Ricarte, J., Latorre, J., & Beltrán, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based intervention in a rural primary school: effects on attention, concentration and mood. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 8, 3. doi: 10.1521/ijct_2015_8_03. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jose-Latorre-2/publication/277331488_Mindfulness-Based_Intervention_in_a_Rural_Primary_School_Effects_on_Attention_Concentration_and_Mood/links/56b057c508ae9ea7c3addffd/Mindfulness-Based-Intervention-in-a-Rural-Primary-School-Effects-on-Attention-Concentration-and-Mood.pdf
- Roquet, C.D., Sas, C. (2018). Evaluating mindfulness meditation apps. CHI EA ’18: Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. doi: 10.1145/3170427.3188616. Retrieved from https://www.openground.com.au/assets/Documents-Openground/Articles/36821a361a/mindfulness-training-clinical-intervention.pdf
- Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10), 620–627. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2019/0515/p620.html?cmpid=em_AFP_20190318
- Tonelli, M. E., & Wachholtz, A. B. (2014). Meditation-based treatment yielding immediate relief for meditation-naïve migraineurs. Pain Management Nursing: Official Journal of the American Society of Pain Management Nurses, 15(1), 36–40. doi: 10.1016/j.pmn.2012.04.002. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109722/
- The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA-a). (n.d.). Semel Institute: Mindful Awareness Research Center. Guided Meditations. Retrieved from https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations
- The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA-b). (n.d.). Semel Institute: Mindful Awareness Research Center. Breathing Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/workfiles/Breathing%20Meditation_Transcript.pdf
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.