Mindfulness is suddenly in our apps, classrooms, gyms and offices. Does it work?

Why has the concept of mindfulness settled so firmly in the spotlight? One author points to the science. The application of mindfulness in a clinical context has given rise to studies and research that back up its positive benefits.

MIAMI — You don't have to be particularly mindful to notice that these days that you can't escape mindfulness.

It's no longer tucked away in your local yoga studio. It's in public spaces. It's in books and online videos, on apps you can download on iTunes. Your kids start their school days with mindful exercises — so do some of their teachers — and fitness instructors incorporate it into their classes. It's a popular subject at law conferences around the country. If lawyers can benefit by being mindful, can't we all?

So why has the concept settled so firmly into the spotlight?

"If you were to point to one thing that explains the boom in interest in mindfulness, it's science," says Rohan Gunatillake, creator of the buddhify app and author of the book "Modern Mindfulness: How to Be More Relaxed, Focused and Kind While Living in a Fast, Digital, Always-On World."

"In the last couple of decades, we have had the world of health care get interested in using mindfulness to help people with a range of issues such as stress, anxiety and chronic pain. And when you're looking to use something like mindfulness in a clinical context, in treatment or therapy, you need the evidence and science to back it up."

Research has made a compelling case for mindfulness. The National Institutes of Health reports that meditation can ease anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, combat insomnia and offer relief to cancer and dementia patients. A 2015 Harvard study reported that participants in an eight-week mind-body relaxation program used 43 per cent fewer medical services than they had the year before.

"We know the practice of mindfulness is associated with functional and structural changes to the regions of the brain that are connected to focus and concentration and regulation of emotion," says Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Mindfulness and Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law. "That's pretty startling. The structure of your brain changes. When I was in college, that was not recognized as even possible."

Co-founder of UMindfulness, the university's interdisciplinary collaboration that marries research to training, Rogers explains that mindfulness and meditation are two different things, particularly in his law courses: He teaches mindfulness as a form of meditative practice. He leads workshops for the public — one recently at the Lowe Art Museum on the UM campus — and was part of a panel on mindfulness at the Southern District of Florida Bench and Bar Conference this month at the Diplomat Hotel, discussing its implications with more than 700 attorneys and judges.

In his courses, he teaches law students about "the nature of the mind and its tendency to wander and the consequence of a wandering mind. Learning how to marshal the extraordinary resources of our attention can be a game-changer," Rogers says. "Mindfulness isn't about stopping the mind from wandering or even calming down. It's being more aware, and that is the important fork in the road that can lead one to a steadier state physically, emotionally and mentally."

Rogers says a basic practice his students learn is a simple practice used by anyone who has ever tried to meditate: Concentrate on an object, and when your mind wanders bring your attention back to the object (Rogers calls this "exercising the muscle of attention"). Students then apply that concept to talking to a witness on the stand or answering a judge's question. The idea is that an attentive attorney understands his or her own reactions more fully and thus is able to communicate more effectively in court.

But mindfulness training can start far earlier than law school. The nonprofit group Mindful Kids Miami aims to bring mindfulness practice to Miami-Dade students K-12. The organization offers two-part training sessions for teachers: The first program focuses on the teachers themselves, while the second offers methods of implementing mindfulness into the classroom.

Marlem Diaz-Brown, who teaches Grade 4 at Sunset Elementary, completed both programs and has incorporated mindful activities into her class. Her students start their days with concentrating on breathing, short body scans to focus their attention and a clapping game in which the students sit in a circle and send out positive wishes to the world and their community.

The result? Students who weren't so anxious at test time.

"With kids, you break it down. You can't do a one-hour meditation to start the school day, but you can start with 10 minutes," Diaz-Brown says. "I was gung ho about making sure we took 10 minutes a day in my class, whether or not I finished the lesson plans. We get caught up in saying 'I have to finish this page.' But I took a step back and decided I was going to carry this out through the year. The kids did phenomenal at test time. It teaches them to take a moment when they're anxious."

Such positive results are why Miami fitness instructor and health coach Mireya Pinzon, who teaches Pilates and other classes at Equinox and L.A. Fitness, ends her classes with a moment of meditation, sometimes dabbing a touch of lavender oil on the wrists of those in her class.

"It's important to take a few minutes to relax and think about the work we do," she says. "We scan the body, feel the energy, the blood, the adrenalin, the heart pumping. When we're relaxed we catch all the information on the work we just did."

