An unfortunately large gap exists between the number of meditators who are consistent, excited beginners and the number who become accomplished avid practitioners enjoying intensely beneficial sessions. While some have made this distance with skilled teachers or on trips abroad and retreats, it’s not mandatory. Serious progress can be made with guided meditation (GM) because it is an effective, affordable, accessible, and time-efficient way to improve.
Guided meditation is listening to a trained teacher, recorded instructions, visualizations, or affirmations for a short period of time to obtain a deeper level of meditation. It can be used by beginner or advanced practitioners and has been shown to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and stress, and improve focus.
Unfortunately, I think that conventional thinking on guided meditation limits the number of people who try it when it is exactly what they need to make progress or get more out of their sessions. Beginners often see it as something that is too advanced or too “out there.” Avid meditators often see it just a steppingstone to “real meditation.” The truth lies in the middle and that’s what we are going to cover here. If you are new to meditation, guided meditations can give the structure to experience the benefits sooner so that it becomes a daily thing for you. If you have been meditating for a while, get ready to expand or deepen your practice.
A “Guide” to Guided Meditation
- Who is Guided Meditation For?
- How Can Guided Meditation Be So Affective?
- 6 Primary Styles of Guided Meditation
- 5 Research Benefits of Guided Meditation
- Finding a Free Guided Meditation
- 6 Practical Tips for Getting Started with Guided Meditation
Who is Guided Meditation For?
The first question you have to answer is if meditation guided by audio or video matches your goals. Here are the people who benefit from guided meditation:
Newbies: Absolute beginners who don’t know what they are doing but are motivated to begin meditating. Guided meditation can tell you what to think, say, and do for how long.
Restarters: People who “failed” at meditation because of inconsistency or they had a hard time concentrating. Maybe the instruction wasn’t that great the first time around. Outsource that to a recording and focus on just enjoying the process.
Scattered Thinkers: Guided meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve focus. I grouped those two goals together here because in one case you can’t concentrate on any one thing long enough and in the other case you can concentrate on something but it is something you don’t want to think about! Let guided meditation guide your thoughts.
Hunters: For many of us, we experience one amazing meditation session and then the next few sessions are just okay. This can be frustrating because you think you did everything the same way but don’t know why it changed. Guided meditation can help you tighten up your sessions, so you have more great experiences more often.
Expanders: Practitioners who have been bitten by the meditation bug and make it a regular practice know there are deeper levels and different ways to meditate to achieve different goals. Guided meditation can be that instruction.
The Sleep Deprived: Guided meditation has been really effective at restoring sleep. It aids in relaxing the body and turning off repetitive thoughts that keep us from quickly entering a rest state.
The Injured: If you are recovering from an injury, healing can be promoted by better sleep because that is when the repair occurs. Additionally, reductions in stress hormones like cortisol signal the body to reduce inflammation which allows healing to take place.
How Can Guided Meditation Be So Affective?
There is huge variety in the kinds of people that benefit from guided meditation and without understanding how it works, its success story can seem a bit unrealistic.
Guided meditation works by providing guidance and support to the participant during meditation. The instructor or pre-recorded audio track may use visualization, breathing techniques, or other techniques to promote relaxation and self-discovery. The participant is encouraged to follow the guidance and allow their mind to relax and become more present in the moment. This makes complete sense if you take a step back and think about anything of value that you do routinely:
When have we learned anything in life without instruction?
Yes, people learn meditation on their own. I learned the Micro Cosmic Orbit through reading Mantak Chia’s book. But hearing him speak about it through interviews is what helped me get past the last few hurdles and truly understand the practice. Isn’t it easier to make progress with support, instructions, and examples? The trick is finding a meditation style that you are comfortable with, that fits into your schedule well to maintain consistency, and helps you concretely improv something you are struggling with.
Guided Vs. Unguided Meditation: a transition, not a difference
Most resources you find about the different types of meditation go to great lengths to explain the difference between guided vs. unguided meditation. I personally think this is a huge mistake for four reasons:
- It leads one to think that one is better than the other
- It paints them as two different things when some meditations can be done both ways
- Most meditators employ both
- When we are struggling to learn to meditate in a certain way, we miss the point that GM can be the bridge to silent meditation
In guided meditation, a voice or script is walking you through it. In unguided meditation, you are sitting silently in pursuit of a clear passive state or following a progression of thoughts or tones that you have memorized. Concentration, focus, and patience are gained from practice. It would be better to think of guided meditation through to unguided meditation as a progression.
