Alternatives to Meditation

Can't meditate? Relax and give these options a try!
woman enjoying the view of a lake and forest

A wealth of clinical trials and research continues to show that meditation can help improve many health conditions including mental health concerns, cardiovascular disease, cognitive function, as well as help our nervous system cope with and become more resilient to stress. It is not surprising then that neuroimaging and brain scans show that meditation can in fact literally change your brain [1]. A number of areas in the brain change in response to meditation but the most important may be the amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for anxiety, fear and stress. People who practice regular meditation have been shown to have changes in the amygdala that result in a reduction of stress levels as well as an improved response to stress [2,3].

If you want all the wonderful benefits of meditation but the thought of sitting cross-legged under a lotus tree chanting “ohm” has you running for the door, don’t fret! Meditation can take many forms, and it’s up to you to determine what works for you. There are many ways to achieve the benefits of meditation through other activities that create similar positive changes in your body and brain.  

Just breathe

Breathing exercises are often a part of a meditation practice but can also be used on their own for positive health benefits such as decreased stress, anxiety, muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate [4]. Diaphragmatic, or abdominal breathing is the most basic technique and involves breathing deeply through the nose while expanding the abdomen or belly outwards. It can easily be done in just a few seconds while waiting in traffic, grocery shopping, to 'reset' during a busy day, or before bed to promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Left nostril breathing is another technique that has been shown to decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for rest and relaxation [4].

Get a move on

Exercise is truly foundational to overall health and physical activity of any kind is effective at reducing stress and its detrimental effects [5]. However, rhythmic or repetitive types of physical activity, such as hiking, skipping, or running seem to offer the most similar benefits to a meditation practice. Many runners report a meditative “in-the-zone” experience, or “runner’s high” which translates into both physical and mental benefits. Yoga, perhaps more than other types of exercise, may boast additional benefits as it creates positive changes in the brain that mimic meditation [6]. Yoga has also been shown to be effective in treating a variety of mental health concerns (including anxiety and depression), cardiovascular disease, as well as improve cognitive function and mental focus.

Be in nature

Just like meditation, time spent outdoors can improve energy levels, mental health, and help the brain process information and think more clearly [7]. Being in nature can also help enhance creativity and attention span. A walk in the park, gardening, or merely sitting out in your back yard can help to increase your resilience to stress and improve recovery from illness [7]. These benefits can be seen in as little as 5 minutes a day so enjoying a quick walk around the block or enjoying your lunch outside are easy ways to integrate more nature into your day [8]. Better yet, take your exercise outside and reap double the benefits.

Fuel your creativity

Creative hobbies and passions such as music, painting, and photography can yield similar effects as meditation. Hobbies such as these help people achieve a state of mental flow, focus and relaxation. Repetitive hobbies in particular help to active the parasympathetic nervous system, just like the practice of meditation. In a study conducted on over 3500 people, frequent knitters reported feeling more calm, happy, and higher cognitive function [8]. Other activities that require similar mental focus such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku’s can have comparable results. Adult colouring books have become extremely popular over the last year for these exact reasons and are being used as a therapeutic tool for everything from anxiety disorders to recent cancer diagnoses.

Bottom line

A traditional style of meditation isn’t the only way to achieve the positive physical and mental benefits! Pick an activity or hobby that is both enjoyable and sustainable for you and make it a regular habit. In as little as 10 minutes a day you can begin to see the positive effects. Whatever you choose, it’s important to unplug and be completely present in order to reap the rewards. 


[1] Marchand WR. Neural mechanisms of mindfulness and meditation: Evidence from neuroimaging studies. World J Radiol. 2014 Jul 28; 6(7): 471–479.

[2] Brown KW, Bursley JK, Creswell JD et al. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Dec;10(12):1758-68. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv066.

[3] Leung MKChan CCYin J, Lee CFSo KFLee TM. Enhanced amygdala-cortical functional connectivity in meditators. Neurosci Lett. 2015 Mar 17;590:106-10. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2015.01.052.

[4] Bhavanani AB1MadanmohanSanjay Z. Immediate effect of chandra nadi pranayama (left unilateral forced nostril breathing) on cardiovascular parameters in hypertensive patients. Int J Yoga. 2012 Jul;5(2):108-11. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.98221.

[5] Van der Zwan JEde Vente WHuizink ACBögels SMde Bruin EI. Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: a randomized controlled trial. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2015 Dec;40(4):257-68. doi: 10.1007/s10484-015-9293-x.

[6] Desai RTailor ABhatt T. Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A review. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2015 May;21(2):112-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.02.002.

[7] Louv, R. The Nature Principle. 2012. Algonquin Books. New York City, NY.

[8] Barton J, Pretty J. What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (10), pp 3947–3955 DOI: 10.1021/es903183

[9] Riley J, Corkhill B, Morris C. The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2012 Feb;76(2):50