Roberto Koltun,Miami Herald

How to be more mindful

Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Mindfulness and Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law, has these tips for incorporating mindfulness into your life:

  • Read a good book on the subject. Rogers recommends "Mindfulness for Beginners" by Jon Kabat-Zinn or "Real Happiness" by Sharon Salzberg.
  • Practice with a guided recording online or via an app. "That way, you can take what you've read and bring it to life," Rogers says.
  • Attend a training session. "There are more and more trainings one can attend for hours or for a whole weekend, so you can take it to a deeper level of understanding and practice."
  • Bring mindfulness into your day. "Don't see it as something reserved for a quiet room in the early morning."

Head Trip: Meditation Apps for Traveler

Meditation apps today offer stress relief for vacationers, be they walking through an airport, sitting on a plane or train, or strolling on a busy city street. Travelers can plug in and be mindfully guided to their final destination. Credit Gaby D'Alessandro

Having long tried to virtually transport listeners to beaches, rain forests and other dreamy respites, meditation apps today are also trying to appeal to people who are actually traveling to such places.

Several apps — including Buddhify, Calm, OMG. I Can Meditate! and Simple Habit — offer specialty meditation sessions for travelers on planes, trains and city streets, making their way across oceans or simply across town, be it “Waiting at the Airport” or “Commuting: A Mindful Journey.”

On my first trips of 2017, I tried several such apps, including some veterans, to see if they could alleviate the stress of long lines, crowded planes and busy streets. Meditation is personal — the teacher’s voice, words and methods, affect each of us in different ways — so I didn’t rank the apps. Instead, I’ve highlighted certain features, and to whom they may or may not appeal.

Research began at Newark Liberty International Airport, where my plane was being de-iced. I put in earbuds and tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session from Simple Habit, an app with meditations for situations as varied as remedying procrastination and easing PMS. Users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed” to “Relaxing on Vacation” and “After Vacation.” To gain access to all of Simple Habit’s sessions (including those that don’t pertain to travel), you need a subscription ($3.99 for seven days; $11.99 for one month; $99.99 for a year on iOS). As with other app subscriptions, you can cancel through iTunes (I used an iPhone, but the apps are also available for Android).

From my plane seat I tapped the “Prepare for Travel” session. “Oops, low internet connection,” the app said. “Please check your network.” I kept trying. I opened a couple of other meditation apps; they worked just fine. I gave up and revisited the “Prepare for Travel” session later, days after a trip to Puerto Rico.

“Travel can sometimes be a tumultuous experience,” a male voice said. It instructed me to let the tension in my neck, shoulders and jaw dissolve. A tense traveler might wonder: But how? The voice encouraged me to repeat the words, “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“You just got your seat on the plane?” the voice said. “Just this breath. Just this moment.”

“It’s a way for you to come back to what’s here, right now,” the voice added. If you want brief, basic lessons about controlling your breathing, you may enjoy these sessions, more minilectures than silky-voiced meditations. (If you don’t find mantras effective, you may like Buddhify, which has a different technique for bringing you back to the present. More on that momentarily.)

Another app, OMG. I Can Meditate! (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $89.99 a year on iOS), offers sessions like “Mindful Walking,” “Waiting in Lines,” “Public Places” and “Mindful Eating,” which I selected during breakfast.

“Notice all the different colors, textures, shades, different food types,” a female voice said. The travel-related meditations on this app may appeal if you’re beginning to practice mindfulness and want step-by-step instructions. The eating session, for instance, asks listeners to rate their hunger from 1 to 10 to help them learn when they are full. “A lot of us eat because we’re nervous or bored,” the voice said. Other users, however, may find such sessions too much like pedestrian self-help audiobooks.

 

Simple Habit is an app in which users can choose from sessions that span the vacation process, from “Waiting at the Airport” to “Just Landed.”

One morning, I tried Calm (the company’s website offers lovely, free nature sounds and scenes, perfect for office workers seeking to drown out ambient chatter). The app (access to all sessions, $12.99 a month; $59.99 a year on iOS) has multiday programs such as “Seven Days of Calming Anxiety,” as well as meditations including “Calm Kids,” “Deep Sleep,” “Commuting” and “Emergency Calm.” I tried “Walking Meditation,” during which a female voice asks you to notice how you’re moving and what you’re seeing. The commuting and walking meditations were the only travel meditations in the app. If you’re a beginner and want the blithe cadence of certain yoga teachers, you may enjoy these sessions. If sing-songy voices make you think of the sleep teachings used to brainwash children in “Brave New World,” you may not.