The 6 Primary Styles of Guided Meditation
There are more than a dozen ways to meditate, and what makes guided meditation hard to define is that it is intertwined with many of the major meditation styles and shares many of the same benefits. Each of the following meditation styles requires learning a sequence of movements, thoughts, tones, or intentions. But at some point, you are no longer guided but undertake the process through habit or memorization.
Does that still make it guided? Yes and no. You need to learn the process but once you get proficient and understand the sensations and outcome you are after, you can alter the focus. For example, healing meditations can include loved ones who are sick. Or visualizations can change with your mood. This isn’t a definitive list, but most guided meditations fall into these six categories.
- Visualization Meditation: This involves using your imagination to create calming or inspiring images in your mind, such as a peaceful beach or a serene forest.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation: This type of GM focuses on cultivating feelings of compassion and kindness towards oneself and others. The participant is guided to repeat phrases such as “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe” or “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe” to promote feelings of positivity and connection.
- Chakra Meditation: This involves focusing on the seven energy centers in the body, or chakras, to promote balance and healing.
- Transcendental Meditation: This involves the use of a specific mantra, or sound, to achieve a deep state of relaxation and inner peace.
- Body Scan Meditation: In this type of GM, the participant is guided to scan their body, starting from the top of the head and working their way down to the toes. This meditation can help individuals become more aware of physical sensations and reduce tension in the body.
- Mindfulness Meditation: This involves focusing on the present moment, being aware of one’s thoughts and surroundings without judgment. The participant may be guided to focus on their breath or bodily sensations to promote mindfulness and relaxation.
The difference between mindfulness and guided meditation
I have included mindfulness in the list above because it is what is accepted by most traditions but I respectfully disagree. My goal in sharing my beliefs here isn’t about being opinionated. When I saw mindfulness and guided meditation as the same thing it actually hurt my progress. If I wasn’t “present” in my meditation when I began I thought it was a bad session or pointless. I thought I wasn’t good at meditation and gave up at times. I think that guided meditation gives you a bit more latitude to really stink at meditation and see yourself as a learner.
Mindfulness has very specific goals which certainly are enhanced by meditation and meditation makes a person more “mindful.” But, mindfulness and guided meditation are not the same thing. Mindfulness practices (as described by the founder Jon Kabot-Zinn) transform simple daily routines into opportunities to be more patient, less judgmental, more present, and less connected to past regrets or future worries. This is how tai chi can make someone more mindful because you practice this connection through a common routine. Meditation guided by a teacher or script deepens a person’s level of relaxation, focus, or makes someone better at that specific meditation.
5 Research Benefits of Guided Meditation
When you start reading about the benefits of guided meditation1 it becomes apparent why millions of people report having used guided meditation2 and why so many styles of mediation have created auditory, written, and video materials to support people to improve their practice. The primary benefits of guided meditation include improving focus, improved outlook and mental health, reducing stress and anxiety, healing, and better sleep. Focus and mental health have been covered more extensively in other literature and we have written about on this blog. We’ll highlight them here but then dive deeper in to anxiety, healing, and sleep. That is where the benefits are really mind-blowing and are now backed up with tons of research.
Guided meditation can help to improve focus and concentration by promoting awareness of the present moment. For those of us who are overrun by technology or tremendous workloads, guided meditations can acutely improve how well we concentrate.
2.Improved Outlook and Mental Health
This side of the pandemic mental health has taken a front seat in any conversation about how and why we are struggling to keep up with our daily tasks and find a balance between our work, community, and mental, and physical health. Guided meditation can help us keep everything in perspective.
3.Reduced Stress and Anxiety
Using guided meditation for anxiety is successful because it helps individuals to calm their mind, reduce stress, and cultivate a sense of relaxation and inner peace. Anxiety is a common mental health condition that can be characterized by excessive worry, fear, and nervousness. It can lead to a variety of physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and shallow breathing.
Guided meditation can help to reduce anxiety by activating the relaxation response in the body. This response is a natural physiological process that counteracts the body’s stress response, leading to a reduction in physical symptoms of anxiety. Guided meditation techniques can also help to shift an individual’s focus away from their worries and negative thoughts, and instead help them to focus on positive, calming images or sensations.
