Hot on Yoga's Heels, Meditation Meets the Mainstream

By Sheryl Dluginski on June 12, 2013 7:54am 

NEW YORK — Following on the heels of its once-alternative cousin yoga, meditation is moving into the mainstream.

There was a time when carrying a yoga mat in New York City prompted sideways glances, but now you're likely to feel in the minority without one. Meditation is the next ancient practice making its way out of the shadows and taking its well-deserved spot as one of the most effective reincarnated practices.

To help you stay on the cutting edge, DNAinfo.com New York has assembled a two-part primer on some of the more common forms of meditation seeping into our offices, schools, health centers and living rooms: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Transcendental Meditation and yogic methods.

The various forms of meditation have more similarities than differences.

They all share the goal of achieving a calm and supremely focused mind. This is done by directing attention to one point of focus for an extended period, while observing in a detached way the thoughts that disturb you in the process.

Keep in mind that the effects of meditation are cumulative. Like drops in a bucket, you might not notice any accumulation after the first few go in, but before long a small puddle forms. Eventually, the puddle grows and drop by drop the bucket fills. The positive effects of meditation grow in us in a similar way each time we choose to mindfully sit in silent stillness.

MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction)

Fathered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., and born out of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979,  MBSR has extensive, scientifically sound research that document its benefits. Teaming up with Saki Santorelli, Ed.D., M.A., at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, Kabat-Zinn has led the crusade to bring meditation — renamed "mindfulness" so as not to scare skeptic Westerners away with images of turbaned gurus sitting cross-legged in ashrams — into widespread use outside of spiritual enclaves.

Christine Malossi, 33, an Inwood resident and New York City yoga instructor who has just begun the eight-week MBSR instructor certification program, said rigorous research has linked regular mindfulness practice to myriad physical, mental and emotional benefits. It's a powerful list: stress reduction, improved mental focus, mood and emotional stability, enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, lower blood pressure, improved immune system and brain function, lower pain sensitivity, extended attention span and reduced cognitive decline associated with aging.

 A woman meditates on the beach.
A woman meditates on the beach.
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"The breath is a common denominator among most meditation forms, using it to anchor your mind, something to guide your mind back to," Malossi said.

In a recent newsletter to her students, she wrote: "In the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we misstep and stumble and find ourselves lapsing back into the past and projecting into the future time and time again. The mind strays, and we guide it back to the present. It drifts again, and we guide it back again. Over…and over…and over. That’s the practice."

In contrast to the familiar image of yogis sitting in lotus pose chanting "Ommm," MBSR uses various simple techniques to guide the mind to a calm and centered state. Kabat-Zinn described it like this: "Paying attention in a particular way — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

This means that any activity at all can become a meditation, and MBSR teaches meditations on some of our most common daily activities such as walking and eating. These and other MBSR meditations are available at mindfulnesstapes.com and umassmed.edu/cfm.

TM (Transcendental Meditation)

A precursor to MBSR, TM (Transcendental Meditation) has been around since the 1960s and came into western awareness when celebrities like the Beatles and Mia Farrow studied it with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Instead of using breath or a simple activity to anchor the mind, TM practitioners use a mantra given to them by an advanced teacher or guru. TM stems from the Hindu religion but was separated from its religious associations to make it more palatable to Westerners.

During the 1970s and '80s TM's popularity decreased as it earned a reputation for cultish practices. Maharishi devised a "world plan," named a successor "First Ruler of the Global Country of World Peace," and promoted increasingly expensive, time-consuming practices — leaving many outsiders wary.

Today, an off-shoot of TM has regained much of the respectability squandered at the turn of the century. Many studies showing its efficacy have been publicized and a new round of celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, have joined the brigade led by Deepak Chopra touting a sensibly repackaged format.

Chopra's 21-day Meditation Challenge uses a combination of mantras, breath and guided meditations via the Internet to "get into the space between your thoughts." The site, which makes no reference to "transcendental," largely demystifies the practice. Chopra notes on the site that meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and explains it's not about forcing the mind to be quiet, but rather finding the silence that's already there and making it a part of your life.

Andrea Harley, the owner and creative director of Harley Designs, began using the 21-day Meditation Challenge about five years ago, and said that it helped her learn "how to not get caught up in the franticness of my day-to-day life. It's become a tool that I use to help me calm myself down."

Harley, a 39-year-old Chelsea resident, downloaded some of her favorite free guided meditations from the site onto her BlackBerry and sometimes listens to them on the train during her daily commute. Meditation helps clear her mind before sleep so that she falls asleep more easily and wakes up feeling more fully restored, she said.

The targeted themes of some of the guided meditations have helped her initiate other changes in her life as well. When she started listening to the meditation on abundance, for example, she began to see opportunities at work that she hadn't thought of before.

"It opened my mind and helped me to see things differently," Harley said.

How To Get Started

Whether or not you choose to further explore one of the methods described here, you can begin a simple, generic meditation practice virtually anytime, anywhere. Here's how:

Sit comfortably upright on a chair or the floor. Pick something to focus on — your breath, a mantra, a candle flame, or a guided meditation recording, for example. When your mind drifts off, as it is bound to do, and you notice that you are thinking of something in the past or future, or anything at all other than what you have chosen to be your focus, simply and non-judgmentally acknowledge that your attention has drifted and gently bring your awareness back to your anchor or focal point.

Commit to a minimum of 10 minutes each day for the first week. Gradually increase the number of minutes each week, moving at your own pace. You may also choose to commit to a daily informal meditation practice instead of, or in addition to, a more formal practice.

Here are some ideas:

► As soon as you wake up, before getting out of bed, bring your attention to your breathing. Observe five mindful breaths.

► Cultivate awareness of the changes in your body as you move from sitting to standing and vice versa.

► Pick a sound — a ringing phone, a bird singing, a passing train, laughter, wind, a car horn or closing door — and let that be your mindfulness reminder. Whenever you hear that sound, stop what you are doing for a moment and tune in, becoming fully present in the moment, aware and awake.

► Focus fresh attention on one of your daily grooming activities such as brushing your teeth or hair, washing or dressing. Notice the sensations that the activity brings as if it is the first or last time in your life you will engage in that activity.

► Record your progress in a meditation journal noting any insights you may have along the way.

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