 

The Pause app incorporates touch as well as sound. Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves.

On the plane at Newark I also tested Pause, a simple, low-cost app ($1.99) with a surprising payoff. Unlike other stress-relief apps that try to keep you in the here and now, this one incorporates touch as well as sound. While it isn’t travel-specific, its ease of use makes it a nifty on-the-go solution. You put the tip of your finger on a small blob and slowly move it around the screen of your phone, like pushing a desktop sandbox with a little rake. (The creators of Pause say it uses principles of Tai Chi.) Move your finger and the blob grows while your ears are bathed with birdsong and breaking waves. As passengers jockeyed for overhead bin space, I guided the blob this way and that. Words appeared. “Go anywhere.”

At first, the idea of Pause seemed as silly as a mood ring. But there is something about slowly guiding your hand to the sound of lapping waves that has you radiating calm before you even set foot on a beach. If you want a quick, surreptitious way to refresh your mind without someone instructing you to tune into your breath, this could be the app for you.

 

Buddhify has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center. Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.”

Experienced meditators may want to try an oldie but goodie: Buddhify ($4.99 for iOS and $2.99 for Android), which has a rainbow wheel with a question in the center: “What are you doing?” Users can select slices of the wheel with sessions like “Walking in City.” I tapped one that said “Traveling” and up came options like “Connecting with stillness in a busy place” and “A unique meditation for when you’re on a plane.”

The latter is about 10 minutes. A soft male voice asks you to notice the sounds of the plane, and the people within. To help you stay present, the voice suggests that when your thoughts drift to the past, you say to yourself the name of the city from which you’re departing. If your thoughts drag you into the future, you say the city where you’re headed. Simple but effective in gently guiding the mind.

“Did one of the cities feature more often than the other?” the voice asked. “Just that little observation can teach us a lot about where our mind tends to wander, whether to the past or to the future. And the more our mind learns about itself, the stronger it becomes.”

Here’s hoping.

A version of this article appears in print on January 29, 2017, on Page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Meditation for Travelers on the Go.

 

Meditation at work? Think deeply about it

At first, work and meditation were separate activities for Golbie Kamarei. These days, she is a poster girl for combining them, after the meditation classes she started at BlackRock, the powerful New York-based investment firm where she worked, grew to 1,500 participants. She recently decided to leave the firm to advise companies interested in starting such programs of their own and to coach top executives in mindfulness.

It all started in 2011, when she decided to immerse herself in a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat at an ashram in the Caribbean. She had done yoga on and off since college and figured if this new experience didn’t work out, she could always spend the rest of her vacation on the beach. But she didn’t get much sun in.

“That’s when everything shifted. In the first meditation I had an experience that showed the power of this practice,” she recalled in an interview.

A Stanford psychology graduate, she has an intellectual understanding of the mind. But in meditation, she experienced it directly, observing how her mind wandered and how it served as a filter by which the world is experienced. She began to devote her weekends and vacations to meditation retreats, finding it healing. And the barrier between this private activity and work started to dissolve as colleagues asked her about her passion and whether she could lead some guided meditation for them.

By 2013, she was vice-chairwoman of the people and culture committee at BlackRock’s New York office and mentioned the possibility at a meeting. An e-mail was sent to 2,500 people and 60 people showed interest, with 30 joining at the first session. She committed to be present each week, except during vacations, calling in when on business trips.

Word spread, a unique grassroots initiative, and folks in other offices wanted in, until employees in 31 cities were taking part by calling in from their desks or sitting together in a conference room if they couldn’t be at the New York session. It had the largest participation rate of any employee-led initiative in the company, as people told their colleagues and an article on the Intranet site also sparked interest.

She delineates four different motivators that drew participants: Reducing stress; increasing focus and attention; interest in techniques to build emotional awareness; and experiencing the health advantages of meditation. The program expanded to two 30-minute sessions a week, one morning and one afternoon, during work hours. Sessions were also recorded so that people could dip in at lunch hour or in the evenings.

Many people have an interest in meditation or other activities that might help provide balance in their lives. But the difficulty is finding time, in a complicated, busy life. Her goal was to remove inhibitors and make it easy to explore this avenue, and having sessions at work during business hours was particularly helpful. “The only limitation was for them to make time for it,” she said.

Not everyone bought in but she enjoyed talking to the skeptics and challenging their preconceptions. Some people felt it might make them weak, less able to compete in a dog-eat-dog world. Others felt it simply didn’t belong in the workplace.