And these benefits have been recorded through scientific experiments. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that guided meditation was effective in reducing anxiety levels in a group of adults with generalized anxiety disorder. The study participants who practiced guided meditation experienced significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety, as well as improvements in overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Tara Brach Guided Meditation
A great started point for materials on guided meditation for anxiety is Tara Brach. She has focused many of her meditations specifically on anxiety and mental health. Here is a talk she gave on transforming your relationship with anxiety.
4. Guided Sleep Meditation
With 1-in-10 U.S. adults taking medication for sleep and 50-70 million Americans reporting that they have a chronic sleep disorder, it is clear why there has been massive interest in using guided meditation for sleep as a non-chemical, non-invasive alternative. It is really a no-brainer. If you are suffering from sleeping issues, trying guided meditation for sleeping better or one of the many guided sleep meditation YouTube videos is quick, easy, and free. Let’s start with the science to see the studies that back it up and then move on to some examples on YouTube of guided sleep meditation by Jason Stephenson.
5. The Explosion of Guided Sleep Meditation
Guided sleep meditation involves a guided imagery or visualization that is designed to help individuals relax, release stress and tension, and promote a peaceful state of mind, which can ultimately lead to better sleep quality. This type of meditation is often recommended for people who experience insomnia, anxiety, or stress-related sleep disorders.
Research has shown that guided meditation can be an effective tool for improving sleep quality. One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that guided meditation was effective in improving sleep quality and reducing symptoms of insomnia in a group of adults with sleep disorders. The study participants who practiced guided meditation experienced significant improvements in sleep quality, as well as reductions in sleep onset latency, wake after sleep onset, and daytime fatigue.3
Guided meditation works by engaging the mind in a specific sequence of calming and relaxing images or sounds, helping to quiet the mind and reduce mental chatter. This type of meditation encourages the release of tension in the body and allows the body to enter into a state of deep relaxation.4 Guided meditation can be particularly helpful for those who have trouble quieting their minds on their own or who find it difficult to relax and let go of stress and tension.
When practicing guided meditation for sleep, it is recommended to find a quiet and comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Begin by focusing on your breathing, taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe, allow yourself to relax more deeply with each breath.
Some of the best guided sleep meditation comes from meditator Jason Stephenson who has made content directly targeting sleep disorders. I love the title of this one. It’s called the Sleep Talk Down which makes me laugh because it points to the desperation that many of us feel when you have had a bad run of several nights of sleep.
Jason Stephenson Guided Sleep Meditation
Deep Sleep Guided Meditation
There are specific meditations that target getting into deeper sleep faster and staying there longer. This is especially important for people who are unable to sleep for long periods of time or have chaotic schedules.
5. Guided Meditation for Healing
Guided meditation has been shown to be effective in promoting healing and recovery from a variety of physical and mental health conditions. This is because guided healing meditation works by inducing a state of deep relaxation, which can help to reduce stress and promote overall well-being. When the body is in a state of deep relaxation, it is better able to heal and recover from injury or illness.
Research now backs up what meditators have known for centuries; anyone of any age or energy level can use guided meditation for healing. For example, a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that guided sleep meditations and relaxation techniques were effective in reducing pain and anxiety in patients undergoing surgery.7 Another study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that guided meditation was effective in reducing symptoms of chronic pain in patients with fibromyalgia.5
Guided meditation to heal has also been shown to be effective in promoting and recovery from mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. A meta-analysis of 39 studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that mindfulness-based interventions, which often incorporate guided meditation, were effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.6
Finding a Free Guided Meditation
If you fall into any of the categories above and see how people are benefiting from being guided, you are probably excited to try it out. The good news is that the scientific community and YouTube have made many great free guided meditation recordings available that they organized from their research.
UCLA Health Guided Meditations in Many Languages
The University of California, Los Angeles has put together an extensive library of free guided meditation recordings, podcasts, apps, and drop-in classes. Most importantly, they have translated the recordings into several languages!
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Guided Meditations
The VA has put together a series of guided meditations to calm the nervous system and improve mental health. It is a well-organized resource giving you access to several free guided meditations on breathing, sound meditation, body scan meditation, and loving kindness meditation.
Easily Finding YouTube Guided Meditations
YouTube guided meditations are a bit of a challenge to navigate. On one hand, some of the best guided meditation can be found on YouTube because most of the competent instructors have posted recordings to introduce themselves and contribute to the global consciousness movement. On the other hand, not everyone on YouTube is speaking from a place of experience and some of the content on YouTube is a mixture of guided meditation styles or areas of focus. This isn’t to say they are bad, but just maybe less researched or effective.
