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How Long Should You Practise Mindfulness Meditation?

More and more people are taking up mindfulness meditation, for health optimisation, stress reduction, and other reasons. But how long do you need to sit for? Advice ranges from about a minute or less to a couple of hours a day. In this article I'm going to present some data showing more is better, at least to a degree, and in one aspect.

I regularly record biosignals during my meditation practice (in fact I use biofeedback to support mindfulness - here I explain why). Here is a graph showing my muscle tension over the course of a meditation session.

emg or muscle tension graph

Let me explain what you're seeing. I recorded EMG data from my forehead. EMG or electromyography is a correlate of muscle tension, and the forehead placement picks up a generalised measure of tension in the head, and in particular the face. I find it a useful biofeedback parameter for meditation because it responds to certain distracting influences very well - more on that later.

I also record my breath, and each dot you see represents the EMG for one breath. You can imagine that muscle tension varies over a breath cycle, and the two traces show the maximum and the minimum per breath. The mimimum EMG is the one I'm mostly interested in - it's the lighter pink trace, and the lower, in the graph.

Muscle Tension Drops Gradually Over The Meditation

What happens is, you see the trace getting gradually lower and lower over the course of the meditation which lasts for 25 minutes.

Now, I've been practising both meditation and biofeedback for many years now - about 28 in the case of mindfulness meditation. I kind of know what I'm doing - at least I can say I know how to relax muscles. Often I can fully relax my muscles very quickly, in just a few seconds maybe - but often I can't. As you can see, in this session it took about 20 minutes. (Actually this tends to be particularly the case in the evening - it's usually much easier for me to fully relax when I meditate in the morning.) Clearly if I'd cut the practice shorter than 20 minutes I'd have missed out on some relaxation.

As an aside, here are a couple of minor observations:

  • I doubt there was much more relaxation to be had, even if I'd sat for longer.
  • Actually the graph turns upwards in the last few minutes - perhaps I was getting restless and had had enough.
  • I've only shown one graph but this one is not untypical.

How Biofeedback Helped

I didn't just record muscle tension during this meditation, I had live real-time feedback (i.e. biofeedback).

I think it played a big part in enabling me to steadily relax over the session. Although I can't prove it with data, I believe that when I don't have muscle tension biofeedback, my muscle tension probably doesn't drop significantly beyond the first minute or so of the session.

Having the feedback there (and it's worth saying I have audio feedback in a pretty non-intrusive form) seems to incentivise me to maintain awareness of my facial tension, and keep on allowing it relax. The biofeedback device doesn't relax for me, and the feedback doesn't change the essential nature of the mental application I use in mindfulness practice, which is to allow changes to unfold naturally, but with awareness and some encouragement.

Detecting Distractions

Perhaps a more important way that biofeedback helps me is by flagging up distractions. The nature of distractions is that they're hard to spot because they seem to creep in when you're not looking, or when your awareness has somehow faded.

In my case, what I've noticed is that when a self-critical thought comes into my head (and I do get my share of them) it pretty reliably triggers a rise in the measured facial muscle tension. The biofeedback then alerts me before I would otherwise have noticed, and I can more or less immediately respond by returning to present moment awareness and letting go (of the thought and of the tension).

Conclusion: How Long Should You Meditate?

I recommend my clients sit for 10 to 15 minutes or more. Longer is better, as long as it doesn't make the practice a chore or a drudge, which I think is counter-productive. Personally, I rarely meditate for longer than 30 minutes (at home at least). I'm not saying you don't need to do more, but I think you can be pretty effective in that time - effective in changing your state of mind and body.

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