Although the company sanctioned the activity by allowing it to be held at work, meditation and work were still separate in her personal time budget. She was not being paid, after all, to run meditation classes. She still had a demanding regular job as a global program manager within the client business division, and the meditation classes were a voluntary activity. Some weeks she might devote 20 hours of personal time to the program but gradually a group of volunteers sprung up to share the organizational burden.

Now based in San Francisco, she is taking the practice to other interested firms. “Most companies don’t maximize the potential of their human capital,” she said. She believes meditation can boost energy and focus, and help people to collaborate better.

But before jumping into such a program, companies must be clear on the expected outcome. For some, a collaborative culture might be the goal, for others a more innovative team. They also must be clear on why they are doing it. “If the why is not coming from a place of service – helping others – it won’t have the impact it should have and won’t be sustainable,” she said.

That doesn’t mean, however, the programs can’t be promoted as helping performance. After all, the audience is interested in increasing their productivity and that might bring them to the table. “The practice changes you. So I don’t get upset if someone says ‘I want this to improve my performance,’” she said.

Companies need to identify who will design and lead the program, whether internally or externally. Although she brought in outside facilitators for her own program to show other approaches, often they had difficulty making the transition to a corporate audience. But as mediation becomes more mainstream, that will be less of a barrier.

There must also be an internal champion with influence who embodies the practice and serves as a conduit for keeping top management on board and persuading employees to give mindfulness a try.

After all, meditation and work need not be separate.

Harvey Schachter

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 5:00PM EDT

 

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

 

How a raisin can save your sex life (and other lessons in mindfulness meditation)

We live in a distracted world. We eat our lunch while staring at a computer screen and flipping through news updates on Twitter or Facebook. We respond to e-mails from our boss while ordering groceries online from the sidelines at our kids’ soccer game.

For many of us, this type of multitasking and obsession with devices is a well-polished art. Although we may pat ourselves on the back as we successfully cross things off our perpetually growing to-do lists, scientific studies have shown the damage done to the brain if this pattern becomes a habit.

We are not actually multitasking when we engage in many tasks at once, but instead are rapidly switching between tasks, which, if repeated over time, can impair our problem-solving abilities. Research shows that chronic multitasking adds up to the same effect as losing a full night’s sleep, and has about twice the effect of marijuana on thinking skills.

This “mindlessness” can also negatively affect that very basic human drive: sex. Have I got your attention now?

Sexual dysfunction is very common in women, affecting up to a quarter of women across age groups. Age, health setbacks and menopause only add to the problem. So does being in a long-term union – there is an inverse relationship between sexual desire and relationship duration. In other words, the longer you are with a partner, the less sexual desire you feel, likely because of boredom, loss of novelty and making less time and effort, leading to less arousing sexual activities. In men, low libido is even more common than erection problems, though over all the prevalence of low desire in men is lower than in women.

Although hormones have a part to play in problems with sexual desire, orgasm, erections in men and vaginal lubrication in women, emotional and relationship factors play an even greater role. Stress, in particular, is a major culprit behind sex-starved relationships, dwindling desire and unsatisfying orgasms.

By stress I mean the daily, mundane events and hassles that erode our quality of life. Research finds that such chronic stress can build up and negatively affect both our physical and emotional well-being.

A common scene in the offices of most sex therapists is one in which a woman has trouble focusing on her partner’s touch and does not notice signs of her body responding with sexual arousal. She is preoccupied with thoughts about her “flawed” body, is worried about disappointing her partner by not squealing with glee in the way she believes her partner wants her to and is distracted by the incessant chatter and to-do list in her mind.

Although a medication (currently not approved by Health Canada) may boost her vaginal arousal, her mind may remain bored, irritated or close to falling asleep.

Mindfulness meditation, a practice born out of Buddhist tradition, has been welcomed in Western medicine and society over the past 40 years. In the past decade, mindfulness has also made its way into the bedrooms of sexually dissatisfied men and women.

In my role as a psychologist and researcher specializing in the treatment of sexual problems, I have been especially interested in the benefits of mindfulness.

Enter a raisin. In our mindfulness-based group treatment, participants are guided to fully take in all aspects of a raisin in a slow, deliberate, fully present and accepting manner.

They are instructed to notice its shape, size, colour, contour, weight, shine and dullness. As they smell the raisin, they pay attention to the qualities of its scent. When memories of eating home-baked raisin bread as a child fill their mind, they’re guided to notice this as a memory – as a sensation in their mind – then are redirected back to the present qualities of the raisin.

