Mindfulness is a hot topic, with its benefits linked to supporting mental health, lowering stress, improving sleep and boosting focus and productivity. It is the practice of being fully present in the current moment. That includes where we are, what we are doing, and not getting too overwhelmed by what is going on around us.1 Practices can be seated, walking, standing, or movement. 

The most popular form of mindfulness is meditation. While all forms of meditation have general benefits, you can use some practices for specific goals like improving focus, calming your mind for sleep and managing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.  Here are some of the most popular styles:

Mantra meditation

In mantra meditation you use a mantra, a word, phrase or syllable, to focus your attention on. The mantra is the main focus point and is repeated throughout the practice. It’s one of the easiest ways to get started with meditation as it gives you an easy focal point. 

The practice simply involves repeating your mantra and noticing feelings that arise. It’s has been shown to help lower feelings of depression, stress and anxiety. The mantra can serve as a positive affirmation or reminder that can pull our minds out of the thought patterns we can get stuck in. Compared to a control or journaling practice, mindfulness meditation was more effective at improving mental health symptoms.1

Focused attention meditation

This practice uses a focus point to hold your attention throughout the practice. It can be a word, a sound, an image, or your breath. This acts like an anchor, something for you to return to when your mind wanders. 

The practice involves relaxing your body, then focusing your attention on the sensations of your focal point.  For example, if you’re using your breath as your anchor, notice how the air feels coming in and out of your nose. Is there a smell in the air? Do you feel any tightness when you inhale? You want to do more than just think about it, you want to fully experience it.

Another part of the practice is acknowledging the thoughts you have without judgment and bringing attention back to the focal point. By consistently returning to the point of focus is what helps strengthen your focus and eventually allow you to become aware of thoughts and feelings in the present moment. 

This type of meditation can help with improving attention and holding focus for longer periods of time. You learn to ignore distractions around you, which can help with focus at work and boosting productivity.  It can also help with managing emotions. As you practice observing things around you without reacting, you can start to use that when different emotions get triggered. You learn to simply observe them as they are and not let them overwhelm you.2

Mindfulness meditation (also called present-moment meditation)

This type of meditation is simply staying in the present rather than thinking about the future or the past. This can range from noticing the sensations of brushing our teeth, or tasting all the flavors when eating lunch to a more formal practice when sitting down and focusing on your. 

You can do this practice anywhere as it involves becoming aware of the different feelings and sensations in your body and breath. The temperature of the air around you, the smells and sounds, and the rhythm of your breathing. The next step is to notice your emotions and thoughts, without creating any attachment to them. The work is to experience them as if they are simply a cloud floating across the sky. 

There has been a lot of research done on mindful meditation, showing a variety of benefits from emotional management to physical health conditions. Mindfulness training showed significant increases in experiencing positive emotions and decreases in depressive symptoms in people with a life-history of recurrent depression.3  Mindfulness meditation also significantly reduced anxiety and depression by improving awareness of everyday experiences. 4 

In response to decreasing anxiety, research has also found significantly lower blood pressure, and improvements in heart disease as well as being preventative for those with healthy hearts. 

Loving Kindness (also known as Metta meditation)

When practicing loving kindness meditation, you positive energy to people in your life (near and far, liked or disliked). It’s a way to feel connected and compassionate towards others. Not only do we feel good  after the practice, but it’s known to feel inspiring, motivating and transformative.

This practice cultivates an intense feeling of love within you that you send out and share with others you love, know or strangers that you wish well. It’s known to help with anger management, feeling socially connected and building compassion. Research has also shown that loving kindness is better at promoting positive emotions in daily life than practicing a compassion practice. 5 

Yoga nidra

Despite having “yoga” in the name, yoga nidra is actually a form of meditation practice. It combines guided meditation with a specific yoga pose called corpse pose, or shavasana in sanskrit. It’s been primarily used to create a deep state of relaxation which can help promote better sleep. 

Yoga nidra works by calming the nervous system through inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) promoting the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This decreases the “active mode” that most of our bodies are in the habit of running on all the time allowing us to tune out the world around us. By putting your body into a relaxed state, you are automatically preparing it for sleep. Many reasons it’s hard for us to fall asleep are all the thoughts going through our heads. Studies have shown that yoga nidra can change dopamine release (the “feel-good” hormone) and blood flow in the brain leading to different benefits like increased mood and brain function. 6

Brain effects of meditation

With all the interest in meditation in recent years, research has delved into the mechanisms of how meditation works in our brain. We’ve found that our brain can actually change when we practice meditation. For example, mindfulness meditation is associated with changes in brain areas responsible for task management and attention.7  Whereas, loving-kindness meditation increases activity in brain regions that process emotions and emotional response. 8  This distinction is important for people looking to improve specific aspects of their lives. In general however,  studies suggest that meditation can enhance cognition, memory, and attention, while reducing emotional reactivity, stress, anxiety, and depression over time.

Regular meditation practice also increases blood flow to the brain which creates a stronger network of blood vessels in the cerebral cortex – the outermost part of your brain that is responsible for major functions like reasoning, emotion, thought, language, consciousness, and yes, memory.9

The takeaway

While there are different types of mediation the styles mentioned here seem to address some of the biggest challenges we see today including, focus and productivity, emotional regulation and mood, mental health like depression and anxiety and sleep.

Finding a practice that works for you and that you want to do is the best way to start building a meditation habit. And remembering that it’s called a practice for a reason and will take time and consistency to hone your skills. But if you’re looking for a relatively simple way to biohack your brain, meditation is a great place to start.

  1. Tseng A. A. (2022). Scientific Evidence of Health Benefits by Practicing Mantra Meditation: Narrative Review. International journal of yoga, 15(2), 89–95. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoy.ijoy_53_22  
  2. Menezes, C. B., de Paula Couto, M. C., Buratto, L. G., Erthal, F., Pereira, M. G., & Bizarro, L. (2013). The improvement of emotion and attention regulation after a 6-week training of focused meditation: a randomized controlled trial. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 984678 . https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/984678 
  3. Geschwind, N., Peeters, F., Drukker, M., van Os, J., & Wichers, M. (2011). Mindfulness training increases momentary positive emotions and reward experience in adults vulnerable to depression: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 79(5), 618–628. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024595 
  4. Evans, S., Ferrando, S., Findler, M., Stowell, C., Smart, C., & Haglin, D. (2008). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of anxiety disorders, 22(4), 716–721. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.07.005 
  5. Zeng, X., Chiu, C. P., Wang, R., Oei, T. P., & Leung, F. Y. (2015). The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1693. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693  
  6. Pandi-Perumal, S. R., Spence, D. W., Srivastava, N., Kanchibhotla, D., Kumar, K., Sharma, G. S., Gupta, R., & Batmanabane, G. (2022). The Origin and Clinical Relevance of Yoga Nidra. Sleep and vigilance, 6(1), 61–84. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41782-022-00202-7  
  7. Valk, S. L., Bernhardt, B. C., Trautwein, F. M., Böckler, A., Kanske, P., Guizard, N., Collins, D. L., & Singer, T. (2017). Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training. Science advances, 3(10), e1700489. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700489  
  8. Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage, 45(3), 672–678. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.12.061   
  9. Tang, YY., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci 16, 213–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916