Drop-in meditation studios are proliferating in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, and medi meetups are becoming the new book clubs as more people are craving ways to unplug, pushing meditation practices and mindfulness movements from hippie to mainstream. We asked leading meditation and mindfulness teachers to help demystify these ancient traditions.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is staying connected to the present moment.
"You start to let go of all the accumulated stress and information. So it's not only a time to not ingest, it's also a time to let the body let go," said Emily Fletcher, a former Broadway actor and founder of Ziva Meditation in New York, which offers in-person and online training.
Mindfulness also is a good way to curb overeating and other unhealthy habits.
What's the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
While meditating is usually associated with a sitting practice often guided by the breath, mindfulness extends that practice into everyday life and focuses on cultivating awareness in the present. Mindfulness can be practiced washing the dishes, driving to work, brushing your teeth and doing other routine tasks. The point is to prevent your mind from wandering, and projecting fear and worry from the past and future, and to train yourself to accept and enjoy the moment.
Why has mindfulness become such a buzzword?
Experts say it's the antidote to the fast-paced tech world we live in. There has slowly been a backlash against a distracted, multitasking lifestyle to one that is more self-aware, a live-in-the-moment attitude.
"We're just ingesting, ingesting information all day long," Fletcher said.
Added Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher: "We get caught in these spirals of addiction. You remain unfulfilled. That's why we seek more and more intensity and more and more stimulation in order to feel content, and it never works."
Are there real health benefits?
Experts say mindfulness offers a rest for the brain, increased productivity and the ability to turn off the unfulfilling autopilot of the daily grind and instead live in the present moment.
"The mind-body connection isn't just something you feel. There is a physiology that begins at the molecular level that goes all the way to the organ level," said Dr. Darshan Mehta, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "It challenges this conventional wisdom that as we get older our brains shrink in size. That's true for most people, but for people who do have a consistent regular mind-body practice that may not necessarily be the case."
I started on my own and it's making me feel anxious. Is that normal?
Experts stress the importance of starting with a teacher or one of the numerous apps or online videos. For some, a YouTube meditation video or a mindfulness exercise without guidance might feel forced and unfulfilling at first.
"The more you push the mind, the more it will do the opposite," said Annelies Richmond, a director at the Art of Living Foundation who helped bring mindfulness, meditation and yoga to New York city public schools.
Instead, mindfulness should be a natural by-product of a daily meditation practice.
"When you just tell someone just go close your eyes and meditate, it can become like a torture. There are a bunch of thoughts and you don't know want to do with them. Sometimes you feel more restless being aware of all those thoughts," Richmond said.
What kind of classes and apps are out there?
At Unplug Meditation in Los Angeles, students can choose classes to unblock chakras or cultivate intuition or a breathing class set to modern music for $22. In Central Park, 1,500 people signed up for a free group meditation called the Big Quiet and 800 people sold out a New York concert venue, paying $20 to sit in silence.
"There's something about being in quiet and sharing that with a group that creates almost like a vortex," said event organizer Jesse Israel, whose invite-only Medi Club in New York has grown to 1,000 people who vie for 200 spots at monthly meetups. "It's like the collective energy of the room starts to swirl together."
Fletcher is the host of a new podcast for Gaiam's recently launched app, which offers nearly two dozen teachers from different lineages for $2.99. Most are four to 15 minutes, and Fletcher's offerings include guided visualization for a first date. 1 Giant Mind's free app includes sessions between 10 and 20 minutes with a guide, music or silence. Headspace's popular app offers 10-minute guided meditations.