I can remember the looks my fellow reporters and magazine editors gave Andy Puddicombe, meditation expert and co-founder of Headspace, when he said you’re not tired after a meditation — you’re aware of how tired you’ve been. He’d just finished guiding a meditation in the lobby of the Westin New York Grand Central hotel, nearby tables crowded with energizing beet and carrot juices. We were all gathered there to celebrate his appointment to the Westin Wellbeing Council, as even a successful hotel chain recognizes the importance of cultivating happier and healthier lives.

For Puddicombe, a central part of this is meditation. This ancient practice allows us time to rest and focus on a state of consciousness we don’t experience day-to-day. Our attention focuses inward, while at the same time, meditation teaches us the power of stillness. The practice — as you may well know — is associated with reduced feelings in everything from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder. The benefits aren’t only mental, either, they’re physiological.

Scientific American cited research that found an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation shrunk the brain’s amygdala, which is our “fight-or-flight” center. The amygdala is otherwise associated with fear and emotion, and it is “involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.” Additionally, brain scans of meditators versus non-meditators suggested they’re able to remove or lessen painful stimulation.

Having been guided by Puddicombe himself, as well getting lost among the stacks of pro-meditation research, I realized I had zero reasons to not be regularly meditating. I specifically set out to do so for 40 days since some believe it takes 40 days to develop better habits (though you’re more likely to be familiar with the 21- to 30-day schedules). Shephali Agrawal, executive director of the Art of Living-New York City Center, is one of those people.

Agrawal and I initially met for a story I was writing on an increasing number of meditation studios. Toward the end of our conversation, she recommended people, including myself, implement a meditation schedule for 40 days “just to see what happens.”

So I did.

Force Of Habit

Maybe there isn’t a time table for habit learning, but there’s definitely a science. Research presented during last year’s American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention found learning something new engages the basal ganglia, the part of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex that works to start and control movement and emotions.

Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times and author of the best-selling Power of Habit, describes a “habit loop” that occurs after we initially engage the basal ganglia. Essentially, there’s a cue, routine, and reward for all new habits and behavior. The cue signals to our brain when to turn a behavior into routine; the routine is performing said behavior; and the reward is the brain’s own personal cue for when it should recall the learned behavior. Of course, identifying these cues can be difficult.

“Obviously, changing some habits can be more difficult. … Sometimes change takes a long time,” Duhigg wrote. “Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates — once you diagnose the cue, the routine, and the reward — you gain power over it.”

40 Days Of Meditation

Here’s how it went: Every day at 9:30 p.m., I would sit down on the green yoga mat I keep laid out next to my bed and take 10 minutes to meditate. For the first two weeks I used Headspace. The app offers 10 free 10-minute sessions, after which you have the option to continue by signing up for a membership. Once I'd used all the sessions — and not wanting to sign up — I relied on two breathing techniques I learned from the Art of Living Center for the remainder of the experiment.

Using Headspace: I liked how each guided meditation encouraged my mind to do what it wanted: wander, think, or not. A lot of the time people interested in meditation think a single meditation is a cure all (you can’t see me, but my hand is guiltily raised), but it’s not. I think I liked how Puddicombe constantly made the point that changing the mind is changing our relationship with thought — and finding the right balance takes time.

Using Breathing Techniques: I found that the two techniques I learned were ideal for two scenarios: stress and low energy. The technique for stress involved me placing my index, middle, and ring finger on the bridge of my nose, covering my nostrils with my pinky or thumb, depending on which nostril I’m using to inhale. The idea is to inhale deeply through one nostril (the other is covered) and exhale through the other as you cover the one you just used to inhale; rinse, repeat. Given the immediate sense of calm after a couple rounds of this, I sometimes snuck it into my work day.  

The second technique I used would be for energy. I threw my hands up as I deeply inhaled, and I dropped them back down when I exhaled. The technique moves quickly, and like the one I found most useful for moments when I needed calm, this one is repeated a couple times. The pace makes you feel so much more awake, energized, and not going to lie, like you crushed a day of arms at the gym.

The Results

Without a doubt, the combination of Headspace and these breathing techniques for 40 days positively impacted my life. Although I do want to acknowledge the fact this experiment could have been way more scientific. I could have taken my blood pressure, tracked my sleep, and other tests to specifically pin point markers meditation helped to improve. But, I didn’t. I kept it old school, jotting down notes after each session and basing the experiment solely off how I felt. The one major breakthrough I had was in regards to my headache pain.

It was game over when I discovered my office’s supply drawer of ibuprofen. I'd recently found myself fighting two to three headaches each week. This was a fairly new occurence, and I’ve never been one to struggle with headache or migraine in the past. But looking through my journal, I recorded only two instances of headache throughout the experiment.

I’m backed by science on this. One study showed 72 percent of patients with chronic pain experienced fewer migraine headaches, enhanced pain tolerance, and a greater sense of wellbeing after meditation, Everyday Health reported. In a separate study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, a small group of migraine suffers participating in mindfulness-based stress reduction reported fewer migraines per month.

"Secondary effects included headaches that were shorter in duration and less disabling, and participants had increases in mindfulness and self-efficacy — a sense of personal control over their migraines," Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells, lead study author and assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist, told MSN. "In addition, there were no adverse events and excellent adherence."

Connect To The Why

I returned back to the Art of Living Center during my experiment to participate in a free guided meditation led by Agrawal herself. Before guiding us into a nearly 30-minute meditation, she asked us all why we were there. We didn’t have to share if we didn’t want to, but when she came to me, I told her reasons I’d touched on in our initial interview: I knew I needed to be meditating having seen the science, but I could never quite get into a routine. And with a smile, Agrawal called me out.

My answer, she said, was a textbook answer; everyone knows they should meditate. But, to her, you can’t unlock its many benefits if you don’t "connect to the why." Meditation isn’t something to do — it’s the solution for something that needs to be done. In other words, meditation soothes a deeper struggle, providing a foundation for you to address and resolve whatever it may be. Everyone else participating in the meditation really dug deep for their answers; one young woman was moved to tears when she realized how disconnected she was from herself, unsure of what her purpose in life was. She was lost.

I thought about her and Agrawal for the remainder of my experiment. I was truly compelled by the science, yes, but why? I won't lie: it was uncomfortable to focus all of my attention inward to uncover what aspect of myself meditation could truly aid. No headache pain, as I learned, was a bonus. But once I connected to this reason (it gets too Oprah, so let's just say it involves certain insecurities), showing up to meditate got easier. I started to look forward to 10 minutes of quiet.

That said, I don't plan to meditate every single day now that my experiment is over. At times I dreaded having to do it every single day. In fact, some experts suggest avoiding a schedule when trying to develop a new habit. But like Duhigg promised, the 40 days provided greater insight into how a habit of meditation operates. There's less ibuprofen and more unease, but ultimately, there's reward.