The Spa Finder Wellness 365 Trends Report predicted 2013 would be the year of “mindful living” — and they were right. They were so right that they didn’t know how right they were. The idea to be mindful or mindfully meditate continues to be a focus of health and wellness as we head into 2015.
To be fair, meditation’s effort to break out of early civilization caves and into the mainstream has been a slow, albeit steady build. Archaeologists found evidence of wall art, including figures sitting on the ground with their legs crossed, from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. And The Chopra Center dates the earliest documentation back to 1,500 BCE.
Contemplation, thought, thinking, and pondering are words we interchange with meditation — but this doesn’t accurately define the practice itself. Yoga International said “meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state.” Meditation allows people to experience the center of consciousness within, while also teaching the power of stillness.
In this respect, the practice — mindfulness and its many other forms, such as transcendental meditation — is an aspect of yoga. So it was only a matter of time before meditation went beyond the mainstream and into studios and centers across the world, too. Just this past April,Prevention reported on a noticeable trend after Unplug Meditation, a new studio in Santa Monica, Calif., opened up for the public to participate in 45-minute classes every hour, on the hour.
It would seem the conversation surrounding meditation is no longer concerned with the “why;” it’s undeniable the practice elevates health and wellness. Instead, the conversation is steered toward the “how.” Meditation centers (and apps) are designed with this in mind, especially for those still of the opinion there’s no time to be still and also get to work, and cook dinner, and do everything else… in time.
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Confession: I downloaded Headspace, a popular meditation app, months ago and maybe used it twice. Calm is another app I’ve downloaded, and I felt so guilty every time I ignored the notification to take a quick break that I deleted it. Basically, time is why I’m wary of regular practice, too. It’s one of the first things I mention to Shephali Agrawal, executive director of the Art of Living Center in midtown Manhattan. I say, I know meditation is really healthy for me, but I just can’t find the time. This excuse makes her chuckle, though not at me.
“It’s not the excuse part,” she tells me. “It’s that, we don’t have time to not do it. If someone actually has that practice of meditation, everything moves so much faster and clearer and effortlessly. If you’re a writer, it’s like saying, ‘I don’t have the time to sharpen my pencil, so I’m going to write with the nub.’ It’s blunt and not working well.”
Growing up, Agrawal remembers things, like yoga and meditation, being esoteric; now, she sees it all over the place.
“In the last 13 years, I’ve seen a growing need for — and recognition that there needs to be — something more to calm the mind, to get back to the self, to be rested and able to voice joy and connection,” Agrawal said.
When you take a look at the science, meditation is the natural solution. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found mindfully meditating for 25 minutes a day for three consecutive days is all it takes to reduce stress levels. Another study found meditation can ease depression and anxiety. Health Central reported mindfulness meditation can improve academic performance, help regulate emotions, fight PTSD and memory loss. In fact, a study published in Psychological Science found it both improves memory and keeps the mind from (always) wandering.
It’s no surprise, then, psychotherapists consider mindfulness meditation a form of cognitive therapy. Additionally, studies have shown meditation can curb cravings, treat insomnia, protect against chronic pain and disease, even positively influence the DNA of recovering breast cancer patients.
Every person can reap these benefits, be it in the comfort of their own home, with the help of an app, or in a studio. However, not every person can meditate exactly the same.
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The Art of Living New York Center is one of many built as an extension of the Art of Living Foundation. In 2001, after 9/11, the foundation offered free courses to New Yorkers affected by the attacks. The overwhelming response made the foundation realize it needed to establish a presence in the city. Today, the center offers a variety of courses (one of which is still free) rooted in traditional Sahaj Samadhi.
“A ‘good meditation center’ is connected to a tradition of masters, where the knowledge has been handed down over thousands and thousands of years, from one teacher to the next,” Agrawal said.
At the foundation’s Manhattan location, three popular courses are the happiness program, aSahaj Samadhi meditation, and a silence retreat. Each is just how it sounds; meditators will focus on their breath, learn tailored techniques to focus on the breath and settle their nervous system before being guided to a meditative state. Agrawal emphasizes the courses allow people to personalize their meditation, providing mantras and tools to help each person experience a deep, stress-free, meditative bliss.
“Meditation is a vacation for the body, spirit, and mind,” Agrawal said. “The chattering in your mind over a few days actually reduces and you gain a lot of energy.”
Offering a similar vacation is The Transcendental Meditation (TM) Center in New York’s financial district. The TM center is rooted in the Veda teachings of ancient India, the otherwise ancient scriptures of hymns and religious texts written in Sanskirt.
This particular center offers a four-day consecutive course, in which participants go through an induction ceremony, receive one-on-one training with certified teachers and instructors, and graduate with the ability to return and meditate any time they’d like to in the future.
What’s interesting about TM is its individualized benefits. A study published in the journalCirculation found patients with coronary heart disease report a 48 percent reduction in death, heart attack, and stroke, compared to patients who don’t practice TM. A similar studypublished in Hypertension found TM is the only meditative technique that has been shown to lower blood pressure. Outside of science, TM improves focus, rest, and happiness in schools; productivity and social behavior in the office; and moral reasoning in prisons.
A Beginner’s Guide
I attended an introductory talk for both (obviously) the Art of Living and TM center. Both opened with the benefits of practicing meditation, with the TM Center spending more time with the actual science and meditation’s effects on the brain; meditation makes brain waves much more orderly and allows individuals to live a more vibrant lifestyle, one teacher said.
While the TM center naturally progressed to an overview of their center’s amenities and courses before opening it up to questions, Art of Living guided a nearly 30-minute meditation. The room I was sitting in was minimal and cozy — still unbelievable considering I was around the corner from Herald Square — with chairs and blankets arranged on yoga mats for each person. Yes; I meditated under a blanket.
And yet, the blankets aren’t the sole reason I would return here over the TM center. I walked into their loft-like, almost secret oasis and instantly felt more calm. Agrawal, and each teacher I spoke to afterward, was welcoming and enthusiastic — and their practice felt like one I wouldn’t just kept up with, but one I’d want to keep up with; the TM center felt a little more formal, which isn’t to say any less serene or helpful.
That right there is the first step to cultivating daily practice: research. A majority of meditation studios and centers offer free introductory talks and courses, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about a particular studio and the people you’ll encounter, especially if it’s been difficult to cultivate a practice on your own. Center courses range in price, but some are an upward of $400. If the number is overwhelming, consider it the same way you do an annual gym membership. It’s an investment to better your mind and body.
Next, schedule meditation the same way you would a workout. It can be as little as five minutes or it can be as long as 30 minutes. One breathing technique I learned at the Art of Living center is one I can easily do during my lunch hour. Apps, like Headspace and Calm, make it so you can meditate anywhere.
And whether you stay home or go into a studio, know that you will not buzz with a sense of enlightenment after your first session. Thoughts will come up — and at the TM center, they’re encouraged. The mind’s ability to shift is a liability; it’s geared toward challenge and wants more, which is to be expected even during meditation.
Once you land on a style and schedule of meditation you like, give yourself 40 days, Agrawal said. Science traditionally says it takes as long to develop a habit.
“You don’t have to do it forever,” Agrawal said. “Just see what happens.”