When the raisin is placed in their mouth, they inevitably begin to salivate, and are told to notice how the body responds in anticipation of chewing. They are instructed to slowly bite into the raisin. Even after they have swallowed it, participants are still paying close attention to the lingering aroma, the remaining saliva, the sounds of digestion.

In this potent experience involving a single raisin, participants are provided with the building blocks for cultivating a lost sexual response. Over the next eight weeks, they practise similar guided meditations daily at home and meet weekly with a group of others led by a trained sex therapist and mindfulness practitioner.

As members acquire the skills to notice when their mind has taken off like a curious puppy, they become adept at redirecting themselves back to the present moment, with a hefty dose of kindness – not judging themselves for struggling or finding this challenging. They then gradually adapt this skill to progressively more sexual scenarios, starting with practising mindfulness while in the shower, using a hand-held mirror to explore their own body, and, eventually, while sharing an intimate encounter with a partner.

Research has found that as a result of this type of mindfulness practice, sexual desire, arousal, satisfaction and pleasure increase, and sex-related distress and symptoms of depression lessen.

I am the lead investigator for two large trials funded by the Canadian government comparing mindfulness with other treatment for women with sexual dysfunction and those with a chronic vaginal pain condition called vulvodynia.

If you find yourself struggling with an unsatisfying sexual experience and wanting to escape in your mind, consider reaching for a raisin and see if you can train your mind to remain right here.

LORI BROTTO

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 1:59PM EST

 

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Lori Brotto is an associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and a registered psychologist. You can find her at brottolab.com and follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.

 

 

Can Meditation help keep you from getting sick? This study says yes

GREG WELLS - Health Advisor

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 12:00PM EST

If you’re at all like me, you dread getting sick. I’m just not very good at lying around for days feeling as if I’ve been run over by a truck. So I’m all about trying not to get sick in the first place.

As a researcher at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, I have to get a flu shot. But since the flu shot is not 100-per-cent effective, I am working on other ways to avoid getting sick or, if I do, to get better as fast as I can.

In my hunt through the research on influenza, I came across a very interesting finding. In a paper published in the Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Bruce Barrett and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked into the benefits of meditation and exercise for prevention of the flu.

Before the annual flu season began, they divided their research volunteers into three groups: one that would practise meditation, another that would exercise regularly and a third control group that just carried on with normal daily life. They then tracked how many people in each group got sick and how severe and long-lasting their symptoms were.

The results were surprising.

As an exercise physiologist, I would have bet that exercise would be more powerful than meditation for preventing the flu. I was wrong.

Both meditation and exercise reduced the number of people who got sick by about 25 per cent.

The severity of the symptoms was lowest in the meditation group, followed by the exercise group and most severe in the group that did neither.

The duration of the illness was reduced equally by meditation and exercise.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the total number of missed days of work in each group. The meditation group only missed 16 days, compared with 32 in the exercise group and 67 in the observation-only group.

The researchers conclude that exercise and meditation are both effective in reducing the burden of respiratory-tract infections. Moderate exercise is known to be very beneficial for your immune system – the body’s system that fights off infection, illness and disease. This is partly because exercise improves the flow of fluids in your lymphatic system, which means that viruses, bacteria and toxins are filtered from your blood and lymph more effectively. Consistent exercise also increases the number and potency of macrophages, which are white blood cells that travel around your body and attack and destroy invaders. We know that exercise works and how it works.

Although meditation, yoga and relaxation have all been used effectively to help people reduce stress, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and illness, how meditation works to accomplish this is less clear.

But some new research studies have shed some light on this area.

A group at Massachusetts General Hospital found that when people practised meditation – either experienced practitioners for a single session or novices consistently for eight weeks – there were improvements in the function of mitochondria (the energy factories inside all the cells of the body), better insulin metabolism (which helps your cells absorb blood sugar which they then use for energy) and less inflammation (high inflammation is related to many illnesses and diseases).

In addition, a research study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that students who practised meditation increased their levels of immunoglobulin A (which is a substance that identifies invaders such as viruses and bacteria so that they can be destroyed by your immune system) and that the levels kept increasing over the course of the four-week study.

At this time of year, some people are going to get sick. If you don’t want to be one of them, be sure to work out and take time to relax each day. Even better, try meditation. You’ll be doing your body, your mind and your immune system a lot of good.

Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. He is a health and high-performance expert who inspires better living through better nutrition and better fitness. You can follow him on Twitter at @drgregwells or visit his website at drgregwells.com.