I really resisted getting into meditation. I thought it was too quiet, boring, and unproductive—I like action. But I noticed the calm in people who meditated often, and I'd read how the brains of those who meditate become wired in ways that help us function better despite common stressors. Now I think that those of us who are wary of meditation are probably the ones who need it the most.
So I've meditated every day for 80 days now. This is—by far—my longest stretch, and I never thought I'd last this long. I began meditating to handle some pretty intense stress, and after a couple of months, I noticed that my sleep had seriously improved: I fell asleep more quickly at night and stopped waking up in a panic. A stress-induced skin rash I'd developed disappeared, and I was better able to manage difficult situations.
One thing that helped me get into it has been Insight Timer, an app that offers free access to hundreds of meditations and a way to track hours spent meditating. It's been incredibly helpful for me. Here, I've rounded up some of the best free meditations I've used over the past 80 days for you to try out, some from Insight Timer and from other sources too.
My list includes meditations that are short, long, guided, unguided, by women and men, so you can find what works best for you. Some people want longer times for silence, while others find the long silences stressful and prefer guided meditations. Lack of time is a common reason people don't meditate, so with that in mind, I've included a meditation as short as one minute.
Tara Brach, Vipassana (Basic) Meditation, 15 minutes
Insight Timer app or SoundCloud
Tara Brach's soothing voice guides you through every step of this meditation. I think this one is excellent for a complete beginner because she reminds listeners not to worry if thoughts pass through their minds while trying to meditate. She invites us to compare our thoughts to the weather, noting that they're both similarly passing. I've ended up returning to this meditation often.
Lisa Hubler, Healing Relaxation, 24 minutes
Insight Timer app
In one of Hubler's bios, she mentions that her friends will ask her to talk to them on the phone so they can fall asleep more easily. I'm not surprised; her soothing voice may be her superpower. At the start of this meditation, she invites us in for healing and relaxation. After this meditation, I was so relaxed that I felt like I'd just received a massage. My muscles felt loose, and I fell asleep easily.
Shawn Leahy, Cabin Retreat-Light Rain on Roof, 30 minutes
Insight Timer app
This meditation opens with the sound of rain, which continues for 30 minutes. Recently, I played it and let myself drift off for a nap. At one point, I woke up and felt anxious, but I focused my attention on the sound of the rain and quickly drifted back to sleep. I've used this for both naps and evening sleep, and it works well in both cases. I'm always surprised by the good quality of the sound.
Suparni Neuwirth, Yoga Nidra: Guided Meditation for a Deep Sleep and Relaxation, 7 minutes
Yoga Nidra doesn't require doing yoga. Instead, it's often done lying down while a teacher guides you through relaxation methods. This video opens with deep breathing and asks you to position your body in a comfortable way before moving on to having you focus on areas of the body—right down to your individual toes and fingers—to release tension and promote sleep.
In this recording, you'll hear peaceful instrumental music and a soothing voice to help you release tension, first on one side of your body and then the other. Once you learn these techniques, you can use them when you're having trouble falling asleep, whether or not you have a teacher or recording to guide you.
Pable Arellano, I See You Harp, 47 minutes
Insight Timer app
Over the years, massage therapists would play background music featuring harps when working on me. I knew the massage helped me sleep better, but what about the relaxing music? After I became comfortable with the basics of meditation, I decided to test harp music to see if it would help me improve my sleep. As expected, this music blocks out noise. Secondly, it induced a relaxed state that helped to calm my mind. If you prefer to listen to music instead of words when heading to sleep, then this is a good recording to try.
Joshua Canter, Om Mani Padme Hum, 12 minutes
Insight Timer app
In The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche writes that reciting the "Om Mani Padme Hum" mantra helps "achieve perfection in the six practices, from generosity to wisdom." Chanting along to this isn't required, of course, but doing so can relax your body, and I found that the act of chanting focused my mind—fewer random thoughts raced through my head—and the minutes passed by quickly. With my first try, I didn't always follow the voice or tune properly, but that didn't matter. By the end, I felt more focused than I had earlier and was better able to sleep.
Lisa Hubler, Deep Trance Sleep Healing, 60 minutes
Insight Timer app
One night, my daughter couldn't fall asleep, but we both had to be up early the next day. She asked if she could try the meditations I'm always talking about. I first played Hubler's "Healing Relaxation," mentioned above, and my daughter liked how Hubler's calm speaking voice kept thoughts at bay—but she didn't fall asleep.
This longer meditation includes relaxation techniques that ask us to focus on an area of our body and release tension there. As the meditation progresses, we're invited to relax areas we previously relaxed in order to enter a deeper state of calm. My daughter and I both fell asleep quickly.
Tara Brach, Saying Yes to Life, 13 minutes
I started using this particular meditation because it was short and I was impatient. Brach's website describes this as guided practice that invites you to awaken a "relaxed and friendly attention that rests in the breath and opens to whatever is arising." In many of her meditations, she advises us to observe what arises—thoughts or emotions—without becoming entangled in them. I appreciate Brach teaching that we can note a thought's appearance and simply let it go.
Peder B. Hellend, The Sea, 25 minutes
I found this after Googling "relaxing harp music." I wanted to see if I would like it and felt like experimenting, and I'm glad I did. In my experience, finding ways to de-stress throughout the day means I'll have an easier time getting to bed at night. Since this music is instrumental, I use it both as a way to help me fall asleep and as a way to provide calm during my workday.
Cara Bradley, 1-Minute Grounding Meditation, 1:23
In this video, Bradley sits on a fallen tree trunk in Valley Forge National Park and shares a meditation and brief "how-to." If you're new to meditation, this provides an introduction to the basics and shows you how you can regain calm even if you only have a short period of time.
I once thought I couldn't take time for meditation, but I think I was overcomplicating the idea by thinking I needed certain tools or lots of time. Meditation can take a minute and doesn't have to require special materials. The other day, I spent 90 seconds standing outside my car in a parking lot feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. These small moments of joy are everywhere, and once you learn these basic techniques, you'll have a repeatable way to gain calm anywhere.Deborah Ager is a writer, marketer, and terrible yogi. She’s a business book ghostwriter and founded her company to help business leaders become known. Connect with her on Twitter @deborahager1.