Do you have a lot of stress in your life? Are you looking for something that will help you relax, but don’t want to spend a lot of money? Consider meditation. This ancient method, which focuses on the mind-body connection, is good not only for your mind, but also for your overall wellness. Anyone of any fitness level or age can do forms of it—whether you’re practicing yoga or just sitting in a quiet room and clearing your mind. In its most basic form, meditation is simple, free and easy to do anywhere. In some instances, meditation classes are offered for free or low-cost.

John Killen Jr., MD, the deputy director of the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), teams up with RH to help you understand the benefits of this calming practice.

What is it?
Meditation, which originated from Eastern religions thousands of years ago, challenges practitioners to rid themselves of everyday thoughts by focusing their attention exclusively on something else. For example, instead of thinking about a bad day at work or the troubling economy, you can sit and repeatedly say “Om” or other traditional chants. If chanting is not for you, you can focus your mind on your breathing or on an object in the room such as a lamp, cup or picture.

“Meditation accompanies a wide variety of practices,” Killen says. “Many things get lumped into the category.” The practice can include a range of activity, from just sitting on a pillow and focusing for 10 minutes, taking a yoga class for an hour or practicing tai chi, which is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical movements and stretching.

How does meditation affect the body?
“By calming the mind, it can help engage certain pathways, including the physiological pathways and lower [stress hormones] levels,” Killen explains. Meditation can also affect the ways in which the brain, mind, and the rest of the body interact, which can affect your health.

What are the benefits?
While past research and studies have shown a positive correlation between meditation, emotion stability and better health, the specifics are not quite understood. But what we do know is that meditation can address stress, anxiety and depression by balancing your emotions and lifting your spirits. Also, some people have found relief from arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, depression, insomnia, high-blood pressure, cancer, HIV/AIDS and heart disease by practicing meditation.

“There is a lot of exciting research that is happening now in this field,” Killen says. “The jury is still out on most, but it’s [deeply] interesting.”

Does it conflict with my religion?
While meditation has religious origins, many people of different faiths and ethnicities practice it without any conflicts. “Meditation can be very secular nowadays,” Killen says. “Also, one can capture the benefits of the technique without engaging in or knowing anything about the spiritual tradition from which the technique emerged.”

How can I get started with my own meditation routine?
RH suggests opening your mind and starting slow. For example, if you want to meditate by sitting in quiet surroundings in your home, start by doing so for five minutes every day for a week and then build to 10 minutes each day the following week. Also, consistency is key—don’t expect to try it twice and be able to do it and then reap the benefits in a short amount of time.

Killen offers this non-scientific advice: “The main thing is to try something, stick with it a while, and if it doesn’t work for you, don’t throw the baby away with the bath water,” he says. “Just like other forms of exercise, different people are attracted to different things. Keep looking and find what you like.”

To learn more, read NCCAM’s meditation page.

Real Health Suggests You…

Read: Meditation Bliss: Inspirational Techniques for Finding Calm (Duncan Baird Publishing, $9.95)
This wonderfully illustrated book offers dozens of daily 10-minute routines that can be done anytime and anywhere.

Watch and listen to: Meditation Media Set (Gaiam, $20)
The package includes one DVD, Yoga for Meditation, and an audio CD, Meditate, that features music from world-renowned composer Peter Davison.

*Real Health understands that although complementary and alternative health treatments are widely used, they are not for everyone and should not replace any current traditional medicines or treatments recommended by your doctor. While there is anecdotal evidence that alternative therapies are effective for some people, we do not know of any scientific studies establishing that these treatments are or are not effective. Speak with your health practitioner about the benefits of adopting CAM into your lifestyle.