YouTube’s strength is in crowd sourcing a ton of information on one topic, making it easily accessible, and exposing you to many genres and teachers so you have an overview of a subject before you commit to one style. Keeping that in mind, the most effective way to use the meditation guided by YouTube creators is to find the type of guided meditation style that interests you most (e.g., body scan) and then find a time limit that is completely doable for you over a period of time. This could even be 5 minutes! Many consistent sessions are better than one long session inconsistently when you are trying out free guided meditation.
As an example, here are some good guided meditation YouTube sessions that range from 5-20 minutes:
5 Minute Guided Meditations
10 Minute Guided Morning
15 Minute Guided Meditation
20 Minute Guided Meditation
6 Practical Tips for Getting Started with Guided Meditation
At this point hopefully you can see that guided meditation is a powerful tool that can help individuals manage stress, improve focus, and increase self-awareness. If you are interested in practicing guided meditation, the following tips will help you get started.
Choose a quiet, comfortable space.
Find a quiet space where you can sit or lie down comfortably without being disturbed. You may want to use pillows or blankets to support your body and make yourself as comfortable as possible – no double lotus position needed!
Select a guided meditation.
Start with any of the meditations listed above but be sure to choose one that resonates with you, and that focuses on an area that you want to improve. Some guided meditations focus on stress reduction, while others focus on mindfulness or self-compassion. If your personality doesn’t match what they are asking for or if you aren’t focused on something you are wanting to improve, you aren’t likely to continue.
Set an intention.
Before you begin your guided meditation, set an intention for the session. This can be as simple as a word or phrase that represents what you hope to achieve during the meditation. For example, your intention might be to let go of stress or to focus on self-compassion.
Follow the guide or guided meditation script.
As you begin your guided meditation, focus on the voice of your guide or the guided meditation script. Video or audio is easiest but remember that these are less than 50 years new while guided meditation has been around for centuries. Allow their prompts and suggestions to guide you through the meditation, and try to let go of any distractions or thoughts that arise.
Engage the senses.
Sessions are way more effective the more you can engage all the senses. This could include candles or things that smell great. But it can also be just rotating between what you are sensing with your body, breathing, listening for your heart beat, focusing with the eyes, and listening intently. A little secret – this will help you break away from repetitive thinking or whatever is going on in your day-to day.
Like any skill, guided meditation takes practice to master. Try to practice at least once a day, preferably at the same time each day. Over time, you may find that your ability to focus and relax improves, and you may experience a greater sense of calm and well-being.
In addition to the above tips, it can be helpful to remember that guided meditation is a personal practice, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s important to approach each session with an open mind and to be kind and compassionate to yourself throughout the process.
Potential Challenges and How to Overcome Them
I want to make it abundantly clear that the majority of people who have been successful using guided meditations did not get it right the first time. Which guided meditation you choose really depends on your personality and goals. There are so many forms of guided meditation that you really have to try things out.
The first time I heard guided meditation, I was pretty weirded out because the instructor was so serious that I felt like I was being indoctrinated into something. This second time the video, music, and voice were so campy (to me) that I thought it was a spoof on guided meditation and kept laughing. There is something out there for everyone! Keep hunting around until you find something that matches your personality and goals.
If you are an inexperienced practitioner, guided meditation is a great way to start but it isn’t distraction-proof. We all have to work through the limits of our own concentration. All meditators battle difficulty in focusing, getting distracted, boredom, and overcoming resistance.
- Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041-1056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
- Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychiatric research, 95, 156-178. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.08.004
- Black, D. S., et al. “Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 175, no. 4, 2015, pp. 494-501.
- Mehta, R. K., et al. “Guided Imagery, Relaxation, and Sleep Quality in Persons With Insomnia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Holistic Nursing, vol. 38, no. 4, 2020, pp. 354-362.
- Grossman, P., Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, U., Raysz, A., & Kesper, U. (2007). Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: Evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 76(4), 226-233. doi: 10.1159/000101501
- Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183. doi: 10.1037/a0018555
- Syrjala, K. L., Cummings, C., & Donaldson, G. W. (1992). Hypnosis or cognitive behavioral training for the reduction of pain and nausea during cancer treatment: A controlled clinical trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(5), 713-717. doi: 10.1037/0022-006x.60.5.713